Tips from L.A. Youth alums on applying to college
College road trip photo gallery

By Yesenia Reyes, 16, Locke HS #3
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Yesenia wants to check out UC Davis and Humboldt State University.

Before last spring I had no idea how to decide which college would be best for me. I felt lost because no one in my family has gone to college—most people in my family have dropped out of high school.

I realized I wanted to go to college when I was in middle school and my sister dropped out of high school and ran away. She thought it was going to be all fun and games when she left but it wasn’t. She had to get a job and pay rent, all while taking care of a child. She worked in a factory, where all she did for eight hours a day was cut fabrics for $8 an hour. I want to graduate from high school and go to college so I don’t have to work for minimum wage most of my life.

But when I was in middle school all I knew about college came from UCLA and USC posters I saw hanging on the wall. I thought college was where you automatically go right after high school, where you get something called a “degree,” and then got a job. I had no idea how expensive it would be and how many different universities there were. All I knew was that I had to go.

When my English teacher, Mrs. Coffey, invited me on a college road trip I was so excited that I would be able to see colleges in person. She told me that she was renting a van and taking seven of us to San Francisco for three days during spring break. She saw that we wouldn’t be able to do that without someone else’s help. She told us that she was going to pay for all the expenses and we’d stay with her aunt. She wanted us to see different schools, and learn what it takes to get accepted. She also wanted to motivate us and show us that there are more options than the community colleges nearby and UCLA or USC.

I couldn’t wait, but my parents are very protective and I didn’t think they’d let me go all the way to San Francisco without family. But after Mrs. Coffey met with my parents they said OK. They agreed to let me go because they knew that they would never be able to take me college touring because they’re too busy working and can’t afford to take time off.

We planned on visiting five colleges but because of a flat tire, we visited only four: Dominican University of California, University of San Francisco, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. Mrs. Coffey gave us worksheets so that we could take notes on the different schools such as admission requirements, application due dates, interesting classes they offered, and pros and cons of the school.

Would we be the only minorities on campus?

I was excited and nervous. I don’t know anyone who has gone to college besides my teachers, and in movies it’s always white people at universities. I thought it would be weird if it was the seven of us, a group of Latinos and African Americans, walking around. I was afraid that the students wouldn’t welcome us and they’d wonder why we were there because of our skin color. I was also afraid that the setting would be too serious and the teachers would be strict. I was completely wrong.

The first school we visited was Dominican. It’s a small private school in San Rafael, about a half hour from San Francisco. I absolutely fell in love with the campus. I was surrounded by trees, bushes and grass. In my neighborhood the only place that can barely compare is maybe a tiny park with a few trees. It reminded me of my dad’s home in El Salvador where it’s green and relaxing.

The tour guide, Hugo, was a friendly student. During the tour he pointed out that the campus was small and had only about 1,500 undergraduate students. That was comforting because I don’t really like crowds and I know it would be better for me to go to a small school. He said that at a smaller school, you can learn from the professor, rather than the teaching assistant, which is more common at much larger schools. And because the teachers know you as a person, not just as a filled seat, they can recommend you for internships. I was even more comforted by the fact that Dominican was 40 percent minorities, meaning that I wouldn’t feel alone and I wouldn’t have to worry about not fitting in. I liked the campus, but then Hugo told us that the school was mostly focused on medicine and nursing and I don’t want to study that.

We also met the admissions counselor. He told us that they interview prospective students to determine whether to accept them. That was a big relief because I knew it would give me better chance to get accepted. My history teacher once told me that an A at my high school may have less value than an A at a school that is higher ranked, such as Beverly Hills High. Hugo told us that extracurricular activities were also very important because they want an active student, not just an academic one. At the end of the tour I was hyped about going to college.

We drove back to San Francisco to see USF, another private school. I was intimidated by the amount of students and the lack of diversity. When we walked around the campus and inside the buildings it was mostly white students and faculty. There were only a couple of Latinos.

Our tour guide mentioned that USF was 14 percent Latino and 5 percent African American. I know I would feel awkward being one of the few Latino students at the school. I would feel that the other students would point me out and say things like “Oh there goes that little brown girl” or “What is she doing in college?” Besides I don’t like big places with big buildings.

Photo by Jerica Coffey (Yesenia's teacher). Yesenia and two of her classmates check out a gallery of faces at UC Berkeley.

The next day we went to Berkeley, one of the top public schools in the country. When we were driving around campus it felt even scarier than USF. The dorms that Mrs. Coffey pointed out looked like skyscrapers and there were crowds of students on the sidewalks. We met up with Mrs. Coffey’s sister, Angela, who lives a few blocks from the school, so we walked there from her house. Angela had been a student there and encouraged us to go to Berkeley so there would be more people of color (out of 25,000 undergraduate students only 3,000 were Hispanic and fewer than 1,000 were African American). The school is very hard to get into though. Angela told us that incoming freshmen have an average GPA of 3.91 and it’s also expensive. (It costs $28,000 a year to go there including tuition, housing and food.)

She took us around the campus, which was humongous. We passed crowds of people holding signs and bullhorns. There was some kind of election campaign going on. Angela told us that the school was very involved in politics and many of the students participated. The school had a lot of political history and it was interesting, but also intimidating. I don’t think I would be able to handle protests on a regular basis.

I liked that there were cafes and clothing stores next to campus. But I felt frightened and small walking around the campus with waves of people surrounding me. I don’t think it was the school for me.

It was beautiful with hills and deer

On the last day, we drove to Santa Cruz, which is about an hour and a half south of San Francisco. We met four seniors who were living together in a house where they kept a snake, a chicken and some kind of big, scary lizard. We walked to a nearby school bus stop that took us to the campus. On the ride, we passed meadows. It was green like Dominican except much larger (it has about 15,000 undergraduate students). The school was partially hidden in a forest and it was amazing. We even got to see a couple of grazing deer. I really liked it although I was exhausted by the amount of hills and trails we had to walk up to get to each building.

We visited the dorms and the rooms were tiny. I worried about sharing a bathroom with eight other girls. I imagined I’d have to wait in line to shower and that they’d be dirty. But, I could picture myself walking to class each day wondering if I’ll see some deer or maybe a couple of flying squirrels. They also had many programs that I would be interested in such as literature and classical studies.

My favorite college of the four was Santa Cruz because even though I was hundreds of miles from home, it felt homey. Berkeley and USF were the most alike because the campuses were in cities and huge. I’m tired of a city environment and want to try something new. I like Dominican, but it costs a total of $45,000 a year. I don’t think I’d apply to a private school unless I knew I could get a scholarship or financial aid.

I know what kind of school I want to go to

Now I have a clearer idea of what to expect. I always thought college was in the city, not green and open. I thought you had to know specifically what you want to study, but I found out that I can start out undecided and pick my major later on. I thought everyone was going to be serious, but a lot of people were friendly. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to afford it, but there is financial aid for people who need it, and scholarships for Latinos and for people who are first in their families to go to college. I want to go to a school that has a lot of majors, somewhere with not too many students, not in L.A. but close enough that I’ll be able to come home once in a while, and I’d like to be at a rural campus where I can go biking and hiking.

I imagine what life would be like living on a campus away from home and I can’t wait. I can see myself sitting on a bed in a dorm typing some assignment where I have to analyze literature like Romeo and Juliet or Wuthering Heights. (We don’t read those at my high school.) I just need to find the right college for me. I know I’ll probably miss my family but I would be doing it for them and myself.

I’m worried about how I’m going to pay for school. I’ll have to get a job, my parents would have to help me out and I will have to get scholarships. A few months ago I went to the College Board website to research scholarships. Most of them required an essay, so this year, my junior year, I’m probably going to write a ton of essays. I also want to research more colleges, even some out of state.

I’m very grateful toward Mrs. Coffey because she spent her time and money on us, and if it weren’t for her, I would most likely never get an opportunity to visit colleges.  I’m now more determined to get to college no matter what.


What to look for on a college tour

When Yesenia and her classmates visited colleges, their teacher, Mrs. Coffey, gave them a worksheet to fill out so they could evaluate each school. You can download it here. The worksheet is adapted from Katrina Traylor at June Jordan High School.