Sonoma County high schoolers embark on rigorous college prep program

At first, $3,230 per month sounded like a windfall to 17-year-old Victoria Suazo. She received the cash during a money management exercise Friday, part of a weeklong program at Sonoma State University preparing Sonoma County high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds for college.

On the Healdsburg High School student's shopping list? High-end clothes and makeup, a mid-sized house and a new car. But two hours into the scenario, facing the challenge of feeding her imaginary infant and husband and paying off a student loan and credit card debt, she had settled for a small house and used car and forsaken the idea of new clothes or makeup. While the cash wasn't real, Suazo said she had felt legitimate stress trying to manage it.

'I never had any idea how much it would be to have a house, a car, a baby and bills,' she said as the workshop wound down. 'Now, when I go home, I'm going to thank my parents for everything they do for me.'

She also left with plans to start a college savings account using the money from her new job tending tables at a Healdsburg restaurant.

Such reactions were common among the 66 incoming high school juniors who attended the program at Sonoma State, the first part of a two-year college mentoring program called the 10,000 Degrees Institute. Most of the participants are seeking to be the first in their families to go to college.

The institute works with schools in Marin and Sonoma counties to help high school juniors and seniors prepare for, get accepted to, and find ways to pay for college. Organizers said more than 95 percent of the participants are accepted to college, at which point they receive additional mentoring from another branch of the 10,000 Degrees program.

The nonprofit organization also provides scholarships to the students it serves, drawing funding from private and public sources, including $255,000 from Sonoma County. Lisa Carreño, Sonoma County's regional director for the program, sits on The Press Democrat's editorial board.

The institute, which has operated in Marin County for 15 years, expanded into Sonoma County about five years ago. That first year, there were about 15 students. Since then, the effort has more than quadrupled in size to meet growing demand, said Alex Stern, who manages the college access program.

'There's a tremendous need here' in Sonoma County, he said, adding that the organization hopes to continue growing: 'For us, it's about being part of a movement to create a more college-going culture. We definitely recognize that we can't serve everybody, but we want to do the best we can.'

The 10,000 Degrees program currently collaborates with six schools in Sonoma County, providing college advisers who work with students on a biweekly basis at Casa Grande and Petaluma High in Petaluma, Sonoma Valley High in Sonoma, Healdsburg High School, and Elsie Allen and Piner high schools in Santa Rosa.

Students apply for the program before their junior year and must demonstrate financial need, as measured by eligibility for the federal Pell Grant. They don't have to earn top grades, but they must prove through essays and interviews that they're willing to work hard, said Avalon Baldwin, who participated in the program several years ago. She recently graduated from Mills College and has returned to advise a new wave of students.

'They have to show they want it,' she said.

The intensive summer session that ends today has allowed this year's batch of students to get acquainted with the peers and advisers they'll be working with in the years ahead, as well as become familiar with a college setting by living in campus dorms for a week. They met with representatives from 18 colleges, many of them graduates of the program, and toured UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University.

They attended sessions on how to judge which colleges were the best fit for them, how to write the best college entrance essay, and even how to increase focus and relieve stress by meditating.

By Friday, students were wrapping up their week and showing a greater sense of self-confidence, Stern said. Most had set their sights on earning higher degrees than the ones they planned to earn at the beginning of the week, he said.

Marie Montoya, 16, an incoming Casa Grande junior who came with her parents to Petaluma from El Salvador about six years ago, said she was particularly excited to learn about the financial aid and scholarship opportunities at the schools she'd like to attend, including UC Berkeley and UC Davis.

'It's really cool that I could go to one of those schools,' she said.

Casa Grande Junior Edgar Weller, 16, who wants to be an aerospace engineer, said Friday's financial workshop, called 'Bite of Reality,' opened his eyes to managing money wisely.

'Right now, I'm about having the newest things,' he said. Then he glanced down at his ledger, which showed that his purchases of furniture and a new truck had left him with only $659 to pay for housing, food and clothing. Also, he learned he still had to pay a hefty credit card bill. He cringed.

'I may need to think more wisely on the transportation,' he said wryly.

The lesson resonated with the financial difficulties his own parents sometimes face, he said. 'My parents say it's hard to get most of the things we want, and that we should be grateful for what we have,' he said.

Suazo learned that she wants to attend either Sacramento State University or UC Santa Barbara, where she could pursue her goal of becoming a registered nurse, something her mother also dreamed of as a teenager before she became pregnant with Suazo.

Suazo said her motivation to participate came from her family. 'The reason I'm coming here,' she said, 'is to be a role model for my two (younger) siblings, to show them they can go to college, too.'

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie. On Twitter @JamieHansen.

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