For 33 of the 471 seniors who graduated from Palo Alto High School on Wednesday, the moment for celebration has not yet quite come.
These 33 low-income students have been accepted to a college of their choice yet are scrambling to find ways to bridge the gap between financial-aid packages and grants and their families' means to pay the first year of tuition. Collectively, they have an estimated $300,000 gap for their first years of college alone.
For many of these 33 students, this gap might mean foregoing their higher education dreams for less-expensive community colleges, going directly into the workforce or saddling a large amount of debt before college has even begun.
When this fate befell a student that Laura Marcus-Bricca, Paly's instructional supervisor of special education, has known for years, she felt compelled to do something about it. Stephanie Estrada was homeless for much of her senior year, living in shelters until she decided to move in with her uncle in East Palo Alto. She would wake up at 5 a.m. every day, catch a bus at 6 a.m. and sleep in a science classroom before school. She was also helping to take care of several younger siblings. Her mother works in administration at an after-school program in East Palo Alto, and her father, who is disabled, is unemployed.
Estrada spent hours at the College and Career Center this fall to apply to 10 colleges, including the school of her choice, San Francisco State University, where one year of attendance -- including tuition, books and supplies, meals, housing, transportation and personal expenses -- costs about $24,000.
This spring, she got in. Yet with financial aid, scholarships and a federal grant, she faced a $10,000 gap in expenses for her first year there. The school's admission process was also poorly timed. She didn't receive her financial-aid package from SFSU until three days ago and was asked months ago to make an $800 housing deposit that she couldn't afford.
"I had a breakdown because I thought all my hard work was going to go to waste -- all those all-nighters studying," Estrada said. "I'm not going to get a chance to be something in life and go out there and get a career and go to school."
Her back-up plan was to go to Foothill College, get a job and save the money to transfer to a four-year school. But last week, Marcus-Bricca launched an online crowdsourcing campaign on GoFundMe to raise the money Estrada needed to pay for her first year. They met their goal within 24 hours, with about half of donations coming from Paly teachers and staff, Marcus-Bricca said.
After finding out that Estrada was one of more than 30 students in this situation at Paly, Marcus-Bricca decided to formally establish a nonprofit "dedicated to creating equity in education for underprivileged youth and adults," the GoFundMe page states.
"Of course there are a lot of choices students can make and have to make when they're going to college," Marcus-Bricca said. "Sometimes it means working; sometimes it means taking out loans. I've done enough research and I've worked with this population long enough to know for students who are already living in poverty and who are first generation need a very high level of support, in every way, to get into college and to be successful once they are in college.
"Forcing them into debt before they've even begun, so to speak, just keeps them one step behind for that much longer with one more barrier to overcome. To me, it's an equity issue."
Marcus-Bricca herself is still bearing the burden of her student-loan debt and wanted to prevent that from happening to Estrada -- and in the future, to as many other low-income Paly students as possible. It's doubly hard for this population of students in a community like Palo Alto, where many students might apply to close to 20 of the nation's top colleges and universities and face only the decision of where they want to go, without the cost in mind.
Alan Ugarte, another first-generation Paly senior, said he wishes he had been given advice that he now gives to younger students: "Before you start applying to schools and looking into them, also look at how much tuition is -- how much everything is -- because you don't want to do all that and then you're like, 'I can't go now because it's too much,'" he said. "It puts yourself down."
This week, Ugarte heard about Estrada's successful GoFundMe campaign and was inspired to create his own so that he can be among the first in his family to attend college. His older sister currently attends San Francisco State. His parents are separated; both work the graveyard shift at local supermarkets. Most of his mother's paycheck goes toward paying rent for a house in Palo Alto so her children can attend Palo Alto schools. She also rents out a room.
"She just really wants me to pursue a better education and go to college and get a degree," Ugarte said of his mother. "It's kind of hard when society expects you to go to college but some of the costs are really unaffordable."
Ugarte limited himself to only a handful of college applications. He said he felt guilty asking his parents to pay application fees of approximately $75 each, on top of the cost to send colleges his SAT and ACT scores, for schools he might not end up attending. But as a talented club soccer player, he was also recruited by several schools, which gave him more options. However, Division III schools can't offer athletic scholarships. One college offered him more than $9,000 in aid, but the overall tuition was much higher than his other options and the school also expected him to take out a large loan, he said.
Ugarte hopes to attend Mount Aloysuis College, a small private Catholic college in Pennsylvania, to play Division III soccer and study elementary education. Mount Aloysuis waived his application fee and offered him a $5,500 academic scholarship. He also received $1,000 from Paly's Dudley Vehmeyer Brown Memorial Foundation and is waiting to hear back on a Latino student scholarship he applied for last week. Some funds also came from a federal Pell Grant, a need-based grant awarded by the government to very low-income undergraduate students. But he's still $23,000 short.
Ugarte knows that any college admission is an accomplishment, but he can't really celebrate it yet.
"It is an accomplishment but I'm not really happy yet because of the financial part," he said. "I worked hard, you know? Sometimes I don't know how to feel. It's hard. You got accepted and you worked hard and, oh wait, you don't have enough money to go."
Ugarte said his plan "B" is to go to Foothill, which his best friend is also doing. (His friend got into Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont but couldn't find a way to close his $17,000 gap in tuition.)
There's also plan "C," which doesn't include higher education. Ugarte started going to the East Palo Alto Boxing Club toward the end of his sophomore year and said he's good enough to compete professionally.
"I did think about maybe this could be a different way out, to help my mom, to help my family," he said.
But he doesn't want plan "C." Ugarte wants to set an example for his 13-year-old brother, the rest of his family and for the broader Latino community, he said.
"Having the opportunity to go to a four-year college would make my parents so proud, and it would allow me to be living proof for my family and for other first generation college students to show them that it is possible to do anything," he wrote on his GoFundMe page. So far, he has raised $1,255.
Though Rise Together Education is still in its infancy, with its official nonprofit status approval pending and concrete details about its functions still to be worked out, Marcus-Bricca said the intent is to help as many students as possible from falling through the cracks of what she sees as a broken and inequitable college admissions system. She extended the GoFundMe campaign goal to $20,000; any further funds raised will go to help the nonprofit get off the ground.
"(Stephanie), of all people, and other kids in a similar situation who already have the odds stacked against them will benefit from any ounce of help they can get in order to change their situation, so that they don't remain caught in a revolving door of poverty," Marcus-Bricca.
More information about Rise Together Education is posted at gofundme.com/risetogethered.
Alan Ugarte's GoFundMe campaign is posted at gofundme.com/vtwg8g8.