Backstory: Cracking the college code

Anwar Ahmed had a holy trifecta to perk any college admission counselor's ears: grades, ambition, and desire. He hoped to be the first in his family to attend college, but there was only one problem – deadlines were rapidly approaching, and he had no idea even how to apply.

On a gray, drizzly day in November, the lithe athlete strode up to his high school guidance counselor – one of four assigned to 1,600 students – and asked for a recommendation. He wasn't prepared for the abrupt litany that followed: requests for envelopes, recommendation letters from teachers, and application forms. An Ethiopian immigrant, he spoke Arabic (and three African languages) far better than English. His mother was in another state, and his father was deceased. He was on his own, his future uncertain and intimidating.

He might have given up if a teacher hadn't told him about an innovative new program at Garfield High School here. Arguably one of Seattle's top schools, Garfield is complex – home to an award-winning music curriculum, an advanced placement program, and a 57 percent nonwhite student population. Seven percent of the students are "transitional bilingual" – or still learning English. The inner-city school is a cultural and academic jewel, studded with high-achievers. But for students like Anwar, with potential, but with family or other problems to surmount, college can seem distant and daunting.

Now, thanks to College Access Now (CAN), that's changing. Not only is Anwar on his way to college, but so are the 28 other students who participated, many becoming the first in the family to pursue higher education.

It's no small feat. These days, the only thing more difficult than graduating from college is getting into one. With muddling through Byzantine financial aid forms, matching grade points and aptitudes to schools, crafting trenchant personal essays, filling out complex applications, and meeting never-ending deadlines, most students need the help of an educated adult or a professional who guides applicants through for a hefty fee.

Those weren't options for Anwar, whose family fled civil war in Ethiopia in the late '90s, spending some 30 months in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to Seattle in 2001. Soon after, his mother moved, and, more recently, his father died, leaving him to migrate between siblings throughout his senior year. After school, he participated in soccer and track while working parttime, maintaining a 3.6 grade-point average. CAN filled a gap for him in funding and resources, providing the support he needed to navigate a highly competitive labyrinth.

"I can't imagine where I would be if not for this program," he says. "It really helped me a lot."

***

The program is the idea of Julia Schechter, whose master's degree in education and passion for learning inspired her to model it on one in Minneapolis. Though her own children are not yet in high school, she suggested it to Garfield's Parent-Teacher-Student Association, which gave its blessing – and the $3,400 that brought Karly Feria from the federal AmeriCorps*VISTA program to staff the after-school initiative.

This year, the program recruited 29 seniors from low-income families whose parents had little or no college experience. Students are coached in writing and study skills and get help with applications and fees. In exchange, they maintain a 2.0 grade-point average, take an SAT preparation class, perform eight hours of community service, and spend at least two hours after school each week working on admissions.

Many students don't have computers at home, so they use the school's computer lab to research colleges, financial aid packages, scholarships, and other requirements. Ms. Feria does her own sleuthing, visiting hundreds of websites, creating weekly lists of scholarships appropriate for the students, and connecting them with other resources. "Just being able to have these students tell me that I'm making a difference in their lives has made me realize that I'm in the right place," Feria says.

Along with administrative and emotional support, Feria matches students with volunteer coaches. "These kids are smart, motivated, and fundamentally decent," says Greg Abbott, who mentored Anwar. "But they don't have the family or school resources to give them the support they need to select schools, know how to apply to college, and figure out the financial aid maze."

Mr. Abbott, a biotechnology lawyer, mastered the application process while shepherding his own children toward college. He singles out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form as "awful – it makes the IRS look like child's play." Indeed, FAFSA is a Rubik's Cube for most students. But for immigrants and some parents, it can seem incomprehensible and insulting. When parents are absent or deceased, Abbott says, it gets worse: "It's a system not built for these kinds of family situations."

***

The Garfield program has helped students with more than paper shuffling. True, Andenet Berta needed help navigating the admissions process, and, without that help, he says, he would have missed deadlines and "turned in a lot of sloppy work." But the rigor also helped his grades. "My grade point, with CAN, has gone up – and it's going to continue going up," he says. "I'm not going to stop. I applied to eight schools and was accepted to five." Andenet will attend Eastern Washington University in Cheney this fall.

Andenet's mother, Enat Berta, emigrated from Ethiopia in 1988 with a 10th-grade education, working in home healthcare before illness forced her to quit. In halting English, she says she's grateful for the program and hopes it'll help Andenet's sister, a sophomore, as well. "People – I tell them about this program," Ms. Berta says. "They helped my son get into college."

Aron Shimeles, whose parents completed high school in Ethiopia, was accepted to Occidental College in Los Angeles. He says the initiative helped him get a $10,000 scholarship and increase his financial aid package by $9,000. "My parents, as much as they wanted me to go to college, weren't really able to help me with the whole process."

Next year, the school plans to double the participants to 30 juniors and 30 seniors, adding another AmeriCorps staffer. Outgoing PTSA president Amy Hagopian figures that will cost about $12,000 – just $200 per student – and hopes other schools will recognize its value.

CAN is "simple. It's elegant. It works," she says. "And if people find out about it, they could easily replicate the idea in other schools."

As for Anwar, he chose the University of Washington as soon as they accepted him. "My priority is just to go to college, be educated," he says. "That's my main goal. CAN showed me how the system works, and helped me get in."

He's come a long way, and it's not over yet: He hopes to go to medical school. But now, instead of seeing obstacles, he sees opportunities, and instead of thinking "I can't," he knows he can.

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