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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.

Karla Maldonado, who was in a GEAR UP program run by the District school system between 2002 and 2008, didn't even consider going to college until her sophomore year at Roosevelt High School. A well-behaved but indifferent student, she assumed that she'd follow in the footsteps of her older brother, who went as far as high school before getting a job in construction with their Salvadoran-born father.

Then Maldonado's GEAR UP coordinators arranged for her to visit one of Penn State's campuses. She'd been on similar trips since middle school. But this time was different.

"I don't know how to explain it, except that I fell in love with the place," Maldonado said. "I knew this was somewhere I had to be."

Once college was her goal, she made the most of all the advice and resources. Her GEAR UP counselors were "like a second set of parents to me," Maldonado said. They set her up with free SAT-prep classes and a summer math program that enabled her to enroll in AP calculus her senior year.

Programs not protected

Such AP classes helped smooth Maldonado's transition to Penn State, where she's now a sophomore majoring in finance and earning mostly A's. Her parents pay about $8,000 of the $27,000 cost of tuition, room and board, and GEAR UP showed her how to cover the rest with government grants, loans and a university scholarship.

Even as researchers and Latino leaders take heart in the successes of efforts such as GEAR UP, they often bemoan their lack of reach and consistency. The program that was so instrumental to Maldonado's success no longer operates in the District. And once Graciela's program runs its course, there is no reason to assume that it will be renewed.

Graciela, at least, seems determined to get the most out of it. She's taken advantage of free tutoring in math and is slowly getting the hang of it. And although she still adores her Hello Kitty backpack, lately Graciela has been bringing another bag to school: a tote emblazoned with the blue and yellow logo of West Virginia University.

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