Illustration by Stephanie Varela
With a stack of books in hand, the 17-year-old Boyle Heights native sits up straight and speaks confidently. Her eyes light up when she talks about her goal of working for the United Nations.
“I want to make a difference and help people. That’s what drives me,” says López.
López, a child of immigrant parents who didn’t make it past ninth grade, is aiming high. She’s applying to 10 colleges this year, including competitive private universities like Tufts, in Massachusetts and Georgetown, in Washington, D.C.
With a rigorous academic schedule, a GPA of 3.7, and responsibilities as student body president, yearbook co-editor-in-chief and member of the track team, López seems like a competitive candidate for any college.
But there are no guarantees when it comes to admissions at the nation’s most elite colleges, even if a dip in the college-age population this year may ease pressure on admissions to less competitive schools.
In Boyle Heights, some high achievers are overloading themselves with Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities to compete for spots in top schools.
While López is a strong candidate for a top college, there are thousands like her. At Georgetown University, one of her dream schools, only 17 percent of the 20,115 students that applied in 2012 were accepted.
The pressures on middle class high achievers competing for spots don’t compare to those confronted by students in Boyle Heights, where some teens need to work to help support their families. Many have parents without higher education who cannot guide them through the college application process. In Boyle Heights, more than half of adults over 25 did not graduate from high school.
“I know it’s difficult and sometimes not fair that many of us have to work three to four times harder and have tons of more responsibility and challenges while trying to go to school,” says William Vela, director at the University of Southern California’s El Centro Chicano, a cultural resource center that provides social, personal and academic support to Latino students.
For the López family, skipping college is not an option. López’ parents grew up in Zacatecas, México and had to quit school to help their families financially. They came to Los Angeles in the early 90s. Her father, a construction worker, and her mother, a housekeeper, do what they can to help support their children’s educational goals.
“My parents take an extra shift or work overtime to pay for extra expenses,” says López, who helps out with finances by working summer jobs, but sometimes can’t pay school-related fees on time.
During the school year, López’ day can begin as early as 4:30 a.m. and end at 10 p.m., if she has class at East Los Angeles College. Most weeknights, she spends four to five hours doing homework for three AP courses. Weekends aren’t much different, as she gives up family time to focus on her academics.
“There are moments when I feel very overwhelmed and stressed,” says López. “But in the end, I know I’ll have a career.”
Academics plus activities
College admissions experts say that López’ plan of coupling a strong academic record with extracurricular activities is logical, given that top schools want to admit well-rounded students.
According to Gary A. Clark Jr., director of admissions at the University of California, Los Angeles, UC reviewers take a holistic approach to applications. This means that the UCs look not only at academics, but also consider personal statements, leadership involvement and standardized test scores.
“Students should be able to balance a really rigorous high school program with a depth of involvement and commitment to the two to three activities that they are engaged in, because there is nothing more indicative of student success in college,” says Clark.
However, Clark says, even with strong academic courses and extra-curricular activities, admission to a particular college is not guaranteed, because there is no set formula.
At times, an average student can be chosen over a more accomplished candidate because his or her application stood out, showing promise that he or she would take advantage of opportunities.
Vela, the USC El Centro Chicano director, says the struggles he faced while growing up in Northeast LA as a low-income, first generation American were very similar to those of the students he sees today.
“Most of our family and guardians want to support us, but just do not know,” says Vela. “[They] have not had the opportunity [to go to college], meaning there is sometimes a lack of mentors. And the fact that many of us have had to work also makes it extra difficult.”
For students who come from very little and aim high, following a strict blueprint to raise their chances of college acceptance often proves successful. But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they will follow the exact path they imagined.
Celeste Huízar, 18, graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School last summer with a 3.8 GPA, numerous AP classes and college preparatory courses and a history of leadership roles and internships.
To add to her stress, her father died, and Huízar juggled school and helped take care of her siblings while her mother worked. Although Huízar did what she believed was necessary, she was still rejected from Brown University, her dream school.
“I felt like I was not good enough,” says Huízar. “How could I do all this and still not be able to get what I want?”
Huízar is now midway through her freshman year at UC Berkeley. Looking back, she says that although it’s important to work hard, it is key to find balance between coursework and activities.
“I’m so blessed to be at UC Berkeley,” she says. “I cannot imagine myself anywhere else.
Maybe I have to do great things here before I go off and do great things somewhere else.”