Roger Mensah-Cooley, 17, speaks at an event celebrating his coming high school graduation. He said his mother came to the United States from Ghana with aspirations of becoming a nurse. She wasn’t able to accomplish that, but Mensah-Cooley said his success “makes her struggle here worth it.” (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

By the time Esther Garcia reached her senior year of high school, she had built an impressive brag sheet. She was co-founder of a community service club that collects art supply donations and helps the homeless. She ran cross-country and took the most rigorous classes at her Northern Virginia high school, maintaining a 3.9 GPA.

The 18-year-old had always envisioned college as part of her life, cheered along by family members who encouraged her to pursue opportunities that were beyond their reach. But when it came time to apply to college, overwhelmed by the glut of forms and paperwork, Garcia found herself in a place familiar to many students who are the first in their families to attend a four-year college — or the first even to apply.

“I was full panic mode,” recalled Garcia, who is set to graduate from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County. “There were so many moments where I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ ”

She discovered help from a surprising source: the developer of the affordable housing community where she lives.

Garcia found herself in front of Milenka Coronel, a college and career adviser whose office is tucked in the community center at the Gates of Ballston, a collection of garden-style affordable apartments where Garcia lives. Coronel, whose office walls are decorated with pennants from college campuses across Virginia and beyond, set a plan in motion to help Garcia get into college.

Coronel works for AHC Inc., an affordable housing developer with properties across the Washington region, including 24 in Arlington. The organization runs after-school programs, tutoring for teens, and a college and career readiness program, which Coronel leads.

She’s a lifeline for young residents, many of whom are the children of immigrants with limited experience in the country’s higher education system. Some parents, Coronel said, may have taken college classes in another country or pursued an associate degree but are less versed with four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

The affordable housing developer connects high school students with mentors who help sharpen college essays, decipher financial aid forms and hit scholarship deadlines. It’s the type of help that might otherwise elude families who live in apartments run by AHC. To qualify for a unit, residents can earn up to 60 percent of the area’s median income, about $60,000 for a family of four in Arlington, according to the company.

Housing and education are critical to helping residents build stable lives, said Celia Slater, spokeswoman for AHC. The education initiative started 25 years ago as an after-school program and grew as students aged and their needs changed.

On Thursday, AHC celebrated the achievements of 24 high school seniors in Arlington with a banquet dinner inside a community center. All were headed for college, and all were the first in their families to do so in the United States.

Nationally, first-generation students were about one-third of the U.S. undergraduate population in 2011-2012, according to a 2018 federal report. The path to graduation is often rockier for those who are the first in their family to go to college — those students who do enroll can’t rely on their parents’ experiences to navigate campus and may possess other characteristics associated with dropping out, such as coming from low-income households.


Esther Garcia, 18, prepares for a banquet celebrating her impending graduation from high school. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Most of Garcia’s peers at Washington-Lee have parents or siblings who attended college and could guide them through the application process, she said.

Garcia’s mother, Ilca Garcia, immigrated to the United States in high school and gave birth to Garcia before graduating from Yorktown High in Arlington. Her grandmother is illiterate, and her grandfather did not go beyond grade school in Guatemala. Her success has meant “everything” to her family, said Garcia, who also juggles a hostess job at a Mexican restaurant.

“They all kind of live through me, I guess,” she said. “It means a lot to them that I have interests and I’m not working 24/7 and that I can live a life and have the opportunity to go to college.”

Ilca Garcia said she had pushed the value of education on her daughters since they were young, bringing them on trips to the public library to read when she wasn’t working.

“I’m a single mom, so whatever I wanted to do when I was young, that age, I couldn’t do it,” the cafeteria worker said. “They have to study hard and don’t be the way that I am now.”

Roger Mensah-Cooley, a 17-year-old at Yorktown, said his mother came to the United States from Ghana with aspirations of becoming a nurse. She wasn’t able to accomplish that, but Mensah-Cooley said his success “makes her struggle here worth it.”

When it was time to apply for college and scholarships, Mensah-Cooley met weekly with his mentor, Joshua Kearns, following a timeline for applications provided by AHC. The teenager said Kearns kept him on track.

“He takes my success as his own, and it really means a lot,” said Mensah-Cooley, who is headed for George Mason University with hopes of becoming a mechanical engineer. “At times, he sees more potential in me than I see in myself. . . . If he sees it and I don’t see it in myself, there’s got to be something there.”

With help from her mentor, Zaynab Malik, Garcia narrowed her list of top colleges. She knew she wanted a strong foundation in the liberal arts and a school that wasn’t too far — she’d considered schools in the Midwest but decided against them because she worried about travel costs.

She was accepted to James Madison University and applied for the school’s Centennial Scholars Program, which helps offset the cost of tuition, housing and meals.

Garcia was in her living room in April, breathlessly refreshing her email for news about the scholarship. She told herself she would refresh the page once more before turning away from the screen, when a message appeared: She got the scholarship.

She told her mother and, together, they cried.


Sarish Zahid, 18, gets help with her mortarboard from her younger sister, Mahvash Zahid, at the graduation banquet for students in the AHC education program. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)