What does it take to get a college education?

The simple answer is hard work and money. But the real answer is far more complex. The hard work starts in high school with earning a grade-point average and entrance exam scores that are high enough to gain college admission. Then, the hard work shifts to making academic and social adjustments to collegiate life. Along the way, key decisions must be made about the college to attend and the major to pursue. Getting the money typically requires hard work, too: identifying and applying for scholarships and financial aid.

For many minority students, navigating the transition from high school to college is especially difficult. Blacks and Hispanics are graduating from high school in greater numbers, but still lag behind whites in college enrollment; 43 percent of white high school graduates but only 35 percent of African Americans and Hispanics enroll, according to the College Board.

And then, blacks and Latinos are less likely to complete college. According to the American Council on Education, 14 percent of African Americans and 11 percent of Hispanics who are 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 29 percent of whites.

A contributing factor to the disparity is that African-American and Hispanic students are still far more likely to attend low-performing high schools that don’t do enough to prepare them for the rigors of college work. Further, a recent College Board report found that only a third of colleges and universities have launched outreach efforts and programs aimed at recruiting and retaining disadvantaged students.

With these statistics in mind, Catalyst begins “The College Challenge,” a series of periodic reports that will examine the bumpy road to a college degree through the lives of nine black and Latino students.

In this issue, Catalyst Associate Editor Debra Williams introduces the students, who range from a high school junior to a college sophomore. Next school year, she will provide updates on their progress and the problems they encounter. The series will conclude in the fall of 2002 with a survey of several hundred similar students, as well as a review of efforts that can smooth the path to college achievement for minority young people.

Dannielle Dungey

Social isolation:

As a freshman at Northern Illinois University last fall, Dannielle Dungey quickly racked up sky-high telephone bills by making daily long-distance calls to her mother. At least twice a month, Dannielle’s mom drove two hours to DeKalb to pick up her daughter, then traveled back to their home in south suburban Chicago.

At NIU, academics have not been a problem for the honors student from Hazelcrest High, who had a 5.2 GPA (on a 6.0 honors scale). So far, she’s earned a 3.8 GPA at NIU.

But Dannielle—like many students who attend racially-isolated high schools and enroll in mostly-white colleges— has struggled to adjust socially. She feels isolated and lonely. Opportunities to meet other African Americans were limited, she says, since most of the other students in her honors-level classes have been white males. (NIU is 75 percent white, 12 percent African American.)

“The first week I went to class, I thought, ‘Where are all the black people?'” says Dannielle, a history major who is also studying political science so she can be “endorsed” to teach both subjects.

She sought out African-American peers at the school’s Black Student Center, but the center was more focused on providing academic, not social, supports. Go to parties, a representative of the center told her. But Dannielle says she’s not a party-goer. One college official told Dannielle that it’s generally tough to make social connections at NIU because many students go home to Chicago every weekend and don’t make new friends at school.

Danielle also found that many students—black and white—have formed cliques. “I’ve been to other campuses where people were really friendly, but my school is different,” she says. “I thought there would be more socializing, but here, people form these little groups just like in high school.”

For a while, the isolation made her think she’d made a mistake in deciding to go away to college, even though learning to live on your own is part of the traditional “college experience.”

“I kept thinking, ‘What have you done? You’ve made a big mistake,'” says Dannielle, who chose NIU because it awarded her a four-year, full-tuition scholarship.

Still, she thinks her first-year experience has taught her to be more independent, and she has high hopes.

“Next year will be better,” Dannielle says. “I know the school now. I will know what to expect, and I’ll probably feel more comfortable.”

Next for Dannielle: Coping in year 2.

Lekena Figueroa-Forman

Self-support takes a toll:

Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Lekena Figueroa-Forman works as a teller at Corus Bank in Lincoln Park. Four days a week at quitting time, she rushes home, rests for 20 minutes, gathers her belongings, catches a bus and heads to Northeastern Illinois University, where she takes three-hour-long evening classes until almost 8:30 p.m.

On Saturday mornings, she’s back at the bank until 1:30 p.m. Afternoons are for studying, running errands, washing clothes and cleaning her apartment. On Sundays she sleeps—all day if she can get away with it.

The exhausting pace has muscled into her schoolwork and makes it tough for the self-supporting 19-year-old sophomore to maintain high grades as she works toward her goal of becoming a high school history teacher.

“I wish I didn’t have to work,” she says. “I know I can do better with grades, but I’m tired. I had a 3.3 grade point average at Lane Tech. Now my GPA is 2.8.”

Initially, Lekena lived at home with her mom, dad and five-year-old brother. But a month and a half before she started school, problems at home forced her to move into her own apartment in Uptown and support herself.

Next year, though, something will have to give. As early as spring 2002, Lekena may begin student teaching, which would require her to quit her bank job and spend days in the classroom.

“My financial aid takes care of my tuition, but if I don’t work, I can’t pay my rent or my other bills,” she says, troubled at the thought of having to move back to a difficult home situation. For now, her next challenge is to pass the test required to be admitted into Northeastern’s College of Education. She also wants to boost her GPA to a 3.0 so she can take honors English courses. And she’s planning to increase her schedule from four to five classes to remain on track to graduate in four years, then step into the classroom as a teacher.

“I love kids. I love reading. I love history,” says Lekena, who is African American and Puerto Rican. “That’s why I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, and I want to be good at it.”

Next for Lekena: Student teaching

James Snowden

Paving the road to success:

By the time he reached 8th grade, James Snowden had been in and out of 10 elementary schools. Family problems kept him, his mother and a younger brother on the move. Such high mobility usually breeds a lifetime of bad grades and academic struggles, but James is an exception.

The Chicago Vocational Career Academy junior is an honor student with a 4.6 GPA. He belongs to the National Honor Society, competes in the Academic Decathlon, sits on the student council, runs track and plays basketball and football. He is president of the Beta Club for high-achieving students.

Already, James, a math whiz who’s interested in computers and international business, is laying the groundwork for college.

“Purdue University, Florida A& M, even Yale, Harvard and Princeton—I’m going to apply to all of them,” he says with conviction. “My ACT score will show schools what I can do.”

James took the ACT a year early as a sophomore and scored 21. “I wanted to get a feel for the test,” he says. “And I didn’t study for it because I wanted to see how good I could do without trying, so I’d know what I have to do later.” (The average ACT score at CVS is 15.)

James “has been thinking about college since he was a freshman,” says Margaret Fyfe, who teaches his Advanced Placement U.S. history class and coaches him for the Academic Decathlon. “He is a kid who is very focused.” His challenge won’t be getting into college, she says, but paying for it.

But James is already mapping his college finance strategy, too. “I’m making sure I take care of business [academically] because I know my mother won’t be able to give monetary support,” says the mature 17-year-old, who aims to qualify for athletic and academic scholarships. Chuck Chambers, his football coach, says he’s got a good shot at a sports scholarship.

James is out to shatter another myth: College jocks can’t be good students.

“If you play sports, you have to be dumb; if you’re smart, you can’t play sports,” says James, echoing conventional wisdom. “I plan to prove people wrong. I want to be the best in both areas.”

Next for James: Senior year.

Brooke Ray

Dream college comes through:

Thoughout high school, a hectic schedule of studying and extracurricular activities has been the centerpiece of Brooke Ray’s plan to win acceptance to her “dream college.”

The Orr High School senior, who has GPA of 4.5 and belongs to the National Honor Society, is editor of the school newspaper, producer and director in Orr’s TV and radio program, teen ambassador to Australia and New Zealand for People-to-People (a group that promotes world peace), homecoming queen and senior class president. She also works part time to earn money.

In March, Brooke achieved her dream. She was accepted at the prestigious University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she plans to study international business.

But rather than basking in the glow of her accomplishment, Brooke is biting her nails. Orr—one of the lowest-scoring schools now undergoing intervention—may not have prepared her for the rigors of a top university, she worries. At Orr, she sometimes feels as though she’s reviewing, not learning.

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m being robbed of my education,” she says. Classes at Brooke’s previous high school, Providence St. Mel, were more challenging, she says. (She transferred to Orr when family problems forced her to miss a month of school in 1999.) “We did a lot more writing there,” she says. “St. Mel’s gave out way more work. I almost broke my back carrying St. Mel books back and forth.”

Brooke’s brother, Everett Jackson, an associate director of admissions at USC, says his sister has legitimate concerns. As a college freshman, she will have to cut back on extracurricular activities and keep her head in the books, he says.

“I’m an Orr alum,” says Jackson. “When I went to Notre Dame, it was a very difficult transition. I was not as prepared as the other students.” He also notes that Brooke’s ACT score of 21 is nearly 10 points lower than the average incoming USC student.

But USC, he explains, looks at a prospective student’s extracurricular accomplishments as well as test scores and grades. USC is also seeking to boost its black enrollment (now only 7 percent) and to attract students from a wider geographic area. (Jackson says he was not involved in the decision to admit Brooke.)

In addition to academic concerns, Brooke, a child of a single parent, knows she’ll need money. Last year, out-of-state tuition at USC was $31,000. She applied for financial aid in February and began searching for scholarships in March. But by then, she had already missed some deadlines.

Next for Brooke: Going to college.

Adam Ramirez

Teachers to the rescue:

Although Adam was earning A’s and B’s at the time, he had years of poor grades behind him and a low score of 16 on the ACT college entrance exam. After being rejected by two colleges and denied a scholarship, he wanted to throw in the towel. But a teacher coaxed him to apply for one more scholarship.

Adam’s last try landed him a four-year STAR scholarship at Roosevelt University. STAR is given to aspiring minority teachers, a group that colleges of education are desperate to recruit, given chronic teacher shortages, especially in black and Latino communities.

Now, Adam is living on campus and finishing his second year. “I almost didn’t get here,” says the 20-year old, who’s made a smooth transition to college by making new friends, mastering the work load and learning to live independently. “I often wonder what I’d be doing with my life right now, where I would be.”

“What a scary thought, that he might not be where he is now and doing so well,” says Linda Pincham, who heads the scholarship program.

Adam’s GPA and ACT score were low even for STAR standards, says Pincham, but his recommendations from teachers were glowing. In addition, because he was a young, Hispanic man with an interest in teaching—a rarity—the university decided to take a chance.

Pincham says Roosevelt made a good decision. “Adam has excelled in everything he’s done,” she says. “He’s really remarkable.”

Adam is the first in his family to go to college. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, and his two older brothers completed only high school.

For a while, it looked like Adam would follow suit. By 8th grade, he had attended four elementary schools, including one in Mexico. With the constant mobility, Adam struggled academically and could earn no better than D’s and F’s on his report cards.

“When I came back from Mexico, I was really behind in my grades,” Adam relates. “My English skills had decreased. It was hard to keep up with the work. I really struggled to keep up.”

Those struggles followed him to Hubbard High, where math teacher Blythe Olchan-Findley saw that he needed help and got him to enroll in her after-school tutoring program.

Determined to bring up his grades, Adam attended faithfully, putting in two hours three days a week for two years. The result: His English improved, and his grades rose dramatically. By his junior year, Adam was getting A’s and B’s.

“When I saw what a teacher did for me, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, too,” says Adam, who tutors Hispanic youngsters in his spare time.

Next for Adam: Learning to be a teacher.

Anna Salinas

Overcoming poor sendoff:

As a little girl, Anna Salinas loved to play “teacher.” Early on, she knew that’s the career she wanted. But as she finishes her second year at Loyola University, Anna’s found the path to becoming a real teacher rough going. Academic difficulties, coupled with problems at home, made her first year “horrible,” says Anna. “I thought of dropping out all the time.”

First, the Juarez High School graduate found that she hadn’t been prepared academically for college-level work, despite earning A’s and B’s and being told by teachers she’d have no problems in college.

English was a major problem. Anna took Advanced Placement English. She failed the test but earned B’s in the course and thought she would have no problem with college-level classes. But at Loyola, she was assigned to English 100, a remedial class, after she did poorly on a placement test.

“My instructor said my sentence structure was bad, my writing needed a lot of work and I had a lot to learn. I was so embarrassed,” Anna recalls.

Juarez’s curriculum coordinator, Richard Gelb, says Anna’s situation isn’t uncommon. “AP English is not writing intensive. It’s literature-based,” says Gelb, who three years ago started a writing-skills program for freshmen at Juarez. “Then you go to college and it’s writing intensive. Students fail.”

Anna also struggled in math. She earned A’s and B’s at Juarez in algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus, but got an F in pre-calculus her first semester at Loyola.

Anna’s self-confidence plummeted when she fell to a C-average at Loyola. She says she didn’t know how to ask for help, so she studied harder on her own. “I felt like everyone was smarter than me and I just didn’t fit in,” says Anna, who also was coping with family problems that made it difficult to focus on academics.

This year, Anna moved away from home and into a dorm apartment, but she’s still struggling in her classes. Even so, she’s confident that she’ll do better next fall. “I now know I’m capable of the work if I work hard,” Anna says.

Next for Anna: Her third year.

Angela Serrano

Breaking from tradition:

She’s got three birds, one cat and one dog. All her life, Angela Serrano’s been surrounded by animals. So when the Hubbard High senior started thinking about potential careers her junior year, she immediately thought of veterinary medicine.

However, when she talked about going to college, her mother, an immigrant from Mexico who had not attended college, discouraged her. So Angela shelved her dream that year, when students thinking about college should begin preparing in earnest.

“She told me that I didn’t have good grades and we didn’t have the money,” says Angela, a C student. “That really got into my head, so I stopped caring about going.”

Then, Angela got critical support from two other quarters. An older co-worker at her part-time job—a woman with children of her own—and a Hubbard counselor, Aidah Shabazz, both encouraged her to keep pursuing her goal.

“I don’t think my mother meant any harm, but she never went to college,” says Angela, an only child. “When she was younger, she had to take care of her siblings. College is just not important to her.”

Angela has applied to 10 colleges, but she’s set her sights on the University of Illinois at Chicago. She would like to major in biology and eventually transfer to the veterinary program at the main U of I campus in Champaign-Urbana.

But with a GPA of 2.24 and a low score of 15 on the ACT, Angela knows that getting into college and completing college-level work will be challenging. The ACT cut-off score at UIC’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is 16, and students must be in the top 15 percent of their class.

Still, Shabazz believes Angela can succeed. “She’s a smart student. She’d be a fine [vet] student, but I think testing is a challenge for her. She freezes.”

If she’s not accepted, Angela says she may attend Daley Community College, bring up her grades and apply again later to UIC. Fernando Planas, UIC’s assistant admissions director, says that’s a good alternative.

In the meantime, Angela’s also gotten a late start on finding financial aid. But her co-worker and Shabazz again have stepped in to help.

Says Angela, “If I don’t get anything, I’ll look into getting a loan, and I’ll just have to work it off. Then next year, I’ll start looking for scholarships, nice and early.”

Next for Angela: Does she get accepted?

Aaron Price

Good prep at Kenwood:

Kenwood High senior Aaron Price hasn’t made up his mind about what career he’ll pursue. But he’s already picked out a college because of its reputation—

Morehouse, the historically black men’s college in Atlanta—and a major and minor— math and education.

Aaron, whose parents both hold college degrees, has the advantage of having grown up in a household where it was simply assumed he’d pursue higher education. Students whose parents attended college are far more likely to enroll themselves than students whose parents didn’t attend.

“The decision was made a long time ago that I’d go to college,” says Aaron. “I didn’t have much to do with that.”

Aaron’s father, the Rev. Jerome Price, presides over the St. Paul Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in the Fuller Park neighborhood and holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in Christian education. His mother, Pamela Price, has a bachelor’s in criminal justice and a master’s in public administration.

Aaron began a serious college search his junior year and got the help that many aspiring college students, especially student who aren’t automatically considered “college material,” don’t receive.

Kenwood counselor Don McCord, Aaron says, “sat down with me, asked me what I was interested in, what majors I was thinking of taking, and then he gave me a list of colleges and told me to look them up to see what they had to offer.”

McCord discussed colleges with Aaron and made sure he didn’t forget any pending deadlines. His parents encouraged him to create a “tickler” file to keep abreast of deadlines and information on financial aid, scholarships and grants.

Still, Aaron is not guaranteed smooth sailing. His next challenge might well be tougher than getting into college: finding money to pay for it. Morehouse’s tuition, room and board in 2000-01 was over $28,000.

In January, Aaron completed and mailed his FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Financial Aid), which is used to apply for grants and work-study funds and is also used by most states and schools to award aid packages. He’s also interviewed and applied for scholarships (including smaller ones from local businesses). As an honors student taking Advanced Placement courses, Aaron is an ideal candidate for academic scholarships.

But like many middle-class families, the Prices will have to consider loans.

“I’m looking forward to college,” says Aaron. “I know it’s going to be very different from high school, but I’m confident I’ll do well.”

Next for Aaron: Finding the money.

Vernon Payne

Balancing dreams, reality:

When Vernon Payne was a small boy, he was always painting and drawing. He now dreams of becoming a portrait artist and will begin studying art this fall at Columbia College.

“I’m really good at art, and I plan on selling it,” says, Vernon, a June graduate of Morgan Park High School.

Vernon is good at art, confirm Sari Breslin, his high school art teacher, and Ellen Bedoe, his counselor. However, both are advising Vernon to study graphic arts, a field with more career options than fine arts.

In addition, Breslin says that Vernon will have a tough time in college if he doesn’t learn to pay attention to the basics, such as turning in assignments on time, following directions and paying better attention in class.

“I think he is naturally talented, and certainly has an artistic ability, but there’s more to it than that,” says Breslin. “He needs to take these other things more seriously.”

To set him on that path, Breslin steered Vernon to Gallery 37, a summer art and youth employment program run by the city. Breslin says that Gallery 37 not only helps students build their artistic skills and portfolios, but also teaches them life skills.

“He’ll have to pay attention to the little details like getting to work on time and completing assignments,” says Breslin, who plans to mentor Vernon over the summer.

At Columbia, Vernon also will have to take core academic courses required of all students, such as history and biology. As a C student, Vernon admits to frequently doing just enough work to get by, and neglecting courses that aren’t related to his interests. “My grades would be a lot better if I wanted them to be. I’d have straight A’s if I wanted,” he says.

Tim Long, a career advisor for art and design students at Columbia, says studying graphic arts is practical because the field is an easier nut to crack. “I advise students to sample stuff. Take fine arts. Take graphic arts. The core [arts] courses will offer all this, and students won’t lose credits while they’re exploring.”

The advice Vernon is getting seems to be sinking in. “I guess at first, I only thought about selling my artwork, but I’m finding out there’s a whole art business out there, and I want to find out more about it.”

Next for Vernon: Enrolls at Columbia.

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