Studying Abroad with Jacky Lu!

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Everyday, I miss the feeling of the wind blowing in my face while riding on a game drive vehicle. The beauty of the animals and their environment is breathtaking. My name is Jacky Lu and I am currently a rising senior at Carleton College in Minnesota. During my beginning of my sophomore year, I decided to study abroad in South Africa with the Organization of Tropical Studies, which is sponsored by Duke University. I visited South Africa as a senior in high school but was unable to explore my academic passion of ecology. The program had a focus of savanna ecology and research. It was a perfect fit for me because I had the opportunity to learn about this field and return to the nation I longed to go back to. While on the program, I traveled to many regions and ecosystems of South Africa, ranging from the savanna of the northeast to the fynbos of the Western Cape. The research projects I participated in included the assessing the impact of African elephant on a species of Acacia tree, studying changing gait of a dung beetle species, and evaluating the impact of the house sparrow on the native bird population. One of the more unique parts of OTS is the homestay component. During the Apartheid era, many native South Africans were forced to relocate to homelands. While they make up the majority of the population, they were only given less than 15% of the land. I had the privilege of staying in HaMakuya, which is located near the northeastern tip of the country, bordering Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It was a very good experience as I was able to see how people live with the natural areas around them.

I grew up wanting to the work with wildlife and this trip gave me full exposure of that. While the trip was fantastic, I learned that I don’t want to pursue a career in ecology. While I am fascinated by the interactions between organisms and their environment, I dislike being disconnected from society. I do enjoy field research but I don’t see it as something I can do for the rest of my life. Fortunately, I am equally interested in other fields of biology that also explore interactions. I have always been interested in health so looking at microbe interaction with the human immune system will be a plausible career option for me. My current goal is to pursue a PhD in microbiology after graduating. I am grateful that I received a sampling of the field of ecology because it allowed me to resolve the career dilemma I have faced since high school.

Studying abroad was a valuable experience and I am glad I did so. I was able to learn about myself and grow personally. In addition, I was able to study something I would not be able to on a college campus.  I was also exposed to another culture. I strongly encourage everyone to study abroad in college. SRA made this possible but the costs were still difficult for me; my school only covered for a trimester but I went on a semester program. The cost of the program was more the cost of one of my academic terms. The remaining cost was made possible through the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program. The scholarship provides grants for students who demonstrate financial need. Studying abroad is a valuable experience and scholarships such as the Gilman Scholarship will make that possible.

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It’s No Wonder….

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By Lynne Martin, Executive Director

It’s college application season for our new class of 100 students.  The dream of going to college now is a realistic possibility, and the hard work begins. 

If you’re the first in your family to go to college the application process can seem overwhelming. 

There may be no one at home to help you. Or, if you’re attending an inner city high school, the counselor to student ratio can be 1 to 500. If you happened to grow up in poverty, or have been homeless, or abandoned, the process may be even more exasperating.  Do you write about that experience in your personal essay? 

Even if you do overcome these challenges, then there’s the question of money – how do you pay for college? Just one look at the financial aid form known as the FASFA, and it’s no wonder many college-eligible, low-income, first generation students don’t apply. 

Take heart: You and your family are not alone. You are not the first ones to encounter this challenge. With persistence, planning, and realistic expectations, a student who has faced hardship can minimize the angst of applying to college and start down the road toward defining your future.

Defining the Goal 

The first priority for all students – no matter what their background – is properly defining the goal: Graduating with a four-year degree with as little student loan debt as possible. 

Next is identifying the “right” school at the right price that matches your aptitude and interests.  As much as anything, attending college is a big economic decision and you have to make smart decisions right from the start.  

Nationally, 57 % of students graduate from public universities and colleges with an average of $27,000 in student loan debt. The numbers increase if you’re graduating from a private college; 67% of students graduate with an average of $29,000 in student loan debt. We believe that’s too much. Digging out from that amount of debt usually postpones prosperity and discourages students from undertaking the journey.  

Three College Application Strategies

At Students Rising Above, we encourage our students to apply to a mix of schools: CSU’s, UC’s, and private colleges.  Our objective is for each student to receive multiple admission offers with the greatest financial aid possible.  For each college system, there is a different approach: 

California State University (CSU) campuses accept students with low to mid-range GPAs , test scores, and require no personal essay.  They give priority to students who live in their geographic region. Students interested in a CSU outside of their locale will need higher grades and test scores.  This summer, the California State University launched a system-wide concurrent enrollment initiative to provide full-time students enrolled at any campus with access to fully online courses offered at other CSU campuses.

University of California (UC) System requires GPAs of 3.4 and higher, top test scores, and a personal essay. Highly competitive, the greatest opportunities for enrollment occur with the less impacted campuses such as UC Merced and UC Riverside.

Private colleges are also a very important option, and should not be considered out of reach. We encourage our students to apply to 4-5 private colleges.  There is a wide range of options geared to accommodate a variety of academic needs.  For our students with high GPA’s, we encourage them to apply to the elite colleges.  Too often, our students mistakenly believe these universities would not be interested in them. In fact, many want low-income students and will provide significant financial aid. 

Good News

The good news is that more students are graduating from college and the value of a college education has never been greater. To assist students in the college application and selection process, the Department of Education is launching a new rating system of higher education institutions that will help students decide where they should go to school, and as a way to distribute over $130 billion in federal financial aid each year. 

Working together, we can break the cycle of poverty through education for the benefit of all.

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Reflections of a Mentor

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I had learned about Students Rising Above years before becoming a mentor. I began my partnership with the organization in various ways at first; resume review, connecting potential intern candidates with hiring managers, interview run throughs; etc..All the while, I was looking forward to becoming a Mentor but I was anxious about being able to provide the time I felt the mentee deserved. Finally, after attending my third Gala, I took the leap and applied online that very evening. After meeting with Kirsten and attending the Mentor orientation, I felt comfortable leaping in with my mentee because I knew she and I had an amazing community of support. 
 
Acting as a mentor to a shy senior high school student who lived in West Oakland was and continues to be an incredibly fulfilling experience for me. My mentee’s capacity for personal strength has taught me what human beings are capable of, while I feel I bring her the freedom to giggle and let go of the moment every once in a while. She has spent most of her life forced to be thoughtful about every minute; make sure I find a quiet place to finish my homework, make sure I reserve time with the school computer to write my essay, make sure I get home in time to watch my little brother, make sure I find my sister so she doesn’t walk to the bus alone, make sure I find a ride to College Track, make sure I get home before it gets dark, make sure I take the safe route home, make sure I take the safe bus home, make sure I’m safe. It took awhile and continues to take effort for her to relax but I see strong growth over the past year. My main objective for our weekend visits is to provide her with a carefree environment; walks on the beach, brunch dates, visits to the latest exhibition at the De Young, silly movie nights, window shopping down town, etc.. The irony is that as shallow as these activities may appear, they provide for an opportunity for my mentee to grow deeply. This growth didn’t result from long personal discussions about her past or present but rather, by simply exposing her to happiness; i.e., lot of dance sessions while driving, belting out Beyonce even though I’m a horrible singer and laughing at ourselves.  While I haven’t inspired her to actually dance in front of me, she does laugh freely at my goofiness and if she’s genuinely laughing, she’s relaxing…she’s allowing herself to let go of the worry for a minute.  Like anything in life, when too much time passes between our visits, it takes a bit longer for her to get to a safe place again with me but we work at it. We start over sometimes but we keep going forward. She is such a strong woman, she knows that she ought to laugh and so, slowly a smile will curve up her lips and a giggle will cough out her throat and soon enough she’s actually laughing. I’ll continue to sing Beyonce as long as she’ll need me to, but I’m fairly confident, my mentee is about to hit her stride in a big way as a Freshman at SFSU this year. 
 
I’m so grateful for her and cannot wait for to see what she thinks of college. 
 
-Anonymous

 

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Managing The Student Loan Challenge

By Lynne Martin and Barb Hendricks

student loan debt pile up

Student loan debt is real and deters all students – especially low-income students – from attending and completing college.

Money is always a stressful issue with students from low-income environments. Contemplating and incurring loan debt is beyond the scope of their future. In the year 2000, the average loan debt for full-time students was $17,000 according to data from the March 2002 State’s PIRGs Higher Education Project. Today, the national average ranges from $25,000 to $35,000 per college graduate.

This debt load seriously hampers and delays their ability to purchase cars, homes, other major consumer items and fund retirement plans.  Recently, USA TODAY analyzed Census Bureau data and found that since 2006, 25-to 34-year olds experienced the largest decline in homeownership rates in the country. There are approximately 37 million student loan borrowers with outstanding student loans today.

Burden Will Grow

The challenge isn’t likely to get easier. After years of historic lows, interest rates are likely to rise sooner rather than later. Any interest increase on student loans will further deter low-income students from attending college, thus adding to the growing disparity between those who can pay for college and those who cannot. The prospect of serious loan debt only perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Crushing college debt is compounded by the mistaken notion many have about defaulting on a student loan. Many graduates think they can declare bankruptcy and the problem will go away. Student loan debt is never forgiven. Even partial payment can damage a person’s credit rating, which will hurt their ability to get a home mortgage, auto loan or credit card in the future.

What To Do

At Students Rising Above, we counsel low-income students to apply to the federal financial aid agency known as FAFSA and consider federal assistance in selecting their college or university.

The better the financial aid award, the lower the overall loan debt will be at graduation. Over 50% of our students graduate from college with no student loans as a result. The remaining students graduate with debt levels well below the national average.

The key to avoiding burdensome debt is for students to be aggressive in explaining their stories to the Financial Aid Office. Students should appeal quickly and succinctly and make the case that they have an unmet need. “No” doesn’t mean “no” until you’ve tried several times. We’ve seen this work many times.

Equally as important, students should consider attending the college that really wants them as demonstrated by a competitive financial aid package. Going to a college that won’t offer a significant aid package isn’t a trade-off often worth making. In helping students plan, we also encourage them to apply for outside scholarships, appeal for more funds from colleges, and ultimately consider the most competitive financial aid award offered.

This approach has proven to be a very effective for those headed to college through SRA. But it is also a sensible approach for any student or family concerned about taking on too much debt.

A National Problem Worth Solving

We can ill afford to create a two-tiered system in which some of our young adults are equipped with the necessary skills to compete in the 21st century and others are left behind. Taking out large loans to earn a degree that does not net enough to pay back the loan is dangerous, yet it still happens.

Used sparingly and wisely, student loans can help finance a college education and lead to a better life.  A college degree is one of the surest ways to economic opportunity and financial success for all students, but especially low income students. We’re pleased to be able to help so many promising students leave college with little to no loan debt.

Students Rising Above is an award-winning nonprofit organization that enables low-income, first-generation college students to attend a four-year college and achieve their educational aspirations. 

Lynne Martin is Executive Director of Students Rising Above. Barbara Hendricks is Director Of Student Programs.

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What’s in an Internship? – A Reflection

SRA 2011 Holiday Party

By Lauren Brener, Internship Coordinator for Students Rising Above

Cave drawing and carrier pigeons were a thing of the past when I went to college, but we still hadn’t gotten beyond typewriters and landlines.  If you were really high tech, you’d have an ELECTRIC typewriter—woo hoo!  No one had computers and the closest things to cell phones that we knew of were the communicators on Star Trek.  Another thing I never heard of back in the day?  Internships; can’t remember even hearing the word when I was in college.

Now, if you want to be competitive when you graduate college, having multiple internships on your resume is essential.  Since I’ve been working with SRA, it’s been eye-opening for me to hear about our students’ wide array of internship experiences.

Internships help you figure out what you want to do, as well as what you DON’T want to do.  Did you start out wanting to be a doctor so that you can help people in need but find that hardcore science classes like biochemistry don’t float your boat?  Then you can check out public health internships, since public health offers a great alternative where you can help underserved populations.  If you want to run a non-profit one day, why would you do a business internship?  Because many of the same skills apply, that’s why!  Even when you do an internship that isn’t directly related to your career path, you’ll get transferrable skills that will help you move forward.

One thing I’ve seen very clearly since I’ve worked on internships with SRA is the power of NETWORKING.  A great example is one of our students who made it a point to talk to a professional from Genentech, a major global pharmaceutical company, at the SRA Career Workshop last winter.  He asked for her contact information and then sent her an email after the workshop to thank her for her time.  A couple of months later, when he applied for a summer internship in her department, she remembered him even though she received about 700 applications.  Guess where he is interning this summer?

So what have I learned vicariously through the experiences of SRA students?  If I could enter a parallel universe where I was starting college now, I would look for internships to expose me to new things and expand my perspective.  When I found something that got me excited and made me want more, I’d make every possible connection and be first in line to apply for opportunities that will pave the road toward reaching my career goals.

 

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Being the Change – A Reflection

By Robin Levi, SRA Advisor

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I first learned about Students Rising Above (SRA) in October of 2011.  I had been a women’s human rights attorney for almost twenty years and had just finished co-editing Inside this Place, Not of It: Oral Narratives from Women’s Prisons with Ayelet Waldman.  At the book launch for Inside this Place, Lauren Brener, SRA’s Intern Coordinator ran up to me and said that my organization, Justice Now, would be a perfect place for SRA students.  Boy was she right!   Every time a resume arrived, I ran out of my office to tell everyone how awesome the applicant was.  The students were equally impressive at the interview stage.  They were so professional and at the same time warm and genuine.  If anything, they were too modest.  There were a few times that I stopped the interview to tell them, “don’t forget this, this is awesome.”  They were also great about follow up and thank yous.   At one point, our client coordinator, who does the final hiring, asked, “Can I be lazy and just hire SRA students?”   Each student that I interviewed was a breath of fresh energy and knowledge.

If we could have, we would have hired all of them.  We ended up hiring two SRA student interns for summer 2012; we tried to hire three, but the third was unable to make our training week because of a school conflict.   One student worked on child custody issues and the other worked on communications and legislative advocacy.   Both students had close family members who had been imprisoned.   Justice Now always want to hire people  who have personal experience with the prison system, but too often they do not have the necessary skills to work at a legal office and require more support and supervision than Justice Now can provide.  Here the opposite was true.    Not only were they professional, productive, and eager to learn, they also had a strong desire to give back and support other interns.  They interviewed women in prison, answered telephone calls, responded to letters on legal issues, and they helped fellow interns. In particular, one student worked until 11 pm several nights helping a young woman who had recently come home from prison with job applications.   The other student spearheaded a fundraising campaign with people inside prison.   

Now it’s true that they weren’t perfect interns (news flash…no one is), but we found that they responded really well to positive criticism and advice.  Justice Now staff loved both of them so much that at Board meetings their names regularly come up as people that they would like to have back.  And trust me that is not true for all interns.  

My introduction to SRA came at a perfect time for me.  After finishing my book and working with women in prison for almost twenty years, I was ready to come at generational poverty from a different angle.  I left my job and went to work for SRA as a Student Advisor. I started with 7 high school seniors, who I will work with until they graduate college. I provide them guidance on college and life, help them trouble-shoot problems, and make sure they take advantage of all that college and SRA has to offer.   After having worked with students for a year and then being part of the application process for the new class of SRA students, it amazes me how accomplished and positive these students are despite coming from incredibly difficult backgrounds.   They struggle with homelessness, hunger, physical and sexual abuse, and deep familial dysfunction including substance abuse and mental illness.  And those are just a few examples.  Yet through all that, these students not only are academic high achievers, they also maintain fabulous attitudes and eagerness to learn and improve.   I now know that they often have commutes of up to two hours or more, using a wide variety of public transportation and that in many cases, they have not had the opportunity to learn the importance of responding quickly to email, eye contact and general socialization. But they learn and then they show up at work with their happy, shiny faces and make their offices better places.  They are ready to be the change in their own lives and in their communities.

Justice Now hired two more SRA students as interns this summer. Although I am no longer on staff, as a Board member I get plenty of information and these students have not disappointed, they are just as great as last year’s interns.   I have urged many of my friends to take on SRA interns, at both corporations and nonprofits, and they all have been extremely pleased with results.  

I see in my own students those same attributes as in the Justice Now interns and I know that they will be great college students, interns and eventually employees and community members.  In fact, I was talking about one of my students to Justice Now’s client coordinator and she asked, “Do you think she would want to intern here in..oh…2 or so years?”

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Dreaming Big! – A note from our Executive Director

By Lynne Martin,

Executive Director, Students Rising Above

We watched our daughter graduate from college last week.  It was a thrilling moment for her and for us when she walked across the stage.

She didn’t have an easy journey.  There were adjustments to East Coast living, roommate drama, and the challenges of navigating college.  But going to college was never in question.  It was an expectation we set early; of course she would go.

For low-income, first generation college students, however, there is no such expectation. For many, attending college is not on the radar.  It’s simply out of reach for economic and other reasons.  For those who do consider the next level of education, it comes with the risk of being alienated from family members who fear they will be left behind.

Rising Above

For those of us here at SRA, this is the time of year where we have an opportunity to help those students who dare to dream big. It’s a time of hope.

Right now, we’re in the selection process for our new class of 2014.  It is so inspiring to see so many young people with the courage and desire to make college a reality.

This year, for the first time, we will be able to accept 100 students—our largest class ever!  The demand has never been greater; over 500 students applied this year.  Choosing those 100 students requires gut-wrenching decisions.  Who do we accept? What happens to the other 400 students we don’t choose?

We wish we could help everyone because the need is so great, and the opportunity to change lives is so compelling.

No One Should Be Left Behind

Too many low-income students today aren’t getting the chance to attend college to build skills for a modern economy.  Limited understanding of the financial aid process, a need to earn money, social isolation, and a lack of guidance from family and school officials is often insurmountable.

For the first generation students who do attend college, the odds are against them. They are four times more likely to drop out after their first year than their more advantaged peers.  The national graduation rate for low-income, first generation students ranges from 34% to 43% (Pell Institute, Double Whammy of Disadvantage).  Put another way, six in 10 fail – they never graduate. The rates are even lower for African American and Latino students.

At SRA, we’re turning around these dismal statistics.  Ninety percent of SRA students graduate from college.  We’ve succeed by providing a comprehensive program that delivers financial support, one-on-one mentoring, access to healthcare, and career guidance.  Our goal is to graduate students with the education and experience to successfully transition into the work force.  This educational investment breaks the cycle of poverty for our students and for their future families.

Failure Is Not An Option

In a recent speech at Stanford University, former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice commented that “failing schools undermine economic growth, competitiveness, social cohesion and the ability to fill positions in institutions vital to national security.”  Furthermore, “inequities in education are dividing the country, creating two Americas – those capable in the modern economy and those who are not.”

College opens up a world of possibility that fosters new confidence and opportunities.  We’re pleased to say that by the end of the month, we’ll have 305 students in our program. With the continued support of the SRA Community, we’re committed to sending even more students to college every year.

Family friends have congratulated us in getting our daughter through college. My husband and I are grateful for their kind words.  But from my perspective, there are 305 more graduations to go – and counting.

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