Finding the Perfect Fit

Illustrations by Jorge Mascarenhas

An Inclusive Approach at Catholic Colleges Helps Students Attain Success

Rogelio Zamora.

Rogelio Zamora should make Saint Mary’s College proud. The articulate, soft-spoken young man had a path to and through the College that was anything but easy. He was a first-generation college student who worked like crazy to make ends meet. Starting in his sophomore year, Rogelio commuted to Oakland five days a week to work at College Track, an after-school support program for disadvantaged kids. He scheduled his classes in the morning so he could work from noon to 8 p.m. and race back to Moraga to do his homework. His grueling schedule took a toll. Though he participated in commencement with his class in May, he is completing two courses to finish his degree this fall.

Yet, as Rogelio told me his story, he never stopped smiling, and there was never a hint that he considered his experience unfair. He said repeatedly that it was all worth it, that Saint Mary’s was a perfect fit and the College’s name would open doors for him as his career begins.

Rogelio exemplifies a group of kids I’ve been thinking about a lot lately — financially disadvantaged minority students who graduate from the school where I work, Menlo School in Atherton, and flourish at California’s Catholic colleges. As a college counselor, I’ve been struck repeatedly by how right these colleges — particularly Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount University — seem for these students. While excellent secular private colleges around the country tell us they want these kids, while they offer to fly them to campus and host them for special programs, they seem to have a special subset in mind: minority students with astronomical grade point averages and test scores. Catholic colleges, on the other hand, appear to be far more inclusive when they say, “Send us these kids.” Rogelio and others like him did not have exceptionally strong GPAs or test scores. But at Catholic colleges, the desire to enroll these young men and women seems genuinely built into their mission statements, and students and their families can tell.

Lilia Patino.

My conversation with Rogelio led me to discussions with two other Menlo graduates, Lilia Patino, a junior at Loyola Marymount, and Shantya Martinez, a freshman at Santa Clara. I had the sense that they were all somehow destined to study at Catholic colleges and never regretted their decisions.

It’s worth noting that an appropriate fit for these kids is perhaps a higher-stakes issue than it is for our wealthy kids who have always been in expensive private schools. Though Rogelio is upbeat about his experience at Menlo School, a college prep school where annual tuition is $30,000 and 15 graduates per year go on to Stanford, the match might not have been ideal. Most of his classmates spent holidays in Aspen, Maui or Lake Tahoe, while Rogelio had to stay home to work or take care of younger siblings. Rogelio also didn’t have time for extracurricular activities that other students participate in and which are beneficial on their college applications. And there were few other Latino students.

Rogelio, who was never actively recruited by a secular college, seriously considered going to Saint Mary’s, Fordham University, Santa Clara, the University of San Diego or Loyola Marymount. Santa Clara was too close to his family’s home in East Palo Alto, and Moraga was “just far enough away.” As he was applying to colleges, his baby brother, Mark, was born and Rogelio wanted to be close enough to see him. Saint Mary’s just called to him, he said. He loved its location and how small the campus was. Rogelio felt the potential for personal relationships with professors and other students, and that turned out to be accurate. He had close ties with all of his professors and felt he could contact them at any time. He also always felt welcomed by other students, some who shared his background and many who didn’t. “Right from the start, I built a big community of friends,” he said. “I felt like I had a family.”

Shantya Martinez.

Lilia, on the other hand, told me she never really expected to end up at Loyola Marymount. Partly with my guidance and partly with input from her family and friends, she narrowed her options to LMU, UCLA and her first choice, Santa Clara. When she failed to get enough financial aid from Santa Clara, she knew she was headed for Southern California despite her parents’ initial disapproval. Lilia turned down UCLA because it was too big and she thought she’d get lost. She liked LMU’s size, the way people treated her and the number of Latina students she saw on campus.

Lilia felt supported from the first day at college. She was struck by the requirement that she meet with a faculty advisor at the beginning of every term before signing up for courses. This might not sound groundbreaking, but in my experience with minority students, this type of structured environment is critical. These kids respond so well to adults who take the time to show genuine interest in their progress. “Of course you’re going to succeed,” they seem to want to hear, “and I’m going to be right here to help guide you.”

As for Shantya, there’s no doubt in my mind that she will succeed at Santa Clara. She’s such an intelligent, energetic young woman with a special talent in writing. Colleges and universities saw Shantya’s talent, and in the end she was deciding among Colgate University, Santa Clara and Seattle University. She had attended several overnight programs at SCU, including a program designed for Latino students and their parents. Shantya said the college provided multicultural information that focused on many types of diversity, including religious belief and geography. As I listened to Shantya talk, I thought about how lucky SCU is to have her.

No matter how perfect the fit for our minority students, they’re not going anywhere without adequate financial aid. Their parents may not speak English and do not understand the baffling forms required for state and federal aid. They are almost always appalled at sharing their tax information with strangers, and the student often has to be the interpreter in a confusing process.

Rogelio, with the guidance of counselors at College Track, made it through the first year at Saint Mary’s with a “decent” financial aid package. In the spring, his parents told him they could no longer support him, especially with the new baby, and it looked like he would have to leave. He went to his Saint Mary’s financial aid counselor, whom Rogelio said went “way, way above and beyond his call of duty.” The counselor helped Rogelio establish himself as an independent student with no financial support from his parents, an arduous task that resulted in a healthy new aid package. For Rogelio, access to a counselor who put aside everything else and worked long hours to figure out a way to keep him at Saint Mary’s was something he thought he wouldn’t get at a bigger school or even at a smaller secular school.

Saint Mary’s is committed to bringing in and retaining a class in which 25 percent of students are Pell Grant–eligible, which means their annual family income is less than $50,000. The College takes its commitment to these kids extremely seriously, and for me, this knowledge gives me confidence every year to guide minority students to Moraga.

At LMU, the financial aid office knew what they were getting in Lilia, and they gave her a package that dwarfed Santa Clara’s offer. She said the dollar amount went down slightly in the second year and leveled off after that. The university is trying for the first time this year to reduce loan debts for minority students, which should benefit Lilia slightly. But LMU administrators acknowledge that financial aid is a “gigantic” issue. They said just talking with these students about $50,000 in tuition and living expenses feels like an insurmountable challenge.

At Catholic colleges and universities, however, I have found the chips falling the right way for these kids more often than not. Shantya, like many others, can manage to combine grants, scholarships and work study, and perhaps some loans, to cover expenses. To be fair, there have been times when Catholic colleges haven’t come through with the aid I thought they would. However, experience has taught me that Catholic schools do everything possible to fund these students as fully as possible. Saint Mary’s, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara have sent me the message that while they care about getting the students in the top 10 percent of their class academically, they care equally about enrolling students like Rogelio, Shantya and Lilia. They fund them because these students are smart, hard-working first-generation kids — and because it’s the right thing to do.

As Catholics, Rogelio, Lilia and Shantya were drawn to college communities where spirituality plays a role in students’ lives. They had grown up with a level of familiarity with faith, and at Menlo, a secular school, they may have felt something missing from their daily lives. Their parents were thrilled about the idea of a Catholic college because they understood it and it made the thought of their children leaving home less frightening.

Lilia told me that her parents hated that she was moving so far away to go to Loyola Marymount. The fact that she would take theology classes, study with priests and live with other Catholic students made the situation tolerable for them. LMU’s administrators said families understand that the Catholic values that students grew up with are present on campus and are one reason the Latino retention rate is high. Latinas, especially, graduate at a higher rate than the overall student body.

Without exception, students like Rogelio, Lilia and Shantya are talented kids who have, in my view, found the best possible college matches. When they occasionally come back to see me after completing their degrees, I see astonishing growth, maturity and happiness. I know they are ready for the next phases of their lives, having been influenced by the values embedded in their Catholic education.

Shantya and Rogelio are also interested in the Catholic colleges’ focus on service to others. They both spent most of their high school summers working at College Bridge, a program designed to help minority middle school students develop the skills and confidence needed to get into selective colleges. Shantya told me that sure, you go to college to get an education, but you’re supposed to use it to help the world. You don’t just learn psychology or English; you apply it to real-life issues. Shantya is the kind of kid at Menlo School who is willing to let the turbocharged Harvard-or-nothing kids dream about how fabulously successful they will be with an Ivy League education. Shantya represents kids who wonder how they’ll use their degrees to help others get the same opportunities they did.

Rogelio recently accepted a part-time position at Summit Prep Charter High School in Redwood City, where he will be a student life coordinator. He said he eventually wants to go to law school and become an immigration lawyer, helping those who perhaps need it most and can afford it least. His work in multiple nonprofits, including College Track and College Summit, a motivational program for minority students preparing for college, has confirmed his belief that serving others is a noble way to use an education. In some ways, he attributes his beliefs to his Saint Mary’s experience. He told me he thinks every day of one of the College’s mottos, “Enter to learn. Leave to serve.”

“This touches on something I’ve always been,” he said. “It wasn’t until I arrived at Saint Mary’s that I realized: This is why I came here.”

Mark Clevenger is a college counselor and director of college and university relations at Menlo School in Atherton and a former undergraduate admission officer at Santa Clara University. He has written articles for Notre Dame Magazine, Santa Clara Magazine, and Independent School magazine.