Four years ago, Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood (CVPromise) brought together a collaboration of partners focused on supporting family, education, health, and community. The goal was to inspire all children in the Castle Park neighborhood to achieve academic excellence and aspire to a college and career track. The Promise Neighborhood model was not a new concept; it builds on successful efforts already underway in communities nationwide. In Castle Park, CVPromise introduced new services and programs and enhanced existing efforts.
CVPromise’s comprehensive plan includes an Academic Advocate program. On the campuses of the middle and high schools, Academic Advocates work one-on-one with students including his/her family, school counselor and teachers to provide not only emotional and informational support but help create a personal plan for a successful pathway to college and career.
When the program began, about 250 middle and high school students were partnered with an academic advocate. Today, more than 1,000 students are benefiting from the services. About 300 of these students are enrolled in two and four-year universities with a 93% retention rate.
As a senior at Castle Park High School, Gabriela Gonzalez was determined to go to college. Her parents had instilled a drive to do better, ask questions and seek answers. But, the idea of college was intimidating and confusing. Although her dream was to attend the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), it seemed like community college was the only answer for her, until she met her Academic Advocate.
“She encouraged me to apply to my one dream school,” Gonzalez said. “She told me that possibilities are infinite and not to hold back. I’m glad I listened.”
Gonzalez was accepted to UCLA, and in the fall of 2014, she began her studies in Sociology. Gerardo Hernandez became her post-secondary advocate and met with her on the UCLA campus soon after she moved into her dorm.
“There was so much going on. Life was happening,” Gonzalez said. “Having Gerardo meet with me on campus was super helpful. I know my parents felt comfortable knowing that someone was helping me in ways they just couldn’t because they had not gone to college.”
In the last three years, Hernandez helped her with time and money management, study tips and moral support and encouragement.
“My first year was tough. I was struggling with a chemistry class and thought I was going to fail. I couldn’t call my parents. They worry. I missed home, and I felt lonely and lost,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez called Hernandez. He too was first in his family and had experienced the same struggles. This was reassuring and comforting to Gonzalez.
“He reminded me that I was at UCLA for a reason. That I was chosen from thousands and that yes, it was going to be challenging. He taught me that falling was okay because we can pick ourselves up. It was what I needed. Every student needs that,” Gonzalez said.
Studies show that first-generation students are less likely to start college directly out of high school and an average age of enrollment is 22. Only 27 percent of first generation students graduate in four years.
Gonzalez, 21, is on course to graduate from UCLA in Spring 2018. She is one of six CVPromise students trying to complete their studies within four years.
Gonzalez is also a point of contact for current CVPromise students interested in attending UCLA. She provides tours on campus and answers student’s questions about college life, moving out of the Chula Vista community, navigating her studies and more. Her younger brother is currently a senior at Castle Park High School.
“I want my brother to know that college is more than just academics. It’s real life, and he shouldn’t be afraid of asking for help. Everyone needs it,” Gonzalez said. “I also want him to know that he is going to have lots on his plate and that he won’t be alone. He has his sisters and parents that now know more about college, and we are here to help.”
Gonzalez hopes to return to Chula Vista and pay it forward. With her degree, she wants to help other young people working hard to achieve their dream.
“These have been the most challenging years of my life. It’s bittersweet to know that it’s close to being over. I know I’ll look back and say, ‘Wow that was a ride.”
CVPromise is proud to partner with Castle Park Elementary, Castle Park Middle, Castle Park High School, Hilltop Middle and Hilltop High School to bring new opportunities and pathways for success for their students and families. For more information, visit CVPromise.org or call (619) 422-5005. Chavez is CVPromise Communication Consultant.