College made possible

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GILROY
– When it comes to getting ready for college, a high school
senior can never be too prepared.
That’s the philosophy behind a program serving Gilroy students,
starting with kindergartners and continuing all the way through
senior year.
Some students, particularly those who come from low-income
households or whose parents never attended college, may need more
help preparing than others.
GILROY – When it comes to getting ready for college, a high school senior can never be too prepared.

That’s the philosophy behind a program serving Gilroy students, starting with kindergartners and continuing all the way through senior year.

Some students, particularly those who come from low-income households or whose parents never attended college, may need more help preparing than others.

Enter Cal-SOAP, the California Student Opportunity and Access Program, which takes a two-pronged approach to helping students get to college.

First, outreach begins early on to get kids thinking about college as soon as possible. The program arms students and parents with the information they need to weather the college application process.

Second, through services like tutoring and academic advisement, students can raise their achievement levels to ready for more rigorous, college-level work.

“We definitely have our eyes on students who need the extra support,” said Erin Gemar, director of South County Cal-SOAP.

Students can qualify for Cal-SOAP by meeting three criteria: They are the first in their family to attend college, from a low-income family or attend a school with a low percentage of students going on to college.

Students are most often self-identified, hearing about the program through advertisements on campus. The admission process is a lengthy one, including a multi-page application and interview of the student and their parents.

“We want them to understand that it’s a long-term commitment and to know that it will require work on the part of the student,” Gemar said.

The commitment already is paying off for high school seniors who joined the program to seek help with the college application process. During a recent seniors-only meeting at Gilroy High School, more than 40 students met to learn about their options now that acceptance letters have arrived.

Cal-SOAP Academic Advisor Jason Barros organized the workshop, called “What are my choices?”, to help students decide what their next step will be.

“Before you submit your letter of intent, you should be doing research,” Barros said. “You should already have done a lot of research before this, but now to finalize your decision, visit the campus.”

Barros offered the crowd of students other tips, reminding them that letters of intent must be sent to their college of choice by May 1.

“Don’t get ‘senioritis,’ ” he said. “Maintain those good grades.”

Students jotted down a list of California State University campuses still accepting students. A representative from University of California-Santa Cruz and a graduate of Gavilan College who now attends a university, reminded them to look into their options at college by keeping in touch with academic advisors.

Mindy Marquez, a graduating senior who joined Cal-SOAP as a sophomore, credited the program with keeping her on track.

“It helped me plan my classes for high school, and then if I needed any assistance they would help me – they have after school tutoring,” Marquez said. “They just kind of gave us a hand with everything. They led us on a path we needed to follow to get to college.”

The deadline reminders and financial aid tips were invaluable, she said. After meeting with her advisors, she was able to narrow down the number of colleges to which she applied. Next fall, Marquez plans to attend Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.

The program’s services may be especially needed now, as they address a growing trend among Latino students. Scant awareness of financial aid is creating a barrier between Latinos and college, according to a new report.

“Their expectation is that college is too expensive and out of reach for them,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California, which conducted the research.

The result, he said, is that potential students are stranded on a “paper frontier,” daunted by the sometimes confusing forms required to get student loans and grants.

Three out of four young Latino adults surveyed who weren’t in college said they would have been more likely to go if they’d known more about financial aid in a survey conducted by The Sallie Mae Fund, a charitable organization funded by Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest provider of student loans.

Cal-SOAP helps to combat the lack of information by holding numerous college application and financial aid workshops throughout the year.

Parents are involved in the process, as well, because they play a crucial role in supporting their children’s education.

“We want their parents, from the beginning, to know what the program’s all about and what their specific goals are for their child,” Gemar said.

Art Barron, president of the program’s advisory council, said the aid helps students focus on higher education.

“A lot of students credit the Cal-SOAP program for helping them get to where they’re going,” said Barron, whose son, a freshman at GHS, already has benefited from learning about financial aid options.

“I think we would steer him towards college either way, but this helps with the scholarships,” Barron said.

Established by the state Legislature in 1978, Cal-SOAP has operated in Gilroy for three years. Gilroy used to be included in San Jose’s program, but this year, the South County Cal-SOAP consortium, which spans three counties, stands on its own.

Between outreach in Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Hollister, San Juan Bautista and Aromas, Gemar estimates Cal-SOAP will serve between 7,000 and 8,000 students this year.

“No one’s ever going to be turned away,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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