Breaking down the barriers to success

Program Director Mariaelena Delgado leads a small group discussion of mentors at San Diego City College.
Program Director Mariaelena Delgado leads a small group discussion of mentors at San Diego City College.

The Price Scholarship Program at San Diego City College is leveling the playing field for 95 community college students who otherwise might not survive the peaks and valleys of achieving a secondary education.

Program participant Katya Echazarreta related a story from her freshman math class in which the professor asked how many thought they were bad at math. Echazarreta said most of the class raised their hand. The professor asked at what age they had made that decision. One student said “in the fifth grade.” The teacher then asked, “How many of you would like a fifth grader to make decisions for you for the rest of your life?”

The moral of the story as Echazarreta related it to her peers is that many of us create barriers in our minds early in life and never overcome them.

Barriers are what the Price Scholarship Program under the direction of Mariaelena Delgado are helping students overcome. Specifically the program provides scholarship money to overcome financial barriers, counseling to overcome mental health barriers, mentorship to overcome social barriers, and expectations to overcome academic barriers. The results have been impressive.

Since the program began in 1997 through an endowment provided by Price Philanthropies, the program has evolved in both service delivery and success. Delgado says the program now consistently maintains an 85% plus success rate of helping students obtain an Associate’s Degree and/or transfer to a four year university. Independent research has shown high dropout rates for students similar to those in the program (first in family to attend college, low income, graduates from low performing high schools) attending college throughout the United States.

What’s the secret sauce to success? “High touch rate,” Delgado says without hesitation.

To achieve a high touch rate, the program incorporates mentors. Mentors are required to have completed a full semester at City College, still be enrolled, have a financial need, and be someone the mentees can relate to. The mentees are incoming freshmen from six local high schools in San Diego and the Urban Corps, are the first in their family to attend college, and have a financial need. In total 35 new mentees and 10-12 new mentors are selected through a competitive process each year. Currently there are 95 program participants on scholarship at City College.

Participants are required to perform community service, in most cases 300 hours a year, at one of seven local non-profits. In return they receive a monthly stipend of $375 to go towards education and living expenses. The scholarships last two years.

Participants are required to take a personal growth class and meet with the program’s full-time, licensed clinical social worker at least once a semester. According to Delgado a high percentage of the students suffer from various mental health issues related to the stressors of being the first person in the family to attend college.

The mentor-mentee relationship is informal and is about supporting others with similar circumstances. Echazarreta said of the mentees, “A lot are embarrassed to ask for help. I help them realize it’s not something dumb people do.”

There are also reciprocal benefits. “You learn a lot from them (mentees). The things they ask about, that you give them advice on, are the same things you encounter later on. You can follow your own advice given when you were level headed.”

City College is a melting pot of students. Many are surprised, Delgado says, when they find out their classes have older students. There are also many international students. Suma Massaley is from Liberia and is at City College studying to eventually get a Ph.D. in Peace and Justice and work at the United Nations. She is a first year mentor and has valuable experiences to pass on to her mentees such as not understanding the culture and having a hard time with the English language her freshman year. Now she feels prepared to transfer to a university.

Last weekend the mentors and mentees attended a retreat in Julian to take on a high ropes course to build trust and reinforce the program’s message that with support you can overcome any barrier, even fear.