For many high school students, just applying to college can be a challenge. But for some, test scores and grade-point averages aren’t the biggest things standing between them and a college acceptance letter.
For a group of more than 130 students meeting at the White House this week, access to higher education was a road filled with major hurdles — financial worries at home, a lack of resources, physical challenges. First lady Michelle Obama’s “Beating the Odds” summit aims to bring together college-bound students from all walks of life so they can focus on expanding educational resources for people like them.
Obama has been encouraging students across the country to seek a college education through her “Reach Higher” initiative. The summit featured students who have shown great potential but also faced great challenges to make their college dreams a reality.
Nine students from the District attended the conference as they prepare to attend schools including Emory University, Temple University and University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Tyrea Covington, 18, grew up in Washington and is on her way to Norfolk State University, where she plans to study social work. While she was growing up, her family was homeless at times and moved frequently. Covington changed schools 13 times.
She is the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college. After coming this far, Covington said she’s ready for whatever challenges are ahead.
“I have no other choice but to tough it out,” Covington said. “Giving up is not in my plan at all.”
Obama — joined by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the rapper Wale, who performed for the students Thursday — spoke candidly during the event, reminding students not to spend their financial-aid money on stuff, to seek help from professors early and to “make some friends.”
“Failure is a necessary part of growth and success,” she said.
Wale, who was born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin in the District and grew up in suburban Maryland, graduated from Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg. He went on to attend Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, where he was recruited to play football. He had a tough time at first, he said, landing on academic probation and lacking confidence. He transferred to Virginia State University and then to Bowie State. Although he ultimately dropped out, he said the later college experiences taught him to better manage himself.
“College, essentially to me, was taking the training wheels off my life,” he said.
Manuel Contreras, the founder of 1vyG, the inter-Ivy, first-generation college students network, told the students that he really struggled when he started at Brown University. The professors and other students intimidated him, and he felt as if he didn’t belong.
Once he settled in, he said, he realized the importance of earning a degree.
“By getting an education, you are able to speak and walk between two very different worlds,” Contreras said. “You also, through an education, will gain access to power and opportunities to make a difference there.”
The summit also recognized the 70 organizations sponsoring the students. For Covington, it was the Urban Alliance, which helped her get her first job at Boston Consulting Group.
Isaac Guerrero, 18, received similar help from Opportunity Network. Guerrero, who will be attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge this fall, is a fan of math and science and wants to explore computer engineering. He is also skilled in Chinese, completing the Advanced Placement class his sophomore year and keeping up with it on his own since then. This summer, he is an intern at NASA, where he is studying climate science and orbital patterns.
Guerrero grew up in a poor area of New York with his family of seven, and he said the odds were often against him. His family makes little money and lives in a small apartment, and he said he found it difficult to learn what he’d need to do to make it to college.
“Academically, I’m not statistically expected to exceed in school,” Guerrero said. “I’ve always been thankful because my parents have taught me to look on the bright side of things, so I never really focused on it.”
Guerrero said that getting into any college would have been difficult without the guidance of Opportunity Network, a nonprofit group based in New York. Before his junior year, when he joined OppNet, he didn’t even know that MIT existed.
But that’s the type of gap OppNet works to bridge. The organization helps high-achieving students navigate the college application process, secure internships to gain experience and ultimately get into a good school.
Getting into, and through, college is tough enough, but after that, there’s still no guarantee for the future. According to OppNet, less than 10 percent of low-income students who start college will graduate and find jobs. For all young graduates in 2014, the unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, with underemployment at 16.8 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Jessica Pliska, co-founder and chief executive of OppNet, said her organization wants to increase what they call “career fluency.”
“These are students who are motivated to succeed but have no access to the resources to do it,” she said.