Graduation fills Puente youth with excitement, anxiety

Next month, Paola Flores will graduate from Pescadero High School with 31 other classmates. It is an exciting time. But the excitement of graduation is weighted with stress over next steps for many youth, Flores included. The big unknowns: college and how to pay for it.

Flores came right down to the wire in choosing between her two favorite four-year universities that accepted her: Cal Poly Pomona in Southern California, and the University of Utah. Both have renowned programs in civil engineering, which is what Flores intends to major in. But as a first-generation college student – and someone who’s barely even explored the Bay Area outside of Pescadero – the prospect of going from a high school with 100 students to a freshman class of more than 5,000 is nearly inconceivable. She was wracked with indecision.

“I really don’t know what to do. That’s why I’m so frustrated and scared,” said Flores. (She finally chose Cal Poly Pomona.)

Financial stressors are weighing on her, too. “I know most schools are going to be expensive,” says Flores, who works weekends at South Coast Children’s Services Thrift Shop to save money for college. She knows she will need to get a job on campus, too.

Fortunately, Puente is there to help with college expenses. As a longtime participant in Puente’s youth program (officially known as the Puente Youth Leadership Development and Employment Program), Flores will earn Youth Bridges Scholarship monies from Puente on graduation day. It will help her pay for books, tuition and other expenses when she gets to college. The longer a local student participates in the Puente youth program, the more funding they receive when they graduate.

“I feel like anything is going to help,” says Flores, whose parents are unlikely to be able to assist her with paying for college.

Flores is a driven and committed student who started taking advanced community college classes while she was still in high school. As a result, she may also earn some community scholarships, some of which Puente helps to administer, as well as be eligible for a record number of dollars – almost $40,000 made available from generous donors through the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District. However, student loans are a certainty, and Flores is fearful of being saddled with debt and unsure how long it will take her to pay it back.

Puente has been there to help with those questions, too. As a Puente youth, Flores has unlimited access to one-on-one college counseling with Lizeth Hernandez, Puente’s Education Director who oversees the youth program. Hernandez helps students understand their financial aid packages, which can be confusing, and fill out all the last-minute forms. When students encounter administrative snafus, she helps them advocate for themselves.

“I personally believe that any school is a great school when a student is committed. However, I don’t want to see a student take on more debt than they can handle,” says Hernandez. “So I make sure I ask them – is it worth the money you’re going to owe when you graduate in four years?”

A small number of students on the South Coast have parents with advanced degrees, and they know exactly which summer classes and extracurricular activities will better position them to get into their top-choice schools. However, most students are first-generation. Their parents do not have much information about the college admissions process and they sometimes have mixed feelings about four-year universities.

“When your daily environment is not college-bound reality, understanding what it takes to get to college tends to get lost,” says Hernandez.

For example, she says, “You can ask any of the youth if they want to go to college, and 90 percent of them will tell you yes. If you ask them to explain to you how to get there, it gets murky.”

Puente tries to make up the information shortfall. The process starts early in the Leadership Development and Employment Program. Students as young as 14 take field trips to visit local universities and practice preparing their personal statements for college. Current college students who grew up in Pescadero speak to their younger counterparts about college life.

Puente even takes parents on field trips to college campuses, to demystify the concept and answer their questions. Puente and the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District partner closely together to maximize the resources that are available to youth in this small rural high school. This year LHPUSD offered a series of workshops on college preparedness, field trips to local universities, and support with applying for financial aid.

Hernandez and Pescadero High School’s college counselor work closely to track a student’s academic progress and level of commitment to furthering their education. They will step in and meet with the student and their family when something seems amiss.

The local school district has authorization from parents to provide Hernandez report cards for all Puente youth on a quarterly basis, so she can keep track of whether they need a Puente tutor. If so, Hernandez gets them help right away.

“I always hope that students will graduate with at least a 2.5 GPA, because it will open more doors,” she says.

But sometimes a four-year college is not in the cards. A large proportion of Pescadero High School graduates enroll in a local community college, where they either pursue a certificate program in their chosen field or work toward transferring to a larger university later on, when they can afford it.

Some students go into the trades. In addition, some go into the military. Whatever they choose to do, Puente helps them find what fits, says Hernandez. “Some students don’t want to go to a four-year and that’s totally fine. It’s more about working with the youth to figure out a path for them.”

Jose Bernardino chose a different path. He has always loved fixing cars. Now he will embark on a career as an auto mechanic. “School was never my thing,” he says. He studied poorly in his first year – something he now regrets, because his grades never caught up to his peers’ and it foreclosed the possibility of a higher GPA and more choices after graduation.

But he is only “kind of excited” to graduate – because he is starting to realize that adulthood cannot be deferred. “It looks like after high school, things are going to be different. More responsibilities, paying bills, paying for everything,” he says.

Right now, it also looks like Bernardino will have to enroll in community college if he wants to achieve his dream of opening his own auto body shop one day. He will need a certification in auto body painting and refinishing to be a professional and further certification in collision repair estimating. Eventually, he will also need to learn how to run a business.

He may enroll in a local community college to get the training he needs. He is hoping his Youth Bridges Scholarship will help him pay for his classes, since he has no money saved.

“In order to complete this goaI, I have to go to college. It’s going it be a couple of years, and I believe it will be hard,” he says.

Part of him just wants to forget about school and get a mechanic job in the ‘real world.’ “Overall, I’m pretty nervous right now,” he says.

Omar Macias has been a Puente youth since he was 14. He discovered cooking in the summer of 2013 as a student in Puente’s Youth Culinary Academy, and he still works as a cook at YMCA Camp Loma Mar – one of three jobs he holds down on a regular basis.

Macias has proven to be gifted in tutoring and caring for younger students through Puente and Panther Camp, the summer school program run by the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District.

Like Bernardino, Macias loves fixing cars. He has already learned how to replace the oil, batteries and transmission on his car. He has fixed his older brother’s car and his friends’ cars. He saves his money to buy himself clothes, pay for this car insurance, and chip in for food at home.

“My dad works really hard and he doesn’t ask much from us. We help him pay, so it makes it easier on him,” he says.

His dad was in the military. Both his parents will support his decision to enlist, one of his current options, but his mom is worried about his safety. Macias says he is worried too, but the risk is worth the rewards: travel, pride, and success.

Of the 31 seniors set to graduate next month, 18 of them – or nearly 60% – are youth that have participated in the Puente Youth Leadership and Development Program. Hernandez says that she has been noticing that some youth are hesitant to leave the community for college, or whatever next steps await them. Even if they are nervous about taking the leap, like Flores, Hernandez knows that studying and living away from home can be transformative. But some students would rather commute from their childhood homes in Pescadero than live on campus.

“For the first time, I think a lot of the youth are now realizing how comfortable they’ve been growing up in a small community,” she says. “Those in fear will benefit from broadening their horizons.”

Please support Puente’s Youth Bridges scholarship program. Your contributions to this program are essential in helping students like Paola, Omar and Jose succeed in college and fulfill their potential. Donate Today!

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