Sam Bwayo thought he had done everything right. Now he’s scrambling for a chance at college.

Bwayo, a Ugandan teen who spent three years in a Kenyan refugee camp, kept up his grades at Scripps Ranch High School. He was careful to take the classes he needed to apply to the University of California and California State schools — a sequence of classes called “A through G.” The teen wants to go to the University of California, Riverside as his first step toward becoming a doctor back in Uganda.

But Bwayo has run into a roadblock. Though he already speaks Swahili, Luganda and English, he never took the foreign language classes needed for the college application. He says his counselor told him he didn’t need to, since he already spoke other languages.

That’s true. But to make the college requirements, Bwayo still has to prove his fluency. And that’s where it gets tricky. According to the University of California guidelines, he could submit a transcript for his Swahili studies in Kenya, but he can’t find any paperwork from the refugee camp.

He could take an SAT II test to prove his fluency, but they don’t have one in Swahili or Luganda. Or he could get an expert to certify him as fluent, which is what he’s seeking now.

Bwayo is a high school senior, but he only found out that he still needed to prove his language skills a few weeks ago, after going to a workshop held by the Equality Alliance, which manages a coalition of groups that wants to ensure that more students are eligible for college.

He said he tried to clear up the issue with his counselor, but she’s out on leave and the other counselor says he has to meet with her. If he can’t meet the requirements, he could still go to community college, enroll in a college out of state, or try to get a scholarship to a private college. But Bwayo is hoping he still has a shot at his dream school.

“I’m stuck in the middle,” he said in frustration. “I don’t know exactly what to do right now. I’m done with high school — but am I going to move forward or back?”

Andrea Guerrero, executive director of the Equality Alliance, argues that what happened to Bwayo illustrates why San Diego Unified should ensure that all kids are enrolled in the classes needed to apply to the UC/CSU systems and make sure that the rules are clearer to teens.

The school system has pledged to make its graduation requirements match up with the college requirements. But it is still figuring out what changes it needs to make to help kids meet the bar.

Less than half of San Diego Unified students successfully complete the needed classes with the needed grades. Economically disadvantaged students, African American and Latino students and English learners have even lower rates.

“There must be many other students like Sam,” Guerrero said. “He was counseled out, and now the burden falls on him to fix it?”

Guerrero and her group are trying to help Sam find a way to meet the language requirement. We’ll be following along as Sam Bwayo tries to follow his dream. Check back with us soon!

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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