A College Prep Program for First-Generation Hispanic Students Lands Them in Top Colleges

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by Barrett Seaman – 

Little more than a year ago, Erika Bravo, then a junior at Sleepy Hollow High School, showed few if any of the attributes of a top candidate for a nationally competitive college. “She was extremely shy,” recalled Heidi Schwartz, a volunteer “coach” assigned to help Bravo navigate the daunting process of applying to college. “She could barely speak with me. She had no idea where she wanted to go or where she would fit in.”

Yet, as of May 1 this year, the deadline at many colleges for accepted students to commit to where they would enroll, Bravo had the enviable problem of deciding whether to go to the University of Rochester or Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), two of the strongest undergraduate engineering programs in the country. She had also been accepted at SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Buffalo’s Honors College and Pace University.

Her classmate Joey Morquecho had it even easier: he had already decided to attend Cornell University and dive into its first-year introductory engineering curriculum that would help him decide whether to concentrate in electrical engineering or computer science. He could have gone to Lehigh University, RPI, Binghamton University, Syracuse or Villanova—all of which accepted him.

Both Bravo and Morquecho will be the first in their families to attend college. They came to this country speaking no English, living with families where English was at best a second language and not having any idea what it took to get into college—or how to pay for it. They did so with the help of LUCA (Latino U College Access), a college prep program whose mission is to “increase college enrollment and completion among Latino youth who are first in their family to go to college,” according to Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, its founder. This year, LUCA helped 37 “scholars” (as they call all their students) from four Westchester school districts get into top colleges, among them Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Penn and Hamilton.

When she was only ten, Bravo’s mother put her on an airplane from Ecuador—alone—to go and live in Sleepy Hollow with her grandparents, neither of whom spoke English. Somehow, she managed not only to get through her courses, many of them AP and Honors classes, but also to exceed the minimum 3.5 grade point average required by LUCA. Hers and Morquecho’s academic achievements caught the eye of Sleepy Hollow guidance counselors who recommended them for the program.

LUCA started out in 2012 in one school, Bedford’s Fox Lane, but now serves White Plains, Ossining and Sleepy Hollow—all districts with at least 50% Latino populations. This year’s target was to recruit 40 Hispanic students into the program. Acevedo Buontempo’s goal is to reach 100-a-year. “Many families don’t speak the language, didn’t go to college, don’t have the money,” she said. “But the biggest barrier is the complexity of the process. When you’re the first in your family to go to college, they can’t help and guide you, so you’re pretty much going through the process by yourself.”

As a non-profit, Latino U operates entirely on donations. This year, it cost $650,000 to fulfill its mission.

A first-generation Latina from Puerto Rico herself, Acevedo Buontempo knows how daunting the process is. She knows that these students, however smart they might be, are competing with peers, whose more affluent and college-educated families know how to navigate the college admissions world and can afford test prep courses, some of which can cost $20,000 or more.

LUCA offers test prep as well, along with guidance from 31 volunteer coaches, like Heidi Schwartz. High school guidance counselors nominate students for the program, but not every candidate meets the criteria. This year, there were 100 nominations for the 40 spots available. They are paired with volunteers, who begin the long process of exploring their options and getting to know them as people. During the summer after junior year, they undergo intense test prep: three or four hours every week, learning test-taking strategies. Bravo remembers learning to look first at the multiple-choice answers to math problems before reading the problems themselves.

A significant part of the counseling is around essay writing. That requires coaches to probe deeply to understand their student’s interests and experiences, identify a topic and then work on their writing skills. “That’s definitely the hardest thing,” said Schwartz. “They’re very strong academically, but especially when their second language is English, they struggle with writing.”

Bravo’s main essay topic became self-evident: the language and cultural barrier she faced the minute she stepped off that plane from Ecuador. “We drafted an essay,” she recalled. “She looked at it; we expanded it, and each day we brainstormed.”

Schwartz learned about LUCA through her work as Vice-President and a Director of the Kid’s Club of Tarrytown, a non-profit that donates money to various organizations working with children. As one of the recipients, LUCA impressed her, so she decided to volunteer as a coach. Erika is her second client in the program. She plans to coach again next year.

Marquecho would meet with his coach, Brian McDermott, mostly at Tarrytown’s Warner Library, where they would talk about what colleges would be the best fit for his interest in engineering. In addition to essay writing and test prep, LUCA helps its scholars find their way through the maze of financial aid, which every LUCA scholar will need. Even after acceptances, these students must weigh various packages, which is why Bravo is still on the fence between RPI and Rochester. With only a week to go before commitment day, she was still waiting to see what sort of aid package Rochester would offer her.

LUCA’s support for its scholars doesn’t stop when they matriculate. Staff and coaches continue to offer advice on how to cope with the stresses of campus living, course management and relations with families back home who may not understand the demands of college. It’s a natural extension, said Acevedo Buontempo. “By the end, we are all familia.”

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