Written by Alex Garcia, San Fernando Valley Sun Contributing Writer
Wednesday, 14 October 2009 -- Ernesto Morales still remembers the knock on the door from Project GRAD visitors during the fall of his 9th grade year at San Fernando Middle School.
"They sat down with my guardians and thoroughly explained to them the importance of going to college and the scholarship," he said of the visit that took place during the annual Walk for Success organized by the organization that works with San Fernando High School students to help them go on to college.
Morales, now 21, said he took the advice to the heart, helping him obtain the $6,000 scholarship from Project GRAD and securing a college education— the first in his family to reach it.
"My experience with Project GRAD has been great," said the senior at California State University Northridge (CSUN), where he pursues a degree in Business Management with a minor in Marketing. "They helped me with tutoring and gave me all the information I needed about college".
"They provided me with resources for filling out applications and decisions on choices I had for college. They provided support and encouragement," said Morales, whose life has been anything but easy. His father died of cancer when he was two-years-old and his mother and one of his sisters passed away in an auto accident when he was nine. He was left under the guardianship of his older brother, who raised him.
This Saturday, Morales will switch roles. He'll head out with dozens of other volunteers, promoting the importance of a college education and the opportunity for a $4,000 scholarship for keeping good grades as part of the annual Walk for Success.
"It feels great," he said of going out to inform others about the scholarship and the importance of college. "I want to help as many people in my neighborhood to go to college. How important that is and how it has changed things around in my family."
This is the 11th year where hundreds of volunteers, many of them Project GRAD scholars, their parents and educators fan out across the cities of San Fernando and Pacoima with such an endeavor."Traditionally, we have around 1,000 volunteers who spread out to visit the homes of students from the 12 family of schools that we target," said Gia Gordon, communications manager for Project GRAD.
"We knock on the door of sixth and eighth graders to talk to them about the importance of college and completing the college readiness curriculum," added Gordon.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where 71 percent of students are Latino, only 39 percent of Latino high school students graduate and only 20 percent of Latino students complete California's A-G college prep requirements.
Project GRAD benefits exclusively San Fernando High School students, all of whom are eligible for the scholarships when they enter the school in the 9th grade.
Project GRAD works with 13 LAUSD schools, including Maclay, Pacoima and San Fernando Middle Schools, and has a total student population of nearly 18,000.Approximately 97 percent of students are Latino and 50 percent of these students are Limited English Proficient.
Gordon said they initiated the program at San Fernando because "we wanted to work in underserved communities where college attendance was less than five percent."
However, the organization has improved that statistic for hundreds of students.
"We've given out scholarships to almost 1,000 kids who graduated from San Fernando High School," said Gordon. "Between 90-95 percent of them were the first in the family to go to college."
Currently, there are over 500 Project GRAD Scholars enrolled in college and nearly 200 who have graduated from college. The key to promoting higher learning is getting to students as early as possible. This weekend, Project GRAD volunteers hope to visit between 600 and 900 homes in the northeastern San Fernando Valley. Often, Project GRAD teams of four or five people visit homes where they talk to six and eight grade students about finishing high school and the possibility of receiving a college scholarship if they comply with certain requirements.
All photos courtesy of Project Grad
In order to receive a Project GRAD scholarship, students must complete the high school graduation curriculum and maintain a 2.5 grade point average (GPA). They must enroll in an accredited college within one year of graduation from high school and once in college, they must continue to maintain a minimum GPA, be enrolled full time (12 units per semester). They also have to be a peer ambassador on campus, encouraging other students in high school to attend college. They also must participate in a summer program that takes place the summer before their high school sophomore and junior year where they go through workshops on college preparation, field trips and can also get some college credits.
At a time of dwindling budgets and ever increasing college fees, Project GRAD offers a unique opportunity for students, helping them realize their college dreams, said Gordon.
"Our message is that anyone can make it to college and we're here to help," she said.
Morales, who dreams of opening his own business someday, wants to spread that message too.
"I would say to the students [and parents] to definitely open their doors [when Project GRAD comes calling] and listen to what we have to say," he said. "They might not be thinking about college right now, but years go by so fast that eventually it's going to come and a scholarship like this really helps."