Dare to dream

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May 052011
 
Authors: Andrew Carrera

Jeanette Yañez’s mother died when she was 14 years old. Now 17 and a junior at Poudre High School, she’s thinking about applying for college and missing her more than ever.

“My dad came over from Mexico,” she said. “He only had a second grade education there. He knows what he needs to know, like for the numbers for gas, and ‘I live at this place.’ He doesn’t know the difference between high school and junior high and college and stuff.”

Her mom used to talk to her about higher education. Now, Yañez is the one to start the discussion at home –– and her dad’s supportive of her dreams. But in the end, the college hopeful said that her household’s unfamiliarity with the maze of requirements, deadlines, rules and regulations puts her at a disadvantage in the application process.

“I feel as though it’s all up to me sometimes,” she said.

It’s for students like these that CSU’s Dream Project exists. The student-initiated campus group, started in November of 2009, helps local low-income and first-generation high school students through the college application process by putting them through a two-year mentor program.

Dream Project mentors meet at least once a week with their scholars who walk them through the college admissions process based on when colleges are expecting different things. Résumés, recommendation letters, essays and financial aid are all addressed, according to when they are due.

“I want to go to college,” said Yañez, who just started the program. “(My mentor) has been really helpful in answering my questions and just supporting me.”

The Dream Project recently graduated its first group of 20 scholars on Thursday at the Ingersoll Event Center. All say they will attend institutions of higher education in the fall.

“We’re creating a college-going mindset,” said the group’s adviser, Michelle Wellman. “Privileged households already have that. Their conversations are about if you’re going –– it’s when you’re going, and so we’re literally creating an entire culture.”

The group also plays host to events like “admissions weekend” where participants stay at CSU for three days and have three applications ready to send off by the time they go home.

The group appealed to CSU administrators for funding and after presenting to university decision-makers, “they were totally on board,” Wellman said. As part of the university’s yearlong budget process, officials have provided $10,000 for the Dream Project for fiscal year 2011-12.

This funding will provide for workbooks, program expenses, travel and for the program to expand from Poudre High School to Fort Collins High School. Last year, CSU provided $5,000 for the program, according to CSU Spokesman Brad Bohlander.

The group has increased in size over the past two years. Its pool of mentors has gone from 16 to 40 people, and its class of scholars went up from 20 to 120 individuals.

“I come from a divorced family, and I lost my dad a couple years ago. I come from a single parent, and no one on my mom’s side has gone to college,” said Rachel Cansler, a senior at Poudre High School who was part of the Dream Project’s inaugural class. She plans to attend Front Range Community College and transfer to CSU to receive a degree in culinary sciences.

“It’s helped a lot with stuff I didn’t know about college –– especially applying to scholarships and applying to colleges and helping me with my essays,” she said.

Her high school counselor helped her as well but had 250 other students to attend to.
“They do what they can,” Cansler said. “But my mentor had me on top of my work constantly.”

The original Dream Project finds its roots in the University of Washington at Seattle. Its founder, after emigrating from Africa to the United States, was taken aback by the lack of diversity on campus. When four CSU students caught wind of his efforts to encourage disadvantaged high-school students to attend college, they decided to implement the idea in Fort Collins.

“I was a first generation student, and I didn’t have that support that I felt like I needed to make it here,” Muñoz said, explaining why she helped start the group. “I was planning on going to a community college, and once I got here I was like, ‘Wow, these students have probably had the same experience.’”

_Reporter Andrew Carrera can be reached at news@collegian.com. _

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