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Mentoring helps immigrants' children aim for college

While there is mounting concern about the large number of U.S.-born children of Hispanic immigrants who drop out of high school or get pregnant as teenagers, there are also hundreds of thousands getting the college educations they need to enter the middle class, a notable achievement given that so many of their parents entered the U.S. without finishing high school.

"Yeah, that's, like, a good thing," interjected Yenifer Martinez Carrillo, 14, one of Graciela's closest friends at William Wirt.

"They're going to be asking us for jobs some day," added Graciela. "It's all worth it."

The brief taste of dorm life also whetted the girls' appetite for college, and touring campuses such as West Virginia, Slippery Rock and Pittsburgh this fall only cemented that feeling for Graciela.

"Before, I guess I wanted to go to college, but I didn't really think about it much,' " said Graciela, who recently turned 13. "This has made me a lot more serious and focused. I know I need to do the work. I want to get rid of my C's."

To help her do that, she's taking a college-readiness class offered every other day in place of social studies. The teacher lays out basic study skills -- how to take notes, how to prioritize -- and will follow the GEAR UP students to high school next year, where she'll help direct them to advanced classes, ensure that they prepare for the SATs and connect them with sources of financial aid.

Several days after the college tour, Graciela took a sheet printed with blocks for each hour of the day to her desk and started filling it out with crayons. Her study skills teacher Sharee Williams circled the room, a wry smile on her lips.

"We want to see how you are spending your time," Williams told the class. "Some of you will begin to understand your report cards when we break it down."

The exercise made Graciela realize that she was spending three hours playing games and chatting with friends on the computer and only one hour on homework. "I'm going to spend at least an hour and a half on homework now," she said.

It's one of many steps she's taken since starting GEAR UP. She's also making a point not to bring drawing paper into her math class so she won't be tempted to doodle, for instance, and carefully filing her notes in a binder so she can find them when it's time to study for a quiz.

For all Graciela's good intentions, her progress has been uneven. Her shaky grasp of last year's math concepts has made it all the harder for her to absorb this year's lessons, and by the close of the first quarter, she was failing. She also missed assignments in subjects she's usually good at, such as social studies and language arts, lowering her grade to a D and C-plus, respectively.

But this quarter, she said, "I'm trying a lot harder to juggle my assignments better. I'm really paying attention in class. I'm doing the work more."

And the experience of previous GEAR UP participants offers reason for hope.

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