College 101 — Step by step

Northeast High School senior Reethu Samuel reads through PHEAA information at a session with Philadelphia Futures, Wednesday, February 6, 2013, Philadelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouchnikova)

Quan Lam arrived in the United States from Vietnam four years ago, and now as a Northeast High School senior, she’s busy picking a college.

Quan has been accepted at Arcadia and La Salle, and is awaiting word from Ivy League schools. She plans to study psychology, and hopes one day to enroll in medical school.

Quan is among 31 Northeast High seniors who are getting big boosts in their college application process from the GPS to College Admission program, a new collaboration between the high school and Philadelphia Futures.

The non-profit Philadelphia Futures focuses its efforts on high school students, particularly those coming from low-income households who are poised to become the first in their families to attend college.

The Center City-based organization, which merged with White-Williams Scholars in 2011 and has an annual budget of $2.8 million, offers tools and resources to get these young people admitted to college and to succeed once they get there.

ldquo;Philadelphia Futures has guided me through the process,” Quan said. “They are helping me with essays, financial aid and picking the best school for my major.”

Her college applications are right on track. “I haven’t fallen behind. I’m way ahead. I’m going to help my friends by reminding them to fill out their college documents,” she said.

Quan and her classmates also owe a debt of gratitude to Terry Dillon, a school social worker who initiated the contact that led to the collaboration.

Dillon worked with Philadelphia Futures on its cornerstone Sponsor-A-Scholar program, which included about two-dozen Northeast High students, and persuaded the organization to expand its presence at the school.

Last spring, Dillon joined counselor Andrew Dunakin and social studies teacher/National Honor Society sponsor Chris Frank in selecting 31 highly motivated and academically prepared students for GPS to College Admission.

On four hot, late-August days, the students came to school to begin learning about financial aid, college essays and finding a school that’s the right fit academically, socially and financially.

In the fall, they participated in sessions to keep them on track with college application tasks, including effective admissions interview strategies.

Also, they and their parents had consultations with a Philadelphia Futures college admissions consultant to develop a personalized college admissions strategy.

Earlier this month, Philadelphia Futures hosted two workshops to, among other things, help the teenagers complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by going step-by-step through the process.

“The key word is free,” said Lauren Nelson, advising students not to pay anyone to complete the form, especially since help is available from her organization and the school.

The students learned that sources of financial aid include the state and federal governments, colleges and universities, private organizations and lending institutions.

“They’re doing everything to help us get financial aid to pay for college. They check in on us by email,” said Joshua Carey, who plans to study mechanical engineering and has been accepted at Widener and Temple, and is awaiting word from Drexel.

The students also learned the types of aid available: scholarships, grants, loans and work-study.

“There were a couple of scholarships I would have never heard of if not for this program,” said Branden Cruz, who will major in biblical studies/liberal arts and has been accepted at Eastern, Kutztown and Cairn.

Once the students receive their final college acceptance letters this spring, Philadelphia Futures will guide them in making enrollment decisions, submitting deposits and transitioning to college.

The students are given responsibilities. They are asked to explore every opportunity for financial aid, complete all forms thoroughly and accurately, respond to requests for additional information promptly and meet all deadlines.

“It’s a beautiful model,” said Ann-Therese Ortiz, director of precollege programs at Philadelphia Futures. “We bring a fundamental commitment to college access and success in Philadelphia. When they leave Northeast in June, they’ll be able to walk through the doors of a college in August and September.”

At Northeast, enrollment is about 3,200, yet there are only seven counselors.

Dillon described Philadelphia Futures as the “gold standard” in helping high school students get ready for college.

“We’ve learned a tremendous amount. We could never come up with this with our paucity of resources,” he said. “Philadelphia Futures is the Mercedes-Benz of college prep programs.”

Dillon hopes the students taking part in GPS to College Admission inspire their classmates to better focus on their college searches.

“We hope they hear from the thirty-one all the great things that are happening, and that they will want that as well,” he said.

Philadelphia Futures hopes its efforts result in an increase in the 36 percent of Philadelphia public school students who enroll in college and the 10 percent of students who earn a post-secondary degree.

Ajin Abraham appreciates the assistance.

Ajin came to the United States from India two years ago. He’ll study biomedical engineering, with plans to attend medical school. His choices include Penn State, Holy Family, La Salle, St. Joseph’s, Albright, Arcadia and York.

“I needed specific guidance through the process to pick the right college for me,” he said.

A classmate, Inesha Smith, wants to study forensic science and criminal justice. Her options include West Chester, Albright, Arcadia, Shippensburg and Chestnut Hill.

Inesha is so comfortable with her own progress that she will be leaning on her friends to apply to colleges if they haven’t already done so.

The personalized attention Philadelphia Futures has showered on the 31 Northeast High students has them ready to make the biggest decision of their lives so far.

“We’re so far ahead,” Inesha said. “They took us step by step through everything you have to do. The process doesn’t have to be overwhelming.” ••

For more information, visit www.philadelphiafutures.org, follow @PhillyFutures on Twitter or check out the Philadelphia Futures page on Facebook.

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com