THE BLOG
01/29/2016 04:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Journey to College Series #2: Where Our Students Are Applying

By Robin Levi, Advisor
Students Rising Above

The following is the second installment of the Students Rising Above's College Application Journey series, which profiles four high school seniors as they overcome the odds and strive to become first-generation college students.

One of the earliest and most important steps in the college application process is putting together a balanced, realistic list of colleges. Most Students Rising Above (SRA) students have limited knowledge of different colleges. Many do not have the funds to participate in spring college visits.

While some liberal arts colleges have fall "Fly In" programs, whereby high school seniors from underrepresented backgrounds can apply for a free trip, these are very few and extremely difficult to get. And few students are in college access programs that provide some college tours. Consequently, putting together a college list from the thousands of colleges across the country can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack.

College Identification Assistance
Luckily, SRA has a team of advisors who are trained to help their students identify colleges that are a good fit academically, financially and socially. This is based upon 17+ years of experience and feedback from more than 600 students detailing where SRA students are happiest and thrive most. SRA students also read and discuss college guidebooks, watch many videos, and attend webinars and college receptions whenever possible. Because of our experience and assistance, each year students are able to compile a list of proposed colleges they love.

Often, the biggest hurdle is finding the college that works financially. Most SRA students can rarely afford to pay anything, and SRA strongly discourages taking on a significant loan burden. In terms of private colleges, SRA encourages its students to only apply to colleges that provide full or near-full need, either through grants or scholarships, although there are occasional exceptions. SRA also requires and helps students apply for multiple scholarships, which can help lighten the loan burden or make it possible to attend a college that left a significant gap in funding.

All SRA students are required to apply to four University of California (UC) campuses, four California State University (CSU) campuses, and at least four private colleges or universities (with some exceptions). Consequently, more than 50% of SRA students graduate from college with no student loan debt. The remaining have approximately $5,000 or less in student loans-- which is well below the national average.

In November, 2015, we introduced four of SRA's Class of 2016 members who have graciously allowed us to follow them as they overcome the odds and strive to become first-generation college students. Below is an update as they narrow down their list of proposed schools and begin to complete the college application process:

2016-01-29-1454035723-1493202-SRAGracieCharles.jpg Photo credit: Karen Darger

Gracie Charles, Wilcox High School
Santa Clara, CA

Gracie initially wanted to go to college in Southern California, to stay close to home, but not too close. There are a few colleges that match this profile, but they are difficult to get into and tend to offer limited financial aid. As a result, Gracie broadened her search and is hoping for a medium size school because she would like the added academic and emotional support it would provide.

Gracie works 25-30 hours a week, so she is hoping to get involved in community service, and extra-curricular and social activities. Gracie also wants a strong Psychology program and a strong study abroad program. Finally, she wants to be relatively near a fun area, and as she did her research, realized that a college town would fit the bill.

Here are some of the schools Gracie is considering:

CSUs: Chico State, CSU Channel Islands, Long Beach State, Northridge State, Sonoma State and San Francisco State
UCs: UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz
Private Colleges: Agnes Scott College, Fairfield University, Gonzaga University, Guilford College, Lewis and Clark College, Loyola University of New Orleans, Occidental College, St. Edward's University, St. Mary's University of Texas, Susquehanna University, University of Redlands and Whittier College

2016-01-29-1454036010-6659030-SRAJulieHoCollegeJourney.jpg Photo credit: Karen Darger
Julie Ho, Pinole Valley High School

Pinole, CA

Julie started her list with colleges that many of her friends and family had heard about. But since she wanted a college with a lot of academic and social support, she decided to look at somewhat smaller schools.

Julie also wants to pursue a career in the medical field, so she was looking for a college that was strong in the sciences. She also wanted a good study abroad program and great teachers who cared about the students. And last but not least, after working so many hours, Julie is hoping for a school that is lively, friendly, and upbeat with a good social atmosphere.

Here are Julie's schools:

CSUs: Cal Poly Pomona, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Long Beach State and San Diego State
UCs: UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine UC Los Angeles, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz
Private Colleges: Boston College, St. Mary's College of California, Trinity College, Tulane University and Whitman College

2016-01-29-1454036939-6273080-SRAAshleyJohnson.jpg Photo credit: Karen Darger
Ashley Johnson, Oakland Technical High School

Oakland, CA

Ashley was devastated when she had to give up cheerleading to earn more money, so in addition to academics, she is looking for a college with a lot of school spirit. Ideally, it will be big enough that she doesn't see the same people every day, but small enough that she can develop a close relationship with her professors. She also wants a school near, or in, a larger city.

Although Ashley eventually plans on applying to medical school, she hasn't decided if she will major in Biology or African American studies. Finally, she is largely looking on the east coast, with a few exceptions, based upon close SRA relationships and excitement about school personality.

Ashley's schools on the east and west coast include:

CSUs: San Diego State, Long Beach State, Chico State and Sonoma State
UCs: UC Santa Barbara, UC Merced, UC Irvine and UC Riverside
Private Colleges: American University, Brandeis University, Connecticut College, Loyola University of New Orleans, Spelman College, Trinity College, Trinity University, Tulane University and University of Richmond

2016-01-29-1454036510-5435137-SRAEdwinReyes.jpg Photo credit: Karen Darger
Edwin Reyes, Sonoma Valley High School

Sonoma, CA

Edwin first developed his list to include colleges with really good sports programs, but after working with his advisor, he realized that many of those schools were not good academic fits for him.

Because of his love of journalism, Edwin is looking for strong English or Communications departments. Although he is leaning towards a smaller school, he has always loved Big Ten basketball. As a result, it is not surprising that many of the private colleges and universities he is applying to are located in the Midwest, with strong English programs.

Here are Edwin's preferred schools:

CSUs: San Diego State, Sacramento State, San Francisco State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
UCs: UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego
Private Colleges: Carleton College, Kenyon College, Occidental College, Macalester College, Northwestern, Rice University, Trinity University, Tulane University and Wesleyan University

Navigating Hurdles to Ensure Success
After developing their proposed college lists, SRA advisors work with students like Ashley, Julie, Gracie and Edwin and review their applications. Many students are extremely modest and forget to list their activities, and/or provide detailed personal statements. In many cases, SRA students do not have internet at home, or laptops to do their homework or applications, so the organization provides high school students with Chromebooks for the year. SRA advisors also help with interview sign-ups, so that students can learn more about their proposed colleges, and the college recruiters can learn more about them.

Because of the complexities of SRA student's lives, there is always a hurdle. You just won't know what it will be until it happens. For example, Ashley Johnson's 11th grade English and History teacher is no longer at Oakland Tech, and did not respond to her recommendation request for more than a month. Ashley had to scramble to find another recommendation.

Julie Ho's father and brother had surgery late in the year, which meant that Julie had to help take care of them. Her added familial responsibilities left her scrambling to finish private college applications.

Gracie Charles' uncertain living situation made finding the time and physical space to complete applications extremely difficult. Then unexpectedly, her car with all of her worldly belongings was towed. With the help of her SRA advisor, she was able to retrieve it, but she lost valuable time.

Without SRA's advisors and the amazing tenacity of the students, any one of these hurdles could have ended the college application process before it even got started.

Each of these students are continuing to finalize their college applications, and are eagerly awaiting to hear admissions decisions. Please come back next month for an update.