By CASEY WATTS
As appeared in the Port Chester Westmore News on Friday, July 8th, 2016
The Don Bosco Scholars luncheon at Sonora Nuevo Latino Cuisine on Sunday, June 26 was a cause for celebration as those involved recalled their journeys of more than 165 hours of coaching. 83 college applications and more than $400,000 in financial aid for all scholars.
Don Bosco Scholars is a first generation college access program that targets Latino high school seniors in Port Chester. Each student is assigned a mentor or a team of mentors who will help guide them through the college application process- writing application essays, SAT prep, scholarship search, financial aid and more.
The program welcomed eight scholars in its first year: Mariana Barajas, Guadelupe Conde, Julian Coutinho, Erika Mendoza, Kevin Mera, Carlos Ramirez, Kevin Reyes, and Luis Rojas. Mendoza and Rojas both had a team of two mentors; the others had one. The 10 mentors were Deborah 0’Gallagher of Rye, Leah Castillo of Port Chester, Monica Lukes of Rye, Rosario Benavides and Pilar Buenahora, both of Rye, Jean Taplett of Purchase, Carmen Linero of Port Chester, Carlos Rodriguez of Port Chester, Elizete Groenendaal of New York City and Gail Sheffler of New Canaan, Conn., respectively.
Ann Heekin, executive director of Don Bosco Center and founder of the program partnered with Latino U, a college access program for first generation Latinos, to make it all possible. They already have 10 confirmed students and one unconfirmed student for the next academic year. Half of the mentors will be returning and Heekin is looking to recruit more.
“I feel wonderful to be at the end of a long transformative journey working alongside the children and their families. We are very involved in the whole process.” Heekin said. “We learned together, sweated it out together and faced disappointment together.”
“Each kid is going to a college perfect for them,” she added.
One of those kids is 18-year-old Mariana Barajas, who applied to 15 colleges and was accepted to all of them. In the end. he chose to attend Pace University as a science major.
“It’s been a great accomplishment to be the first in my family to attend college in the United States,” Barajas aid. “l am so grateful.”
She knew she wanted to go into the medical field after volunteering at White Plains Hospital and following her experiences in hospitals in Mexico and the United States.
Her mentor Deborah O’Gallagher helped incorporate Barajas’s interest in the hospital environment into her college entrance essay. Barajas’s essay highlighted her experiences while she was undergoing surgeries on her foot in hospitals from two different countries. One college wrote back to her in praise of her words.
O’Gallagher is thrilled for Barajas and enjoyed helping her navigate through the program. She is also happy to be able to do her part to help first generation kids have opportunities like this.
“It’s hard,” O’Gallagher said about the college application process. “It’s nice to be able to do this on my own and level the playing field.”
Luis Rojas, 18, was nervous because he was the first person in his family to go to college and had no experience and no one to guide him prior to joining this program.
“I was scared I was going to miss out because I had no experience in what I had to do. My parents couldn’t help,” he said. “I was blindfolded.”
Although he is happy the application process is done, he said he had a great experience and the support he received from his mentors Elizete Groenendaal and Gail Sheffler was extremely helpful.
‘My mentors were always there for me,” Rojas said.
Groenendaal and Sheffler would meet with him in Port Chester or they would Skype with him and talk on Google Hangouts whenever he needed them. Sheffler joked that despite all the nagging she and Groenendaal did, the three had a lot of fun together.
“It was a labor of love,” Sheffler said.
Because of their help, Rojas will be attending Brooklyn College for computer science.
“Don’t feel scared to go to college,” Rojas said. ·’You can always get the help you need like I did. I recommend this program to anyone.”
Guadelupe Conde, 18, who is attending Pace to study business, shared a similar statement.
“Just because you’re a minority doesn’t mean you can’t get into a good college. Don’t give up on your dreams.”
Erika Mendoza, 19, is following her dream of helping kids with disabilities. She has been accepted to Mercy College to study psychology.
As Mendoza stood in front of her family and the other scholars on June 26th at Sonora, grateful tears began to fall. She thanked her family, her mentors and Don Bosco for giving her the opportunity to further her education.
“Congratulation class of 2016,”she said.
In partnership with Latino U College Access, Inc., a leader in college access and guidance to first-generation Latino youth and their families, Don Bosco Scholars is a new program at Don Bosco Community Center to support a college-bound culture for low-income youth in Port Chester.
Targeted at rising High School Seniors, a cohort of high-achieving, “First-Gen” students in Port Chester will be invited annually to become a Don Bosco Scholar and participate in a personalized and supportive college access program , including Volunteer Don Bosco College Coaches, SAT Prep, Common App and College Essay Writing Workshops, and FAFSA Boot Camp for students and their families, scholarship search, and financial analysis of admissions packages.
Research On College Access Among Underserved Populations
Only 41% of 25-34 year olds have college degrees and the percentages are even lower for minorities; 17% and 11% respectively, for Latino women and men, and 24% and 16.5% for African-American women and men (College Board, 2012).
Underserved groups, such as minorities, students with low socioeconomic status, and those who are the first in their families to attend college, often require additional support to access the federal financial aid system (College Board, 2010).
Among white high school graduates who took the ACT in 2012, 32% met all four of its College Readiness Benchmarks, while only 13% of Latino students and 5% of African-American students met all four benchmarks (ACT, 2012).
By 2020, 63% of all U.S. jobs will require some type of postsecondary education and 90% of new jobs in growing industries with high wages will require some postsecondary education (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010).