by Lillian Mongeau
Teenagers from across the western states are using Monterey Bay as a science classroom this summer. It's part of a national program that helps prepare low-income kids for college.
It's 7:00 am at Pigeon Point, a rocky beach 30 miles north of Santa Cruz. A chilly grey mist hovers over the ocean as 52 high school students grab clipboards and buckets and clamber into the frigid waters. Student Kajdro Ned is standing on the shore, shivering in a short-sleeved wetsuit.
"I feel like a marine biologist. Like I got promoted. From a high school student, to a marine biologist," she laughs.
That's exactly what marine biology instructor Amanda Cohen wants to hear. Clad in a wetsuit of her own, she's handing out equipment and urging kids towards the water.
"So, get a bucket, get a quadrant and go as far out," she directs.
She says she hopes the students will take the opportunity to discover what's out there.
"It's one thing for them to see it in the aquarium. It's another thing to get out here and discover what's on the rocks, what's under the rocks and kind of get over that fear of being in the water," Cohen says.
Shrieks and squeals erupt as the students find something strange in the water. It's a dark pink...creature. The students have scared it, so it's curled into a ball the size and shape of a brain. A few kids think it probably is a brain. They call Cohen over to straighten things out.
"So what I think you guys found is a gumboot chiton. Oh yeah, he's all curled up because he's keeping his guts protected," Cohen explains, pointing out the things they've learned about in class.
"I felt like I was like, an investigator," says Monique MacDaniels from Chico, California.
"Whenever you see a movement even though you know you're in the ocean and there's going to be sea creatures, you kind of like freak out, so it's kind of exciting," she says.
This tidepooling trip comes midway through a month-long residential program meant to give these kids a boost on their way to college. The program is called Math and Science Upward Bound. To qualify, kids must come from families that earn less than $24,000 a year or be part of the first generation in their families to attend college. Most kids here are both. They pay nothing to attend.
"They have to want it," says Janine Wilson, who runs this federally funded summer program. For four weeks, students live, eat and work at UC Santa Cruz.
"They spend all day in school. They have two hours of recreation in the afternoon. In the evening, it's back to study hall and guest speakers, and presentations," Wilson says.
Wilson says getting a taste of college life is critical for students who might not have a lot of college-educated role models in their families or neighborhoods.
"Sometimes they have the drive, but they don't have the resources, and they don't have the connections to get there," Wilson says.
So, in addition to math and science classes, students learn to do things like fill out financial aid applications and create class schedules that meet freshman-year requirements. The instructors for these classes are young Upward Bound graduates like Julia Ramirez. She's running errands in the program van.
"Ever since I was little, my mom would always tell me, 'I came here and I have no other option but to be a housekeeper,' because that's the only job she could get," Ramirez says.
"She would always tell me, 'I want you to go to college, I want you to get an education,' but I didn't know how to get there."
Ramirez is now a junior at CSU Monterey Bay. She credits Upward Bound with getting her there.
"I was really happy when I got in the program because it was just like, 'Wow, like this is how you get there?' Oh my God, I would've never figured this out on my own," Ramirez says.
Many don't. Just over half of low-income high school graduates nationwide even enroll in college. Of the kids who participate in the Santa Cruz Upward Bound summer program, 91 percent enroll. But even when low-income students get to college, many don't stay long. Nationwide, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation college students earn a bachelor's degree in six years.
"It's a program to help kind of the underdog," says Monique MacDaniels, a student in the program. She says she sees college as a make it or break it experience and wants to be prepared.
"I don't want to go to college and then not be ready and then waste time and money and energy, you know. It's a big commitment," she says.
MacDaniels says she's grateful to be a part of Upward Bound. She thinks the program has helped her make the commitment to go to college, and to stay there until graduation.