With a couple clicks of a mouse, 17-year-old Alma Lopez accepted an admissions offer to attend CSU Dominguez Hills this fall. She’ll be the first in her family to graduate high school and to go to college.

The Castle Park High School senior has had a tough go at it, growing up with family members who’ve been in trouble with the law or involved in gangs. She struggled academically and at home her sophomore year.

Lopez got back on track her senior year once she was accepted to South Bay Community Services’ Promise Neighborhood Academic Advocate program, where she worked closely with a mentor who helped guide her through the college application process.

For many college-prep groups, Lopez’s acceptance letter might be the happy end to her story. They might send her out the door and hope for the best. But retention rates for students like Lopez once they set foot on a university campus are dismal. So the South Bay group and a handful of others are taking a novel approach: They keep “prepping” kids even after they go off to school.

Making it to Sophomore Year Takes Resources

Lopez will still be in direct contact with her Academic Advocate mentor, Rea Concepcion, while she’s living in L.A.

Alan Seidman, a college retention expert, said academic preparedness makes or breaks students the first year. He said many college students struggle with reading level – being able to digest the material in a college textbook is vital.

Christopher Yanov, who runs the college readiness program Reality Changers, agrees.

“I would argue that college retention doesn’t start after 12th grade,” Yanov said. “The retention part happens in high school.”

Yanov said one of the biggest complaints from Reality Changers’ first graduating class was that the program wasn’t there to guide them after they set foot on a college campus.

They’ve since set up an alumni network to connect their former students with internship opportunities and resources to succeed at college.

And this fall, Reality Changers will connect their junior and senior alumni at SDSU and UCSD with incoming freshmen. Yanov said they hope this additional support will offset some of the struggles freshmen experience that may cause them to transfer schools or drop out.

The biggest hurdle to get past, Yanov said, is making it to the first day of sophomore year. Getting students back to college after their first year, and a summer at home where they might fall into family responsibilities or work a summer job, is a major obstacle. After that, he said, students are much more likely to go on and graduate from college.

And universities deserve to carry part of the burden, too, said Seidman.

“If a college accepts a student they have a responsibility to provide resources to help that student become successful. Otherwise, don’t accept them,” Seidman said.

The Feeling Factor

There’s more to succeeding in college than being able to read your books and pass your math class, though.

Campus climate – the attitudes, standards and behavior of a school – reveals itself in the retention rate of underserved students.

Esteban del Rio, director of the Center for Inclusion and Diversity at the University of San Diego, said that whether a student feels welcome on campus is a huge indicator of campus climate.

“The student culture has to be welcoming and inclusive enough to broad experiences, so first-generation students have to do less negotiation to see if they belong,” del Rio said. “It’s a huge project.”

Del Rio said hiring staff and faculty who are not only as diverse as the students they work with, but who are willing to mentor students on how to navigate “the majority culture” is necessary to retain first-year students.

Though Reality Changers offers students tools to succeed past college, Yanov said his students benefit most from gaining confidence in themselves.

“Where schools main efforts are dealing with discipline, we work on confidence and motivation, which isn’t necessarily a tenant of the public school system today,” Yanov said.

Lopez agrees. She said she plans to study criminology and psychology, and that being around family members who were involved in crimes ignited her passion for criminal justice. The ability to believe in herself, Lopez said, is the major takeaway she got from working with Concepcion.

“This community has so much potential,” Lopez said. “It just needs to be put on the spot. We have heart. We have brains, too.”

Bianca Bruno

Bianca Bruno is Voice of San Diego's News Literacy program manager. She works with Chula Vista residents, promoting equal access to news through civic...

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