Students Rising Above Achieves Remarkable College and Career Results

Originally posted on by Gary M. Stern

When an organization can boast that 90 percent of its students graduate from college, that’s newsworthy. When those students are low-income minority students, it is even more impressive.

That statistic is one of the notable results from Students Rising Above (SRA), a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping poorer students overcome personal challenges and ultimately graduate from college. Over its 17-year history, it has made a major impact on the students that it serves. Not only does SRA have a remarkable college graduation success rate but in addition, nine months after graduating from SRA, 80 percent of its students are immersed in a career or enrolled in graduate school.

These students, explained Lynne Martin, its executive director, are living below the federal poverty level. Many have been homeless, abandoned, neglected or abused. “We’re looking for kids who recognize that there’s a chance for a better life even if they don’t have the family or financial support to go to college,” she said. Its goal is to level the playing field. “We want our kids to have the opportunities that their more affluent peers have. How do we recognize the untapped potential in these kids and give them a pathway to opportunity?” Martin said. SRA attracts students from 11 counties in the San Francisco Bay area. Students must be juniors in high school and have a 3.0 GPA, though Martin said that desire and motivation also play a role in acceptance and the GPA requirement can be lowered.

In 2014, SRA worked with 1,100 students: 400 students participated in SRA’s main program and 750 students were involved in its recently launched College2Careers Hub.

College2Careers is an online program that has been integrated into the junior and senior year curriculum at three local schools in the San Francisco area and can be accessed by all current SRA students and SRA applicants. It provides college-ready webinars, links, articles and blogs that prepare students for college. Students can post questions to an online advisor and are guaranteed answers within 24 hours, said Martin. And she expects more high schools to enroll in the service in the future.

SRA students also receive ongoing financial aid which averages from $4800 to $5000 annually for four years (and sometimes longer) in college. “We’re in it until the students graduate,” Martin asserted.

Over the past 17 years, the demographic breakdown of students involved in SRA was: 40 percent Latino, 25 percent African-American, 14 percent Asian-American, 13 percent mixed race, and 8 percent white.

Its annual budget is $3.6 million, and it has 35 employees, 11 full-time and 24 part-time. Staff members specialize in student programs, mentoring, community outreach and career development. This is quite a leap from 2004, when Martin started as executive director and Barb Hendricks as program director with a budget of $250,000.

SRA was launched in 1998 by news anchor Wendy Tokuda and Javier Valencia, a community relations specialist. At the beginning, only 10 students participated, so the program has grown exponentially.

Currently, SRA provides financial support, oneon-one mentoring, career guidance and helps students obtain entry-level positions. They attend workshops on how to apply for college, obtain financial aid, improve their interviewing skills, and develop a resume. During its summer program, about 80 percent of students receive paid internships to strengthen their resume.

“We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach. We tailor our approach to the individual needs of each student,” said Martin said. That can entail identifying the right financial package, choosing the right college, or providing help with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form or tax returns.

For most students, “there’s no one at home to help,” Martin said. “Most parents can’t help students fill out complex FAFSA forms, and most high school college advisors carry a 900 to 1 ratio of students and can’t offer much personalized assistance.”

SRA doesn’t stop at college applications. After the first-generation student starts college, many face “culture shock,” Martin said. SRA advisors serve as mentors to help them navigate what it takes to succeed. “Many (students) are not academically prepared, everything is new and different, and they’re separated from family,” she added. In a sense, SRA serves in a parental role, providing emotional support, guidance, and direction.

Martin cited one-on-one mentoring as the key ingredient that contributes to most SRA students’ success. Students are assigned an advisor who ideally stays with them through their four years and checks in with them on a regular basis to help problem solve and avoid any major obstacles.

“If we want to break the cycle of poverty, getting them into college isn’t enough. We have to help them with the transition into work,” Martin said.

The program is also helping keep California colleges diversified. When California voters approved Proposition 209 in 1997, which prohibited using race and ethnicity in admissions at state universities, it contributed to lessening the diversity at most state colleges. For example, African- American enrollment at University of California-Berkeley plunged from 8 percent in pre-Proposition 209 days to 3.6 percent afterwards.

Sonoma State University, a four-year college in the California State University (CSU) system, developed a partnership with SRA in 2009, said Gina Geck, Sonoma’s director of student outreach and recruitment. Sonoma has led campus tours, conducted workshops on applying to the school, trained its staff on admissions, she said.

“They’re working with high-caliber students that meet CSU requirements. We’re always looking for first generation, low-income students,” she said.

Many nonprofits offer financial support, but SRA also provides “emotional support,” said Geck. “They help students find resources and assist them in a variety of ways such as finding health insurance. All those factors help retain students and enable them to graduate from college.”

Because of Proposition 209, Sonoma State can’t recruit students based on race, but it’s still interested in attracting students with ethnically diverse backgrounds. SRA helps low-income, minority students understand how to navigate college applications, understand financial grants, know what it means to declare a major and expose them to the complicated process of getting into a suitable college.

Geck recalled one SRA advisor walking with a student through the career center to help them identify an appropriate advisor or tutor. “Look it’s not scary. Here’s how to find the resources,” was the underlying message, she said.

For Latinos in particular, SRA helps families understand that Latinas can thrive when they’re independent at college. For male students, it enlightens parents that investing in attending college can payoff long-term, Geck noted.

Many of SRA students hail from “very depressed, violent communities,” and SRA helps them transform their lives, said Geck. Martin sees what SRA is doing as a “loan.” “We want our students to give back, pay it forward, to break the cycle of poverty.”

In the future, she’s like to see SRA expand beyond California. “If we were going to expand our existing program to other communities, it would take increased fundraising, introductions to key community leaders, expanded staff and partnerships with key organizations,” said Martin.

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