By Barrett Seaman
Spring is such an emotional time for high school seniors—in no small part because that is when they find out which colleges are willing to take them and ultimately which of those they decide to attend. It’s an especially fraught time for LatinX students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college. Chances are they went into the college application process without the cultural support many of their more affluent classmates enjoy. So the First of May, or College Signing Day, which is the day most colleges set as their deadline for committing to them for the following fall, is a big deal for graduates of Latino U.
Latino U (formally Latino U College Access or LUCA) is a non-profit committed to coaching high-potential, low-income LatinX students from Westchester high schools through the often-labyrinthine college application process. Founded eight years ago by Shirley Acevedo Buontempo, LUCA guides dozens of students each year from four area high schools, including Sleepy Hollow, through the application maze. This May Day, 38 scholars announced their decisions from a selection of 74 college and university acceptances, among them Ivies Brown and Cornell as well as Stanford, Middlebury and Barnard. All told, this year’s crop pulled in 234 acceptances.
Among those celebrating (virtually, since social distancing rules barred the usual Latino U College Signing Day party) was Sleepy Hollow High’s Franklin P. (his last name removed by request of LUCA), who signed on to go to NYU, a particularly hot school in recent years. He plans to study global public health as a pre-med student concentrating in biology, which is about as hot an academic pursuit as one could imagine this particular spring.
As he completed his junior year, Franklin realized he had no clue how to go about applying to college. His parents spoke little English and had no experience with American colleges. ”I thought I’d be doing this by myself,” he recalls. “I was pretty scared.” A friend from that year’s graduating class told him about Latino U. Then a team from the organization came and gave an informational seminar. Franklin signed up.
Latino U assigns coaches to each of their students. These are all volunteers from the community who take their students through the entire process—from identifying which colleges would make a good fit and were realistic prospects for getting in to helping them get through the critical but often confusing financial aid application. Franklin’s coach was Silchen Lee, who had two of her own children go through the college application ordeal.
“At first he was really quiet,” recalls Silchen of Franklin. “He needed a push to do what had to be done.” Not that Franklin was lazy. In addition to his schoolwork, he was captain of the high school soccer team, a taekwondo instructor for kids at a local gym, delivered pizza on weekends and brought food to ICU patients at Phelps. “It was more a question of time management,” she explains.
Throughout the fall, Silchen helped Franklin narrow down a list of schools he thought would be a good fit. He ended up applying to 15, half of them for “Early Action” admission, which offers admission but does not require a reciprocal commitment. Franklin got several offers, so the heat was off. But NYU, which his coach acknowledged was “a reach,” was an “Early Decision” school that would have required a commitment if an offer were made. Not knowing what sort of financial aid would be available from any school, Franklin waited until early April to find out what his choices were.
He got in. The only question was money.
Filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) forms is a daunting task that requires input from the student’s family. It provides colleges with the information they need in deciding how much aid they can offer, and the results vary from school to school. For Franklin, NYU turned out to be not only the place he wanted to go but the place that offered him the best scholarship. Franklin and his family will have to pay a small fraction of a total cost of well over $70,000-a-year..
Franklin is extremely grateful to Silchen Lee, whom he calls “kind of a second mom.”
Latino U relies on financial aid itself, in the form of donations. To support future programs, it has launched a campaign to raise $100,000 by June 30th to match that amount already committed by members of its board of trustees. To find out more, go to their web site, http://www.latinoucollege.org.