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Opening Pathways to Access
Joanna Hernandez (center) and family. Photos by Roger Tuttle

Opening Pathways To Access

By Kelley J. P. Lindberg

Neither of Johanna Hernandez’s parents made it past sixth grade. So when Johanna was getting good grades in high school, they were pleased. But when she told her parents that she wanted to go to college, Johanna recalls, “My mom said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you go on to college, as long as you get your high school diploma.’ ”

Getting into college entails a number of challenges for most students, such as choosing a school, passing entrance exams, and paying tuition, but “first-generation” students like Johanna face additional obstacles, like explaining the benefits of higher education to a skeptical family, or overcoming the isolation of being the only college student in your neighborhood. The biggest obstacle can be just learning how the application process works. If no one in your family has attended college, you may be completely stymied by ACT and SAT testing, writing entrance essays, applying for financial aid or scholarships, or even where to find the application forms.

Many first-generation and minority students don’t make it to college—not because they don’t have the grades or the ambition to get there, but because they simply don’t know how to reach the front door and lack the support to help them find it.

That’s where the Utah College Advising Corps (UCAC) comes in.

Aretha Minor and Theresa Martinez

Aretha Minor, program manager with the Utah College Advising Corps, and Theresa Martinez, assistant vice president for academic outreach.

In December 2006, Theresa Martinez, assistant vice president for academic outreach and associate professor of sociology at the U, in collaboration with April Cordova, Continuing Education’s development officer, applied for a grant to facilitate a partnership between the University of Utah and area high schools that helps kids like Johanna navigate the bumpy road to college. “Our goal is to increase college and university enrollment, especially among first-generation students and students of color,” explains Martinez. In many cases, she says, “There’s nothing keeping them from doing this but a really solid advisor who has the time to help.”

That echoes the belief of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awarded the four-year grant to the University of Utah in March 2007. Only 10 institutions of higher education received such a grant, including the University of California, Berkeley; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Brown University.

The grant allowed Martinez to hire a UCAC program manager, Aretha Minor, and to assign advisors to high schools in the Salt Lake and Granite school districts. Eight high schools received full-time advisors in the first year (2007-2008). Based on their success, two more advisors and high schools were added for 2008-09.

UCAC’s mission is deceptively simple: Put advisors in high schools, find under-represented students with the grades and aptitude necessary to pursue college, encourage them to consider college, and walk them through the application process.

Simple, yes. Easy, no. Important, absolutely.

According to a 2006 report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, white students in Utah are almost 50 percent more likely to attend college than students of color. And the Utah System of Higher Education Data Book 2004-2007 shows fewer than 6 percent of all degrees in Utah public or not-for-profit colleges and universities were awarded to people of color, despite Utah’s skyrocketing growth of minority populations.

Many first-generation and minority students don't make it to college—not because they don't have the grades or the ambition to get there, but because they simply don't know how to reach the front door and lack the support to help them find it.

In other words, the gap is widening. That’s not good for the students, and it’s not good for the state. The same National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education study asserts that if all ethnic and racial groups reached the same educational level and earnings as the white population, personal income in Utah would increase by $728 million, meaning a much larger tax base. That, in turn, means more funding for public services like, say, education.

Assisting these kids in getting the higher education they need, deserve, and are capable of has farther-reaching ramifications than most people—even teachers—may realize.

Those 10 full-time UCAC advisors are doing everything they can to help, and it’s working. Last year alone, they advised 1,900 high school students.

“It’s like manna from heaven,” says Sandra Ameel, comprehensive guidance specialist for the Salt Lake City School District. “[The UCAC advisors] are a pressure valve for our high school guidance counselors. In our high schools right now, we’re at 53 percent minorities,” she explains. “How can we get the minority students to go to college? And then an even grander issue is: Are these students prepared to go to college, and are we giving them what they need?”

Few guidance counselors have time to help individual students negotiate the college entrance process, let alone coach them through emotional or cultural hurdles. “It’s not that counselors don’t want to work on this—they just don’t have time,” says Minor. They simply have too many students and too many other responsibilities, including testing, crisis management, and class scheduling. “The UCAC advisors working in the schools are not taking the place of guidance counselors,” Minor continues. Instead, she notes that the advisors meet one-on-one with students and walk them through ACT registration, college admission applications, and financial aid and scholarship requirements.

Hernandez and Miranda
Johanna’s UCAC advisor, Nicole Miranda, provided encouragement to help her make the transition from high school to college.

Ameel agrees. “The UCAC advisors are indispensible,” she says. “They’re worried about these kids falling through the cracks, so adding another person who’s looking at only those kids is just fabulous.”

In addition to one-on-one assistance, UCAC advisors help students identify which college might be the best fit, teach workshops on writing college essays, hold practice online ACT tests, and create newsletters with information about deadlines and scholarship availability.

Nicole Miranda BA’07 BS’07, an advisor at East High last year (now admissions counselor in the University of Utah’s Office of Student Recruitment and High School Services), saw firsthand the difference she could make in students’ educational careers. It was Miranda who helped Johanna make the difficult transition from high school graduate to college freshman. “When we called the U and they said, ‘Yes, Johanna’s been admitted,’ she started crying and just about fell out of her chair. Everyone in the office was crying, even the counselors,” says Miranda.

Part of what makes the advisors successful is that they are recent college graduates themselves. They’re young enough to relate, and their own college experience is still fresh. “I think they see someone who is close to their age, who looks like them, likes the same music, but at the same time, someone who’s taken the next step. They can see us as role models,” explains Miranda.

Another factor may contribute to the bond, too, according to Martinez: “I’m a ‘first generation.’ So is Aretha [Minor], and so are most of our advisors.” Martinez, Minor, and their advisors are proof that first-generation students and students of color can do this, even if no one else in their family has. “This program is all about getting more Utah students to consider going to college. We’re trying to push, mentor, and model for them,” says Minor.

Aminatu Yusuf is a UCAC advisor at Hunter High School in West Valley City. Now in her second year of advising, she has also watched her mentored students make the leap to college. One student came to her “visibly confused and overwhelmed with the entire process.” As she worked closely with him throughout the year, she says, “I could literally see the transformation from when I first met him, to the day of graduation. He was empowered to take the steps necessary to go to college. Students just need you to hold their hands a little bit to get where they need to go.”

At East High, Principal Paul Sagers MEd’90 EdD’00 says he’d give the UCAC program “an A+.” In 2007, before the UCAC advisor came to East High, 36 students of color received scholarships. In 2008, with Miranda working hard to reach more of those students, 48 got scholarships. However, “The most vivid outcome,” says Sagers, “is that not only did we have more students going to college, but we [also] had a lot more going who probably would not have even thought about pursuing college [without the UCAC advisor].”

UCAC’s success is already sparking talk of the future, when the four-year grant runs out. No one wants to see the UCAC program end, so new sources of funding are needed. “This program is really essential,” says Yusuf. “When you look at the changing demographics of Salt Lake City and the state in general, and the demographics at the U, they’re not matching up. This program needs to be funded beyond the four-year grant so it can reach out to all demographics to make college an option. It’s building bridges and pathways to access.”

A National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education study asserts that if all ethnic and racial groups reached the same educational level and earnings as the white population, personal income in Utah would increase by $728 million, meaning a much larger tax base.

When her mother questioned her desire to go to college, Johanna Hernandez in turn questioned herself. But her UCAC advisor provided encouragement, reminding her that with her good grades, advanced classes, and determination, she could do it. Now in her first year at the U, Hernandez hopes to receive a degree in biology, then go on to the School of Pharmacy. “If I just work after high school,” she told herself before applying to the U, “what is that going to get me? Instead of wasting those years just working, you can get more out of life.”

Paul Hansen, school services director of senior high schools for Granite School District, believes that if the UCAC program ends, his district would be “hard-pressed” to replace it. “It’s a valuable program because so much of the federal focus is on literacy. These are kids that are already literate. [The UCAC advisors] are able to plant those seeds, nurture and cultivate those seeds, and see those kids come to fruition—bringing them to college admission.”

As he sees it, “Anything that encourages kids to succeed, to be onward thinking and upward bound, that instills the hope of success, and that has that kind of impact on students, is an extremely valuable service—and UCAC does all of those things.”

—Kelley J. P. Lindberg BS’84 is a freelance writer based in Layton, Utah.

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