When Renee Maldonado was in high school, she found that she hadn't taken the right courses to apply for college because her counselor didn't expect someone from her background to be interested in higher education.
Now, Maldonado is director of the UC Davis MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) schools program, working with middle schools in the Vallejo and Woodland Unified School Districts to help educationally disadvantaged children get on track for college.
The children MESA targets face multiple obstacles, Maldonado said. Some problems are academic, such as poor math teaching, while others are more cultural: students and their parents simply have no experience with higher education, what it can offer or how to get it.
"We're focused on helping students take control of their lives. Students who can problem solve are those who achieve," Maldonado said. By developing critical thinking and an awareness of alternatives, students are better equipped to overcome obstacles, rather than being discouraged by early setbacks, she said.
The UC Davis program now has 333 students enrolled from sixth grade through high school, with a total of 500 expected by the end of the year. A second arm, the MESA Engineering Program (MEP), helps minority and disadvantaged youth cope with college life, providing mentoring, tutoring and support services to help students make it through to graduation.
Statewide, the 32-year old MESA program currently reaches over 32,000 students. Eighty-five percent of MESA's graduating high school seniors go on to college, compared to 50 percent of all California high school seniors. The program, which targets low-performing schools, not individual students or ethnic groups, is supported by more than 200 tech-based companies, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco. It recently won a prestigious "Innovations in American Government "award from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Ford Foundation and the Council for Excellence in Government.
Participating schools introduce "MESA periods." These can be either after-school classes or integrated into existing classes. Typically, one teacher working closely with the program will take 30 students per grade level for the extra class.
The students take part in local and regional "MESA Days" on college campuses, where they compete against other schools and see what college is like at first hand.
Teacher Anne Holt runs the MESA program at Lee Junior High School in Woodland. The program runs as an after-school science club. UC Davis students come to the school to tutor in math and science.
"The tutors are from the same backgrounds, and they're real good role models for our kids," Holt said. "They see them and say, `Gee, I could do that.'"
Currently, Holt's students are working on projects such as model cars powered by mousetraps, balsawood gliders and crystal-growing, in preparation for the local pre-MESA Day at UC Davis.
At Springstown Middle School in Vallejo, Rosalind Vance has seen participation climb since the school's MESA program began two years ago. With 60 children participating in grades 7 through 9, she has a waiting list of kids wanting to sign up. Half of the students in the program are already targeting UC Davis for college applications, she said.
"When they got to see the options and opportunities at UC Davis, they were really excited," she said. "It's an awesome program."
A major role for MESA is to supply the whole culture of going to college, Holt said. Advice on what classes to take, how to write an application, how to seek financial aid, how to take an SAT test is all invaluable for children who may be the first in their families to seek higher education.
Once MESA's target students get to college, they face a whole new set of obstacles, said Sandra Frye-Lucas, director of the UC Davis MEP center. Those can range from poor academic preparation to feelings of isolation.
MEP helps students build networks of peers, mentors and friends, Frye-Lucas said. Minority students in an institution like UC Davis have to learn to "mainstream" and not isolate themselves, she said, but MEP can ease the transition. That can range from suggesting somewhere for an African American woman to get her hair done properly, to finding a peer to tutor her in calculus, to introducing her to the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.
MEP works extensively with student groups such as NSBE and the Chicano and Latino Engineers and Scientists Society, Frye-Lucas said. These societies help students learn about the contributions of their ethnic group to science and engineering and help counteract the pressure to be "cool" rather than "nerdy," she said.
"It provides an opportunity for them to celebrate and use their diversity," Frye-Lucas said.
MEP also gets engineering students in contact with industry in their first year, through internships, scholarships, site visits and job sharing, Frye-Lucas said.
Rebecca Ramirez is one UC Davis alumnus who benefited from the support of MEP. Years after dropping out for family reasons, Ramirez re-entered UC Davis as a transfer student from Santa Rosa Junior College, majoring in electrical engineering.
Working part-time and raising a family, Ramirez faced a long commute, a heavy course load and a lack of peer role models. Through MEP, she met other students in similar situations and was set up with tutors who had already taken the same courses.
"I was very, very impressed. The support system was great, like a family," she said. Advice from MEP tutors helped her to organize her study program to make the best use of limited time.
Ramirez is now an electrical engineer with Cierra Photonics in Santa Rosa and volunteers at local schools for MESA and other outreach programs.
For Hispanics, cultural expectations and stereotyping are now more of a problem than outright discrimination, Ramirez thinks.
"Kids aspire to be carpenters or mechanics, things that they are familiar with. They don't have a roadmap for college," she said.