Defying the Odds on the Path to College


Lucas Oliver Oswald

Nikolas Rolon, a senior at Roosevelt High School, had not known anyone who had gone to college, other than his teachers. His friends and neighbors in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino community near downtown Los Angeles, rarely discussed higher education. But from an early age, Rolon was determined to earn his college degree.

“It was all me,” Rolon says. “My dad went straight to work after high school, my mom dropped out of high school, my older brother and sister both dropped out. I’ve watched them all struggle so much in life, and at some point I realized I didn’t want that, that it could be different for me and that college was a way to do that.”

On March 15, 2016, Rolon had set his alarm for 3:30 in the morning, the time when the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), released its admission decisions for the Class of 2020. Rolon held his breath as he opened his acceptance letter on his computer screen, his three younger siblings with whom he shares a bedroom all asleep around him. At long last, he exhaled something he felt he had been holding in for all of high school.

In that moment, Rolon recalls, “I finally got to reap the rewards of three and half years of hard work. I finally let myself relax.” He plans to attend in the fall.

Nikolas Rolon works on a practice test while in economics class. Rolon is a student in the Math, Science, and Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High School and plans to study engineering or physics while at University of California Santa Cruz.

Rolon is a student at College Track, a college completion program in underserved communities that supports students from the summer before ninth grade through college graduation. The organization has eight locations across the country, serving more than 2,400 students. Ninety-four percent of its students are accepted to four-year colleges.

UCSC, where Rolon plans to study engineering or physics, is among the 17 college partnerships that College Track has established with universities across the country to ensure that students graduate within four years. Through partnerships like these, students receive one-on-one coaching, financial aid, and other resources that keep them on track.

In May, Rolon and 44 other College Track students earned their high school diplomas and will be on their way to colleges around the country. Located in East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights has a 39% lower high school graduation rate, 36% higher crime rate, and 24% lower median household income compared with greater Los Angeles. Only 5% of Boyle Heights residents have a college degree and the dropout rate at Roosevelt High School, where College Track students attend school, is approximately 25%.

“Just a few miles from here in places like Beverly Hills, teenagers are enjoying their lives, enjoying high school,” one student says. “A teenager here is surviving.”

Roosevelt High School, pictured above, has a dropout rate of approximately 25%. In the surrounding area of Boyle Heights, only 5% of the population has a college degree.

College Track has made a real difference in Boyle Heights. For students in the program, College Track has become part of their daily lives and a consistent source of support. Most start their after-school session with a class – ACT prep, Chinese Language, or even film production. Others focus on specific subjects with tutors, or meet with their academic coaches. An attentive, caring staff provides students with the encouragement and resources they need to both nourish and achieve their dream of earning a college degree and also continuing their achievements into their post-college lives.

Oftentimes, before joining College Track students aren't able to envision a clear path ahead. When a student's older siblings, cousins, and friends drop out of school, it's difficult to understand the potential rewards of staying in.

Susana Celis, a Roosevelt senior in the program, says that before College Track she often felt naturally inclined toward failure, a common sentiment among her peers. She describes her life situation as if it were a trap, and remembers being told outright she was "never going to make it.”

“I could not see my future,” she wrote in a college application.

For many students, College Track serves as a refuge, where the distractions of home are not present and students can feel safe and free to focus on school work. College Track recruited Celis for its first class. But after she posted a 1.5 GPA during her first semester of freshman year, program staff knew they had to step in.

Cendy Vides, the Family Engagement Coordinator, quickly mobilized a support network. “I did an intervention,” says Vides. “I talked to everyone in her life that could help, her basketball coach, her parents, her counselor, to make sure she was getting the support she needed to pull up those grades.”

By the end of freshman year Celis had nearly all A’s and was taking full advantage of College Track’s many resources.

After learning that she had been accepted to University of California, Berkeley, Susana Celis sought out College Track Site Director Silvestre Vallejo for advice. In the main hallway of Roosevelt High School, they talked over the pros and cons of different undergraduate housing options.

“If someone believes in me,” Celis says, “if someone gives me the opportunity to be successful, then I will take that opportunity and be successful, and my life will change forever."

When Celis visited colleges with College Track at the end of her junior year, she recalls feeling intimidated. “Everyone was white and looked like they had everything together,” she says, “but I knew that I deserved to be there too, that I earned a place there.”

Today Celis has an unweighted GPA of 3.8 and was accepted into University of California, Berkeley with a full scholarship.

College Track is filled with inspirational materials that constantly remind students that college is an accessible reality, like the laser-cut wood panels that frame the central room and portray college campus maps from universities around the country.

"College Track was always there giving me advice—go talk to your teachers, read at home, join clubs, get involved, join sports, meet people, give tours,” Celis says. “They were always giving advice and telling me to reach higher. I took that advice and that is how I have become the person I am today."

Students head over to College Track after school gets out in the afternoon. A day at College Tack usually begins with a class like ACT prep, Chinese Language, or various exercise classes. They also have access to tutors and academic coaches to help them with every aspect of their high school experience.

Through a belief in themselves and the breadth of support they receive through College Track, both Rolon and Celis are creating better futures for themselves, their families, and their community.

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