Sonoma County teens face crossroads after high school graduation

About 4,600 teens across Sonoma County will receive their diplomas over the next two weeks. After they walk off the stage, their shared journey of four years will split into distinctly different directions.|

Celine Hogan remembers thinking when she entered high school that the next four years would crawl by. So last Wednesday, as the Windsor High School senior found herself preparing to graduate in just a few days, she felt surprised to suddenly find herself at a major crossroads in her young life.

“It went by really fast,” she marveled after school that day. “It can be intimidating, everyone asking you what you want to do. I’m still figuring that out.”

The 17-year-old plans to enroll in Santa Rosa Junior College this summer or next fall. She says that will allow her time to choose the right career path while avoiding significant student loan debt.

Hogan is far from alone in weighing these sorts of life-changing decisions.

About 4,600 teens across Sonoma County are facing similar choices as they receive their diplomas over a two-week flurry of pomp and circumstance before fanning out around the state, country and world to craft their futures.

Graduation season began last Sunday, when Cardinal Newman High School handed out 157 diplomas. On Saturday night, about 400 students graduated from Windsor Unified School District. The bulk of graduation ceremonies will culminate next Friday, when the county’s largest districts - including Santa Rosa City Schools, Petaluma City Schools and Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified - hold their commencements.

After they walk off the stage, their shared journey of the last four years will split into several distinctly different directions.

If the past holds true, about 44 percent will enroll next fall in Santa Rosa Junior College, according to the most recent data available about the paths taken by local high school students. Ten percent will go straight to a California State University campus and 6 percent will be admitted to a University of California campus, based on tracking data for their immediate predecessors in the class of 2014.

The remaining 40 percent will take another route, many of them entering the workforce or the military or enrolling in private and out-of-state universities.

Roughly 12 percent of their fellow students didn’t make it to graduation, dropping out of local high schools, according to 2014 data from the state Department of Education.

Which path they choose will have ramifications for the rest of their lives.

An adult with a four-year bachelor’s degree who lives in Sonoma County earns a median income of just over $52,000 a year, compared to about $38,000 for those with a two-year associate’s degree and just $32,000 for those with high school diplomas, based on the most recent U.S. Census data.

Like many of the students headed for SRJC, Hogan says she chose the junior college because it will allow her to take a variety of classes and determine her strengths before settling on a major.

“I want to take time to make sure what I pursue is worthwhile,” she said. It doesn’t hurt that the junior college is a top-ranked institution with a great reputation, she added.

The Windsor resident talked about her future with a good deal of pragmatism but also a measure of idealism and enthusiasm. She plans to spend her summer narrowing in on potential majors, perhaps through job shadowing, in addition to working part-time. Her interests range from public health to social work to opening a small business.

“I know I’m good with people and I want to pursue something where I can be active in the community,” she said.

She’ll live with family so she doesn’t have to worry about the skyrocketing price of rent around the county. She plans to minor in business and eventually transfer to a four-year school.

Hogan struggles with a form of dyslexia and stays about two hours after school each day to complete the work necessary to keep up her grades. She said the extra effort has helped prepare her for her future.

“When I worked harder and asked for help, it boosted my self-esteem to know I could better myself,” she said. “I think I can look into the future knowing I’m very goal-oriented and whatever I set my mind to I can achieve.”

While many students are in Hogan’s shoes, still exploring the many options before them, others have known what they want to do for years.

Technology High Senior Alia Saloman, for instance, will be attending Chico State’s pre-veterinary program to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian, which she’s had since age six. And Piner High School senior Megan Poulsen will head to Sacramento State to major in biology with the goal of becoming a high school biology teacher, the kind that inspired her love of learning.

Poulsen said a freshman biology class first ignited her interest in that career. Subsequent classes with a favorite teacher have kept the flame alive.

“Each year (since then), I’ve realized I am getting to where I am today because of educators,” she said. “I wouldn’t be going to college without these teachers.”

Poulsen is nervous about the student loan debt she’ll assume. So far, she’s received no grants from Sacramento State and has secured just a couple of small scholarships. She is one of many students taking on debt in the hope it will pay off in the future in the form of a higher income.

“Four-year college was the obvious choice for me,” Poulsen said. “I’ve always known that’s what I wanted to do.”

While she’s excited to attend Sacramento State, Poulsen regrets not applying to her dream school, the more competitive UCLA, out of a fear of rejection. She’s not alone.

Last year, while 30 percent of local graduates completed the academic requirements that qualify them for a state university, just 16 percent enrolled in a UC or CSU campus.

“One of the biggest challenges I see is that colleges are getting more and more competitive with less spots available,” said Seth Geffner, a counselor at Santa Rosa High School. “It’s getting more challenging to get in. I have kids that, 10 years ago, would have for sure gotten into ‘XY’ school. Now I’m not sure.”

Like Poulsen, El Molino senior Hugo Flores has long known what he wanted to do: Be a police officer. He’s one of this year’s graduates bypassing higher education to immediately pursue a career. Others include Santa Rosa High School senior Kara Curry, who plans to join golf’s Minor League as a first step to becoming a professional player, and El Molino’s Jose Vargas, who is set to work at Shone Farm and the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps before pursuing a career in the vineyard industry.

Flores, an 18-year-old Guerneville resident, will spend the summer working construction full-time. Then, in late July, he’ll head to San Diego to join the Marine Corps.

Flores said he has known he wanted to be in law enforcement since elementary school, when he was inspired by a presentation given by local police. He decided this winter to join the Marine Corps and commit to four years of active duty after a recruiting officer told him his service would provide a good stepping stone to law enforcement.

Flores said he “can’t wait” to earn his diploma on Thursday night and leave behind high school’s social roller-coaster. He’s a bit nervous about the potential danger associated with military service but excited about the possibility of being stationed overseas.

He’s already made friends while attending twice-weekly physical training sessions at a recruiting station in Santa Rosa.

“I’m ready to go do it,” he said.

Sonoma County’s graduates are increasingly diverse and come from poorer families. Last year, 35 percent of graduates were Latino, up from 26 percent in the class of 2010, according to the state Department of Education. Nearly half, or 48 percent, were deemed “socioeconomically disadvantaged,” up from 32 percent in that same period. Students are defined as socioeconomically disadvantaged if they qualify for free or reduced lunch or if both of their parents haven’t received a high school diploma.

Windsor High School senior Grace Corona, who emigrated from Mexico with her parents when she was 3, will become the first in her family to attend college when she enrolls in San Jose State University this fall.

The 18-year-old Windsor resident spoke only Spanish when she arrived in the United States but says she quickly mastered English with the help of English Language Development classes. She said she later benefited from a program called AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, which helps prepare potential first-generation college students for success at four-year institutions.

She said she wants to use her education to give back. She plans to study political science and become either a family practice lawyer or a prosecutor. This year, she started a homework club to help young children learning English as a second language.

“I know most kids (in English Language Development classes) have to grow up a little faster,” she said. “I wanted to help them.”

While attending college will be a family first, her parents aren’t surprised, she said. “I’ve always been so independent, they’ve come to expect it.”

Corona acknowledged she’s intimidated by the thought of leaving home and family and facing the rigors of college. But she’s also excited for a chance to “breathe fresh air.” Last night’s graduation marked a completely new start, she said.

“I’m ready to close the Windsor book and start not just a new chapter but a completely different book in San Jose,” she said. “And while that can be scary, I’m excited to start again from the beginning.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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