College life comes with many do-or-die moments, and Corine Forward vividly remembers a junior-year night of desperation when she felt her future hung in the balance.
Sitting on the floor of a tiny room at her home-stay in Ghana, sweating in 90-degree tropical heat, she was working on an imminently due law school application. Anxious about her words and her fate, the first-generation college student got on the line after midnight with someone familiar: her high school career counselor, Eun-Mee Jeong.
Jeong, that voice of reassurance for Forward, heads a team at Eastside College Preparatory, a Bay Area private school that has pioneered a college and career mentoring program with impressive muscle. Eastside’s focus on its alumni has enabled the school — which does not consider grades or test scores in admission, but seeks out students from low-income families who would be the first in their families to attend college — to succeed where others stumble.
“The college coaching program is by far the most influential part of my Eastside experience,” said Forward, who as a 2015 high school graduate is in the first class to have benefited from four years of the mentoring program.
Nationally, just 11% of first-generation students from low-income families complete college. In contrast, 80% of Eastside graduates earn their bachelor’s degree or are on track to do so, according to the school. Among those who participated in alumni mentoring, 79% were in either professional jobs or graduate school within six months of college graduation. The cost of support for its alumni: $800,000 each year.
As more schools grapple with how to ensure that low-income graduates succeed in college and beyond, Eastside’s experience shows how an intentional, intensive, and long-term investment can pay off — something possible for the intimate, well-funded private school, but mostly out of reach for public high schools with tight budgets and thin counseling staffs.
Since its founding in East Palo Alto, a high-poverty island in a sea of Silicon Valley prosperity, Eastside has worked relentlessly on getting its students to master a rigorous curriculum. The school saw early success in its graduation rate, with 100% of graduates enrolling in college.
But as it followed its alumni, Eastside found a wide range of outcomes, even among those at prestigious colleges, Principal Chris Bischof said. “Students lacked the social capital and network to transition to a career.”
The school set out to fix that. With few models nationally to follow, seven years ago it fleshed out its alumni support program to help students navigate the challenges ahead.
Eastside assigns each of its graduates two coaches. A college coach may check on academics, social life, or homesickness, helping cushion what can be a hard landing on unfamiliar campuses of privilege. A career coach helps arrange paid summer internships, discern career goals, and map out a path to reach them.
“Our goal is to develop proactive and resilient job-seekers,” Bischof said.
Forward, who graduated from Georgetown University in May, applied to 13 internships in the summer after her sophomore year, and received 12 rejections. But she snagged her dream offer, as an investigative intern for the Washington, D.C., public defender services.
Eastside then helped her surmount what would have been a game-ender for many others — the internship was unpaid — by providing her a stipend for the summer.
“There are just so many challenges, often out of students’ control” for first-generation college students, like crises at home and pressure to come back to help the family, Bischof said. “There are just so many ways a student can get derailed.”
The dismal college-completion rate for low-income students has motivated some school operators to adopt new strategies for helping graduates stay in college. The charter network KIPP, for example, launched the “KIPP Through College” program to ensure students graduate and head toward fulfilling jobs. Its efforts have increased the network’s college persistence rate.
Other schools have begun to develop home-grown mentorship programs. James Lick High in San Jose and Aspire Lionel Wilson charter in Oakland each have partnered with the nonprofit iMentor to provide a mentor to each of its juniors and seniors. The partnership continues into the first year of college.
A charter school in New Jersey has launched a similar initiative, hiring an alumni coordinator to visit students at their colleges.
Bischof believes that Eastside’s mentoring program can be replicated, but he knows better than anyone that doing so would not be easy. Eastside’s annual budget is $8 million for 255 students, including one-third who live in its dorms. The $800,000 its spends annually on its alumni program supports the youngest of its now 714 alumni.
Eastside uses that money to begin offering support while students are still in high school, with sessions on interviewing, careers, networking, and perhaps most important, finances. Its team focuses on helping students evaluate whether their families can afford a college, given their particular financial package.
“We make sure students are not set up for failure when it comes to finances,” Jeong said. That means not graduating with overwhelming debt. “If they’re doing work they love but they’re worrying about having a roof over their head, that’s not fulfilling.”
Demanding classes, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, also groom Eastsiders for college.
Vanessa Tostado, a newly minted Wesleyan graduate, said Eastside’s writing requirements, including a 25-page senior year research paper, prepped her well. “I was used to producing a large amount of work,” she said.
But multiple obstacles can trip up first-generation students. What coaches aim to do is develop skills and guide students through the messy transition to adulthood.
Tostado, the daughter of a house cleaner and a landscaper in East Palo Alto and the oldest of six children, entered college intent on double majoring in pre-med and computer science. Her eventual decision to narrow her focus was wrenching. But she built such a strong relationship with her career coach Leigh Nagy Frasher, she said, that “I feel super comfortable telling them about my shortcomings.”
And she’s grown from someone who struggled to make decisions (“That’s why I don’t like shopping so much, because I don’t know what to buy”) to a focused and confident graduate who will start in September as an engineer at Palo Alto Networks, a cybersecurity firm.
“The high-school me would not even recognize this person I am now,” she said.
Parents who have harped on children only to be dismissed as annoying may wonder how Eastside coaches steer students without ordering, nagging, or quitting in frustration.
Both mentors and students said it’s all about building trust, offering suggestions, demonstrating care — and being non-judgmental.
“They’re not going to your interview for you. They’re not going to write your résumé for you,” said Chaslie Lamas, an Eastside alum from Richmond who graduated in March from Santa Clara University. “It’s a two-way street. You have to put effort into it.”
Her coach Helen Kwan has helped her overcome anxiety about interviewing. “She helps me take it slow, answer questions and not waste time and make it uncomfortable for the interviewer,” Lamas said.
It helps, too, that Eastside’s goal is also the students’ goal.
“Our goal is what students are doing 10 to 15 years after Eastside: Are they living meaningful lives and contributing to their community?” Bischof said.
Forward believes she’s on track for the answer to be a resounding yes. This summer she has returned to Oakland to work as a server at famed Fenton’s ice cream parlor. The daughter of a disabled Army veteran and a nursing assistant, she was accepted to Georgetown law school — the application she sweated over while in Ghana — and also UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, but she’s chosen to head to Columbia University’s law school in the fall.
Jeong offered to help her drive later from D.C. to New York.
“I am blessed to have this whole community,” Forward said.
“What we are finding is we never really let go of our students,” Jeong said. “If they want to talk to us, we will talk to them.”