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.