Working with families and students to create college-going communities

Project GRAD students from LA
UC Santa Cruz students who attended San Fernando High School meet with Ford Roosevelt, fifth from left, president of Project GRAD Los Angeles, a program that works with high school students to suport them in preparing for and completing college. Also pictured, Michelle Whittingham, associate vice chancellor, enrollment management, right, and Dean Sheldon Kamieniecki, fifth from right. (Photo by Jennifer Graham)

For some it was the distance from home, others the redwoods, and still others the chance to work in computer game design. Tuesday, 15 UC Santa Cruz students, all graduates of San Fernando High School, had the chance to tell one of the people responsible for their matriculation how they ended up at UCSC.

That person, Ford Roosevelt (College 8, '79, sociology and teaching credential), was in Santa Cruz to invite them to lunch and see how they are doing.

Social Sciences Dean Sheldon Kamieniecki hosted the lunch and was joined by Michelle Whittingham, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and interim director of financial aid.

Roosevelt is president and CEO of Project GRAD Los Angeles, an organization that works with first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds to help them enroll in and graduate from college.  He's a former middle school teacher who joined Project GRAD LA in 2004.

He also ran a preschool in Santa Cruz and once worked in the UCSC admissions office in the 1980s extolling the virtues of the campus in visits to high schools around the state.  Roosevelt loves UC Santa Cruz.

Each of the six Project GRAD sites around the country is an independent, non-profit responsible for its own fundraising and relationship with local school districts. The organization was founded in Houston in the 1990s and grew from a Houston scholarship program first started in 1989. 

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, Project GRAD works with four middle schools and San Fernando High in northeast Los Angeles County. It begins working with students and their families in middle school and high school, and then provides scholarships and support through completion of college. Since the graduating class of 2003, 290 San Fernando High students involved with Project GRAD LA have graduated from college.

Fernando Carrillo, a third-year computer game design major, explained that if students keep their end of the bargain when they enter high school – take required courses, keep up good grades, and complete two college institutes – Project GRAD will keep its deal to help with deadline reminders, counseling, and scholarships.

UCSC was Carrillo's top choice because of the game design program. Janette Perez, a second-year psychology major at Kresge, liked the distance from southern California. Others said being 350 miles from home caused some homesickness. Vanessa Mendoza, an environmental studies major, said UCSC was her top choice as soon as she visited and saw the campus.

Being a part Project GRAD means getting help from previous students and helping those coming along behind. Carrillo remembers getting advice from an older student when he was first on campus. This year he was able to return the favor to a recent San Fernando High grad and new banana slug worried over financial aid matters.

"We follow them through to graduation," Roosevelt said. "The idea is to create and help sustain a community that has college-going as its objective.