University of Southern California


Working with our neighbors to build a strong community

USC Rossier outreach programs provide students a bridge to college

By Andrea Bennett

September 11, 2013

In today’s highly technical economy, Americans believe that a college education is increasingly fundamental to fulfilling the American Dream.

Recently, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan unveiled the proposed high school redesign initiative that would grant high schools across the country partnerships with postsecondary institutions. His initiative comes by way of the newly essential emphasis on career and technical education in America’s school. According to Duncan, “A postsecondary education is the ticket to economic success in America.”

Unfortunately, for many low-income students this “ticket” can be hard to find, simply because they don’t know how to make college happen for themselves. They rarely have family members who have paved the way to college before them, and too often, they attend urban schools that are under-resourced and fail to provide the most basic college guidance.

The recommended high school counselor-to-student ratio is 1:250, but in California schools the average college counselor has a caseload of up to 800 students. As a result, nearly 60 percent of low-income students who qualify academically for highly selective colleges and universities will not go: They either enroll in a less selective school or forgo college altogether.

“There are people in high school today who could go to college but don’t know how to do it,” said University Professor William Tierney, who co-directs the USC Pullias Center for Higher Education at the USC Rossier School of Education with Professor Adrianna Kezar.

The Pullias Center runs two outreach programs designed to improve college access and success for underrepresented youth.

Getting in — the I AM Program

After observing the need for college guidance, Tierney formed the Increasing Access via Mentoring (I AM) program. I AM pairs low-income, first-generation college-bound students from local Los Angeles high schools with volunteer mentors who help them write personal statements, fill out college applications, and apply for financial aid and scholarships.

Eight years and 1,000 graduates later, I AM boasts a remarkable track record, with more than 90 percent of its participants getting into a four-year college or university.

Marco Perez, 18, was one of the 160 students mentored through the program this past year. As an undocumented immigrant whose parents earn just $25,000 a year, Perez had been convinced that he couldn’t afford to go to college. While participating in Roosevelt High School’s Dreamers Club, which advocates for undocumented students like him, Perez heard about the free one-on-one help pffered through I AM.

He was paired with USC Rossier PhD student Brian Rodriguez, whose own story mirrors that of Perez. As an immigrant from Mexico, Rodriguez grew up in a low-income community where going to college was rarely discussed. Though he managed to get into college, Rodriguez was forced to navigate the uncertain path alone.

“Just getting into college for a first-generation, low-income student is a form of activism,” said Rodriguez, who is also a researcher for the Pullias Center.
Eliana Hernandez, a SummerTIME graduate (Photo/Kathy Christie)

Rodriguez and Perez worked through several drafts of Perez’s personal statement, applied for a Cal Grant through the Dream Act, and practiced interview techniques that helped Perez land a Glazer Family Foundation Scholarship. The result was acceptance letters from five four-year institutions. This past fall, Perez enrolled at California State University, where he is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.

Many of the program’s volunteer mentors and their mentees establish longtime friendships and build support systems that extend into their college careers and beyond. Rodriguez continues to offer guidance and meet with Perez on a regular basis.

“Just as important as mentorship is in the application process, it is also critical in the first year of college,” Rodriguez said. “Having the right people around during the first year of college is pivotal.”

The I AM program has proven to be just as rewarding for the mentors, who spend their weekends and evenings in libraries and coffee shops with their students.

“It is tremendously fulfilling to help someone on the path to pursue a college education, and really see a direct impact,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a perfect way to give back to the community, particularly for individuals in education.”

Getting ready — the SummerTIME Program

The chasm from high school to a four-year university can be wide for even the most ambitious students. Many low-income students, like Perez, who manage to get accepted into four-year schools with the funding support they need, still come from K-12 systems that have underprepared them for the academic rigors of college. Unfortunately, this leads to many of them ending up in remedial classes once they arrive. In fact, a quarter of the entering freshmen at the University of California are not ready for college-level math or writing, according to a state report. In the California State University system, 60 percent are not prepared to take college-level work.

To increase the success rates of these incoming college students, Tierney gave them a bridge of sorts with SummerTIME (Tools, Information, Motivation, Education), which prepares first-generation, high school graduates who are off to college in the fall for what lies ahead.

“These students work hard, get good grades and may even end up in the top 10 percent of their high school class,” Tierney said. “But they’ve never been told that they are not working at college-level writing or math.”

SummerTIME was founded on the principle that access to college is not enough; students need the tools and skills to achieve success in college. Tierney’s research identified that the first seven weeks of college were the most challenging for first-generation college students.

Many of the SummerTIME participants are former I AM mentees, and they spend the summer before college in intensive writing, study skills and college knowledge workshops on the USC campus, all aimed at improving their chances of success in college come fall.

Eliana Hernandez, 21, said that when she graduated from the program in 2010, she was ready for the critical thinking and long essays expected of her at Cal State Long Beach.

“In high school, I would start writing my paper the night before it was due and always get an ’A,’ ” said Hernandez, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who is the first in her family to go to college. “In SummerTIME, I had to put more thought and effort in and actually analyze what I was writing, so I was definitely more prepared for college when I went.”

Ghana immigrant Laura Addison, 17, said her counselor at Fremont High School encouraged her to sign up for both programs. Addison knew that participating in the SummerTIME program would help prepare her for UC Santa Barbara.

“It is helping me with time management and discipline, and my mentality is changing,” she said. “It’s helped me put things into perspective, and I think it is going to make the transition from high school to college easier for me.”

Both Pullias Center programs are possible with funding support from the Ahmanson, Weingart, Sterling, Angell and Riordan foundations, and the California Community Foundation. In addition, the College Access Foundation of California awards college scholarships to students who go through both programs.

For more information about these programs or how to become an I AM mentor, contact Diane Yoon at (213) 740-2996 or For more information about how to support the I AM and SummerTIME programs, contact Lisa Shapiro at (213) 740-5080 or