Higher and Higher

Gilroy High senior Yiwah Liang, left, and junior Maurice Sowunmi

In 2003, Gerardo Mendoza graduated from Gilroy High School with
goals. The 19-year-old is studying kinesiology and biology at
Gavilan College, and he’s planning to apply next year to a
four-year college, most likely San Jose State University.
In 2003, Gerardo Mendoza graduated from Gilroy High School with goals. The 19-year-old is studying kinesiology and biology at Gavilan College, and he’s planning to apply next year to a four-year college, most likely San Jose State University. Once he gets his bachelor’s degrees, he’ll begin working towards his master’s in law.

Mendoza’s ultimate goal is to become a teacher or a lawyer. But if you had asked him three years ago what his plans were after high school, Mendoza’s response likely would have been a blank stare. After getting involved with the California Student Opportunity and Access Program, where he now works as a tutor, Mendoza said he was able to take hold of his future. “When I was in high school, I didn’t have a clear image of me going to college. Cal-SOAP cleared the path for me to get into college, and it helped me figure out what I wanted to do,” he said.

In 2001, Cal-SOAP came to GHS as an arm of the San Jose branch. Two years later, it forked into its own entity and became South County Cal-SOAP, serving 14 schools throughout South Santa Clara County. Any student attending public schools in the South County Cal-SOAP region – including Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Hollister, San Juan Bautista and Aromas – is invited to participate. The program is based at GHS.

When Mendoza was in high school, he utilized Cal-SOAP as a resource to research colleges and organize his plans for the future. The program offers students a wealth of information regarding four-year colleges, private universities and community colleges, as well as opportunities for scholarships and other financial aid. 

“A lot of our students are college-bound students who don’t really realize there’s scholarship money available for them,” said Erin Gemar, project director of South County Cal-SOAP. “They don’t always know how many choices they have, and that a couple hours of paperwork could mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars.”

Although students are encouraged to seek out scholarships options on their own, some scholarships require students be nominated by teachers or other school staff. Cal-SOAP offers two different workshops informing students how they can be nominated and what those scholarships look for.

In addition to learning about financial aid, students can tour college campuses around the state. Last year, about 100 students from South County spent four days in Southern California visiting a number of University of California and California State University sites, giving them a taste of college life and an idea of which school might be right for them. When Mendoza was in high school, he visited UC Berkeley and CSU Monterey.

For some students, though, getting help with homework is of more immediate concern than deciding which colleges to apply for. Cal-SOAP’s 30 full-time, paid tutors offer students assistance before and after school, and for many of the students and tutors alike, the experience is more than just homework help. Joshua Yassini, a ninth-grader at GHS, came to before-school tutoring with Cal-SOAP almost every day near the beginning of the year. He started getting tutored privately at home later into the year, lessening the need for Cal-SOAP. But now, he’s starting to come to Cal-SOAP again because he needed some extra help with math.

“My test scores were getting shakier, so I wanted to come back,” he said at a recent after-school session, while poring over the Pythagorean theorem in a tattered geometry textbook. “The tutors open the door to understanding. They don’t give you the answers. They show you how to arrive at the answers, and that’s what I think is really great.”

As a tutor, Mendoza said one his favorite parts of the job is getting to know the students and developing relationships. “I feel like I’m giving back to the community, and I know I’m doing something good and beneficial for other students,” he said. South County Cal-SOAP’s goal this year is to serve 9,100 students, up from 8,000 the program served last year. Students benefiting from Cal-SOAP come from a range of backgrounds.

Last year, 65 percent were Hispanic, 20 percent white, 13 percent Asian, Filipino, Native American or other and 2 percent black. Sixty-two percent of the students served last year were the first in their family to go to college and came from low-income families.

Toni Hatfield, a parent of a sophomore and a junior at GHS, said Cal-SOAP has played a key role in her children’s high school careers. Hatfield didn’t graduate from high school or attend college, and she said she wants to give her children every opportunity to achieve those goals.

“Part of what I like about (Cal-SOAP) so much is the attention the counselors give each student,” she said. “A while back, my youngest was struggling a bit with some things, some normal teenage stuff. They really helped keep him on track. They’re more than just counselors.” Cal-SOAP also acts as bridge between parents and their children’s experience in school, Hatfield said. “It helps me keep in touch with their education, and I can know what needs to be done.”

Last year, South County Cal-SOAP raised $200 for a senior scholarship and $100 each for junior, sophomore and freshman scholarships. This year, Hatfield said the program hopes to raise even more. The first fundraiser is a bowl-a-thon planned for May.

Cal-SOAP is funded by the state, which divides resources among branches depending on how many students each one serves. The program’s annual state allocation is $465,000, which is matched 1 1/2 times by the branch. The match consists mostly of in-kind resources, such as physical materials or volunteer time, from the program’s partners. As early as fourth grade, students can begin thinking about college through a Cal-SOAP program called I’m Going To College, which visits elementary schools to give presentations about post-secondary education. College preparation intensifies in high school.

“All that’s required for seniors is overwhelming, and it helps if students can plan ahead,” Gemar said. “It makes the process a lot more manageable when the time comes.”

In ninth grade, students create four-year plans that break down year by year the work necessary to apply to colleges. Tenth-graders receive help with preparation for pre-college-entrance exams, career searches and scholarships. Juniors focus on preparing for the college-entrance exams as well as narrowing the search for colleges, scholarships and financial aid. Seniors get help with the many aspects of college applications, such as personal statements and letters of recommendation.

Students can either schedule appointments with Cal-SOAP staff or simply drop by. To help students stay focused, each month at South County Cal-SOAP has a different theme.

February, for example, was Cash for College month, to encourage students to seek out every option for financial aid. March was Mailbox Madness, as that month is when UCs and CSUs send their responses to students who applied.

When students go off to college, Cal-SOAP sends out follow-up surveys to see where they are in their college careers, what they’re studying and if they’re on track with their goals. Watching students leave for college is bittersweet, said Gemar, who worked as an academic coordinator and a teacher before coming to Cal-SOAP.

“You get really close to the students. I’ve been in education for 10 years, and I still get choked up when they leave as seniors,” she said. “But you know, it’s OK, because it’s just so great to see them going on to bigger and better things.”

Closer look at Cal-soap program

• Cal-SOAP stands for the California Student Opportunity and Access Program. Established in 1978, Cal-SOAP is a statewide program that was designed to increase the number of students attending college. It provides college-bound students and their parents with information about scholarships and financial aid, as well as resources for college searches. The program operates 17 branches throughout California, serving approximately 95,000 students.

• South county Cal-SOAP also offers before- and after-school tutoring. Partners include the school districts of Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Aromas and San Juan Bautista and San Benito County, as well as the University of California, California State University, Gavilan College and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

• Staff at South County Cal-SOAP is …

4 full-time advisors; 1 full-time secretary; 1 full-time director; and approximately 30 full-time tutors

• Some area schools participating in South County Cal-SOAP are … Gilroy High School; Live Oak High School; Mount Madonna High School; Sobrato High School; El Portal Leadership Academy; Ascencion Solorsano Middle School; South Valley Middle School; Las Animas Elementary; Eliot Elementary; El Roble Elementary

• For details on South County Cal-SOAP, call Erin Gemar, project director, at 848-7177 or e-mail [email protected]

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