SEO Scholars at work in the classroom during the program’s Saturday Academy (Photo/courtesy Bethany Bandera)

How one organization gets Latino students to college – and makes sure they succeed

Most kids have had enough of school and classwork Monday through Friday. But not Irwin Tejeda.

Tejeda spent afternoons on weekdays and Saturdays studying in the classroom. He was one of 476 high school students who gave up his entire Saturday from 8:30am to 4:30pm to study with SEO Scholars. SEO (Sponsors for Educational Opportunity) Scholars is a program that helps low-income public high school students in New York City and San Francisco get into and through America’s competitive colleges.

The supplemental education program gives motivated students extra mentoring and classes at Saturday school in order to close the racial achievement gap. Once students are in the privately funded program, all books, transportation, college visits, and other expenses are covered.

Nationwide, Hispanic students typically score 150-300 points less on the SAT than other students do. According to SEO Scholars Director Millie Hau, that is not the case for their Hispanic Scholars.

“Our students match or even outperform the national average,” Hau says.

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But Tejeda attributes his success getting into University of Michigan, the college of his dream, to more than just taking the actual classes. He says there was a culture of graduation unlike what he encountered at school that motivated him to succeed.

“At my public school in New York, people had started prioritizing other things like fashion. But everyone in SEO is there for a reason and working toward what they want,” Tejeda says.

However, test scores aren’t always the problem. A recent Brookings Institution report found that even low income students with the top test scores and grades aren’t applying to the nation’s best colleges. Only 34 percent of high achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended one of the country’s most selective colleges.

Deisi Cuate, a former SEO Scholar and recent graduate of Wheaton College, says that she wasn’t aware of how to go about the college process and may have ended up going to her local community college without the help of the program. She says the program exposed her to new experiences she didn’t even know she was missing.

“I was always a good student, I had a pretty good GPA and I knew I wanted to go to college before SEO,” Cuate says. “But SEO was my lifesaver. I’m a first generation college graduate and to have that support, it really helped having someone guide me through the college process. I might have just gone to school in my city.”

Hau says that many low income students that go through SEO Scholars assume that a competitive college is out of their reach.

“It takes a while to hit home with the parents that [their kids] can go to other schools, private schools, which sometimes even have better financial aid and private scholarships because of their endowments,” she explains.

Supplementary education programs are nothing new; hundreds of schools and nonprofits exist to give students extra help with the college process. But this program pushes the boundaries, not only helping students get into college but through college with workshops focusing on networking and study skills.

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The program boasts a hundred percent college acceptance rate with a 95 percent college graduation rate within six year. Around 80 percent of scholars are the first generation in their families to attend a four year institution.

“We give them psychosocial support, help them scheduling office hours (which is something a lot of our students aren’t familiar with), help them secure internships during the summers,” Hau says.

For Cuate, one of the biggest differences between her and the rest of her college classmates was having an extra support system to keep her focused and accountable for her grades.

“They have incentives for your GPA, both money and bragging rights, if you make the Dean’s List and if you get that A,” Cuate says. “So that motivated me to be at the top of my game.”

RELATED: Organization makes college dreams for young Latinas a reality 

The organization turns 50 years old this year, and ninth grade program manager Christina Velez says she hopes to see the program grow.

“Every year we always see more applications than we can admit. We want to double in size in San Francisco and New York,” Velez says.

Tejeda also hopes that more kids will be able to eventually get access to the same kind of support he received.

“Honestly it’s all about the extra prep. I wasn’t complaining in college when I had to read 50 to 100 pages a night, because I was already used to cramming,” he recalls.

Tejeda, who will be interning with Morgan Stanley this summer, says that SEO inspired him to carve out his path.

“Now I can create the future that I want for myself,” he says. “They really helped me crystallize my vision so that I can reach my goals.”

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