July 26, 2019

By Brian Sauer, Citywide Director of Education

For most youth from the communities that Boys & Girls Clubs serve, college is seen as a place for “other kids”. As Citywide Director of Education at Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco (BGCSF), it’s my job to chart a course around both the real and perceived obstacles that exist for kids and make success in college a reality for as many of our Club members as possible. I’m proud to say that BGCSF has a sound, multi-faceted strategy that helps all Club members move past the challenges they face to attend and succeed in post-secondary education. 

At BGCSF, we view it as core to our mission to help Club members get on the path to a college degree. In addition to the skill building and growth in knowledge that occur as a result of attending college, students also build long-term confidence for themselves and their families, and set an example for other family members and younger Club members. In a recent New York Times article, Catherine Suitor, Chief Advancement Officer for the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, stated: “A bachelor’s degree is the single most influential determinant in multigenerational change and ending the cycle of poverty.”  

79% of BGCSF youth come from low-income or extremely low-income families and few have family members who have successfully navigated the process to attend and graduate from college. The combination of financial barriers and an unclear path for how to navigate the college landscape is an intimidating, expensive, and time-consuming process. In addition, youth may face self-doubt or have important family obligations that create a near impossible pathway to success.

Middle school youth on a college tour at Sonoma State

Even when young people and their families fully understand and appreciate the long-term benefit of college and are motivated to embark on the journey, immediate needs can cause them to make choices that are beneficial for the family over the short-term. It’s understandable for youth to put the needs of family first, so we support youth and families in finding a way to make college possible, both academically and financially (see second part of this story). This support is important and the long-term benefits for both the student and the family are worth the sacrifices. 

While many college access programs work with youth that are already on a path to college, BGCSF works with youth from all points on the academic spectrum. While we serve a number of high-performing youth who will be accepted to some of the best colleges, many are not at that level. Many of our members have not stood out academically—lots have struggled through school for various reasons (i.e. lack of foundational learning from ages 0-5, language barriers, ramifications of poverty and community-violence, under-performing schools, etc.)—so they don’t get accepted to special college-bound programs.

Pacific Region Youth of the Year and 12-year member, Sabrina, and Jesse Hall, Site Director of BGCSF’s Visitacion Valley Clubhouse.

In my role, I work directly with both staff and youth to prepare members for academic success and to make college success attainable academically, financially, and even socially. Here is BGCSF’s strategy for helping our youth to succeed academically in K-12 and reach and succeed in college:

  1. Develop positive and caring relationships between staff and youth
  2. Provide a foundation for learning and skill achievement starting as young as 6 years old, and encourage and monitor year-to-year progress
  3. Introduce college at a young age, including beginning college tours in middle school, and making sure that college tours focus on the experience of first-generation students, low-income students, and students of color.
  4. Offer free professional tutoring to high school-age youth
  5. Support SAT prep and offer fee assistance for test and applications
  6. Partner with organizations that train our staff and equip them with the resources to help youth navigate the college acceptance and selection process
  7. Offer BGCSF college scholarships and assistance accessing outside scholarships, including partnerships with scholarship organizations and Boys & Girls Clubs of America scholarship opportunities tied directly to Club programs.

The development of strong relationships between skilled and caring staff and Club members is a crucial first step for short and long-term success. This is at the core of everything we do as youth developers. Our work building a pathway to college begins when youth first step foot into the Club as early as age 6. By helping youth succeed academically early in their lives, the idea of attending college is changed from being unrealistic (for youth and their families) to an option well-within their reach. 

BGCSF staff build relationships with Club youth to help them prepare for college.

In addition to positive relationships, BGCSF offers a number of programs and experiences to make college an attainable goal. Youth in middle and high school are able to attend college tours that introduce them to various campuses throughout California (small and large schools, public and private schools). Youth are able to interact with college students, admissions officers and financial aid staff to learn about the process of getting into and paying for college. BGCSF is also intentional about including a look at the opportunities and experiences for first-generation students and students of color on campus with the aim of having youth be able to visualize themselves as part of a campus community. Additionally, BGCSF offers support including SAT prep, fee assistance for tests and applications (applying to schools can cost as much as $70 per application), mentorship through the admissions process, scholarship support, as well as partnerships, like the UCSF Early Academic Outreach Program which provides resources and knowledge to keep staff up-to-date on the ever-changing college landscape.

Yaret, a 12-year member at BGCSF’s Mission Clubhouse.

A prime example of how commitment, mentorship, and a fundamental shift in confidence and self-perception can help a youth succeed is found in Yaret Bello, a 12-year member of BGCSF’s Mission Clubhouse. For Yaret, going to college was something she wanted but felt was just out of reach. After immigrating to the United States with her family when she was just six years old, Yaret encountered many academic struggles, including assimilating into the American school system and the need to learn English. Yaret also knew early on that if she had any hope of attending college, she would need to figure out how to pay for it. 

“My parents didn’t go to college, and we didn’t have money saved for me to go,” Yaret shared.

Through a powerful connection formed at the Mission Clubhouse, Yaret’s outlook on the future changed. Guided by the Mission Clubhouse Education Director, Omar Malik, Yaret was given the support she needed to accomplish her dream of going to college. This fall, Yaret will begin her first year at San Francisco State University, where she plans to pursue a career in either veterinary medicine or pediatric medicine. For Yaret and her family, going to college is a huge win!

To overcome the barriers to higher education that young people from at-risk circumstances face requires a strong commitment from the student and their family, and a dedicated support systems with adequate resources and skilled staff. Through our comprehensive approach, BGCSF has created a blueprint for how young people can make a college degree attainable. With dedication, steady encouragement, and sound financial counseling (see second part of this story), many of the hurdles that create apprehension towards college disappear. Taken as a whole, the impressive breadth of programs and experiences that BGCSF offers Bay Area youth ensures that higher education never has to be out of reach. 

Yaret with BGCSF staff member Omar Malik, who played an important mentorship role for her.

In the second part of this story, we discuss how sound fiscal planning allows youth to achieve their goal of a college degree. For more information about BGCSF’s academic support programs, visit kidsclub.org/education.

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