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April 8, 2013

APL Volunteers Prep Kids for College

Backpack mapper

Marysol Encarnación was a 10th grader at Baltimore's Eastern Technical High School in 2010 with a strong GPA and solid work ethic, but she didn't have anyone to guide her through the complex college application process. Add difficult family circumstances to the picture and it's easy to see why she struggled to pursue her dream of a college education.

That changed when Encarnación found APL's MESA College Prep Program (CPP), and with the help of the Lab's Will Gray, Karla Roncal, and a team of 75 APL and community volunteers, she was able to turn the tide—enrolling in Johns Hopkins University as a neuroscience major last September. Once she is armed with her college degree, she hopes to pay it forward and help others. "I believe that treatment and research in the medical field would be my best way to help people who struggle with mental illness, like some people close to me have, so I am premed and hope to double major with psychology."

CPP exists to support students like Encarnación, who have the desire and academic potential to reach college but lack the mentoring and resources necessary to succeed. Program organizers expect to serve their largest number of students this year and say they need more volunteers. Since 2009, the program has helped 76 students with the college application process, and all are either in college or on track to apply during their senior year of high school. Those who are in college aren't simply attending—they are excelling, boasting an average GPA of 3.5.

"I feel like the most important benefit I gained from CPP was self-confidence," says Encarnación. "The CPP teachers were always pushing students to do their best." One activity had Encarnación and others label the schools they were interested in attending as "dream," "reach," "match," or "safety" schools. She labeled one university a "reach," because it was one of the nation's top schools, but after she turned in her paper, the instructor called her over and surprised her. "She said, ‘Marysol, I think this is more of a match school for you. According to your grades and extracurricular activities, this would most definitely be a match school,'" Encarnación recalls. "She seemed so certain and genuine when she told me this that I believed her without hesitation. And since then, I applied myself more often and more freely in my work."

The program is the brainchild of Gray and Roncal, married APL engineers who launched it just four years ago with only 14 students because they knew their position as young STEM professionals gave them the resources and volunteer base to help bright young people missing out on opportunities. Volunteer needs have grown with the program: In 2012, 75 volunteers helped 24 students; this year, they plan to include 30 students and close to 100 volunteers. "The more committed volunteers we have, the more individualized attention we can give our students, and the more students we can reach. An important part of the program is one-on-one attention and personalized relationships that we build over time," says Roncal. Joining forces with APL-sponsored Maryland MESA (a national STEM program that engages students in hands-on applications of math, engineering, science, and technology concepts through projects, college prep, and competitions) in 2009 and the APL STEM office in 2012 has strengthened the program even further.

CPP provides individualized advice, assists with college applications, and gives students tools to succeed in college. The program has several major components: selecting a college, applying to college, financial aid, planning for success, professionalism, and test preparation. Motivational guest speakers, fun team projects, and campus tours are also important aspects of the course. An all-volunteer staff mentors students and helps them overcome barriers.

"CPP needs a wide range of volunteers," says Gray. "We need people to help with resume and essay writing, people to help with SAT prep, and people who can help to lead students through the somewhat overwhelming college application process. We also need staff who are fresh out of college, since they will relate more easily to students. But mostly, we need people who are committed to making a difference, because these kids are depending on them."

Encouragement and Confidence

The program is held at APL on Saturdays during the summer for 14 sessions. CPP targets high school students of all ages, especially those who plan to become the first in their family to attend a four-year college, or students from low-income backgrounds and those who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

"My experience with CPP helped me know that there are opportunities for everything as long as you take chances—especially for a first-generation college student," says Violet Haya, a 2009 CPP participant and junior at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus.

Haya, now a pre-nursing biology major, attended Wilde Lake High School in Howard County and began working with CPP in her senior year. She was encouraged by a CPP alumni guest speaker who shared her own personal challenges. "She told us that she had become a chemistry major in college, when it used to be her worst subject in high school," explains Haya. "It made me want to do something I liked even if it didn't come so easily."

Gray and Roncal are looking for volunteers who will make an impact on CPP's 2013 participants, just as Haya's and Encarnación's mentors did for them. APL staff and community volunteers can apply by April 17 and will find additional details about the program and volunteer opportunities at www.collegeprepprogram.org/volunteer.