May 19, 2020 12:00 pm

How do we prepare first-generation graduates for college?

For high school students in eastern North Philadelphia, it means becoming both college-ready and college-capable.

Congreso and Penn State Abington have partnered on a new dual enrollment program that helps prepare students for college and earns them college credits.

(Courtesy photo)

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It turns out, college is not a language that everyone speaks. Jake Benfield, an associate professor at Penn State Abington, found this out first-hand.

“When I helped sponsor a group of high school students to visit campus through a partnership with Congreso de Latinos Unidos, we came to the realization that none of the aspects of applying to college were coming across,” said Benfield. “It hit us that these would all be first-generation college students. We need to teach them about college first before we can teach them about getting into college.”

Congreso and Penn State Abington have partnered on a new dual enrollment program that seeks to prepare high school students in the neighborhoods served by Congreso for college. The program culminates in earning college credits and a Penn State certificate at no cost to them or their families.

“We have a few classes taught at Congreso every semester, multiple cohorts and a summer program where they come up and take additional classes but also get some college readiness and professional development,” Benfield said. “These are things that most high schools are just not equipped to do one-on-one with students. It’s that kind of attention that sees them grow as academics and gives them confidence. That not only are they college-ready but that they are college-capable.”

On top of graduating from high school with earned college credits, the program also provides students with an opportunity to experience college life. Rita Mejias, an assistant teaching professor at Penn State Abington, is one of the instructors for the program. She noted that many students and their parents needed coaching through concepts that they have never dealt with before.

“It might seem strange to think about if you live in a wealthy and educated part of town, but many of the students and parents needed help understanding how to apply to college,” she said. “Even how to pay it sometimes, because they never did. On top of that many of them didn’t even speak English and so we had to translate it two ways most times.”

The dual enrollment students reflect Congreso’s clients in that the majority are Latino. Though there is a mix, many do have a language barrier to face.

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“But don’t think that it stopped them,” said Dorothy Smith, manager of programmatic employment services at Congreso. “They bonded together as a group and got through it together. All the students are coming in with a plan. They just don’t have the resources to accomplish those plans.”

According to a study from The Philadelphia Collaborative for Health Equity, bachelor’s degree attainment in the Latino communities in eastern North Philadelphia is at a third of the national rate.

“Not having examples of college degree attainment in their families or in their neighbors, really impacts their realities,” Benfield said. “I think of my own daughters. They have been on college campuses since they were infants. There won’t be anything new or novel to them. We should give everyone that kind of opportunity.”


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