In 2009, a Mesa high school graduate destined for an Arizona university still faced daunting challenges to achieve a successful first year. The student was the first in her economically disadvantaged Hispanic family to apply for college; no one in her family was college educated, and her life until now was sheltered. Her encouragement came from a Mesa Public School System program called Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) available in her high school (one of three Mesa high schools with an AVID program). Upon being accepted, her anxiety about leaving home and fending for herself was nearly overwhelming. In addition, her impoverished family was barely able to resource her for dorm life, but could not provide warm clothing as the graduate transitioned from valley heat to an alpine climate. There was no money for books. There was a brand-new system for existing that was complex and confusing. There were no friends initially. A significant debt was amassed, accrued through cafeteria meals, with no money to pay the debt and which threatened to derail future financial aid. In the end, what could have ended disastrously was turned around by a mentor.
This experience shows that economically disadvantaged students potentially require an investment of resources to aspire to higher education. The AVID program provided the initial vision, and the mentor provided the crucial link to transition successfully from high school to college. These resources, however, may not consistently be available in the majority of Mesa schools to assist our student population.
In 2010, the Mesa citizen who acted as a mentor conducted research to learn that only 12% of Mesa students were completing their college education. Based on a successful model of a similar organization in Phoenix, Arizona, Ms. Elizabeth Paulus founded College Bound AZ. Ms. Paulus then approached a group of Mesa-area business and civic leaders also concerned about Mesa’s poor college graduation rates. Together, College Bound AZ, Mesa United Way and an Advisory Board that included individuals from the community, business, and education embarked on a mission to give talented and deserving young students from economically depressed families the motivation and support needed to graduate high school and go on to college. In September 2010, College Bound AZ launched its pilot program for six students at Rhodes Junior High in south Mesa. College Bound AZ’s vision is to expand to support the community goal of doubling the number of underrepresented college graduates by 2020.