High school upperclassmen get a whiff of their not-so-elusive college dreams

The road to college can be a difficult path for a low-income student, but that doesn’t discourage Leslie Viesca.

The soon-to-be-senior at Tacoma’s Foss High School has even picked out her top college choice: Gonzaga University in Spokane.

“It’s a beautiful city, and I would really want to go to school there,” she said.

Viesca is one of 530 students from low-income families across the state who are participating this week in the Achievers College Experience at Pacific Lutheran University.

The program was put on by the College Success Foundation, a nonprofit that provides higher education opportunities to disadvantaged and low-income students across Washington.

Students are attending workshops, exploring the campus and staying overnight in the dorms.

Caitlin Upshall of Tacoma is a student at Western Washington University and a peer counselor for this year’s Achievers program. She went through it as a high school student two years ago.

“It was life changing,” she said. “It showed me that going to college was not just a possibility, but it was something that was set in stone for my future.”

Upshall said the program allows students to experience the college lifestyle and removes many worries about living away from home.

Adaiya Granberry, a 16-year-old from Wilson High School, said it was a great talking to peer counselors like Upshall about their college experiences and the difficulties of making the transition from high school to college.

Workshops on the Parkland campus this week focused on how to write a strong college application essay, register for financial aid and study for the SAT and ACT exams, said Kellie Nakano, a director with the foundation.

Viesca said the SAT workshop on Wednesday provided her with new strategies for taking the test that she can’t wait to try.

“I know with the workshop we had, I’ll raise my scores by at least 200,” she said.

The experience wraps up Thursday with a college fair, an alumni panel and a game involving science and math knowledge.

Nakano said the skills learned during the residence experience will help these students through their senior year as they begin to apply to colleges.

Viesca said she’s happy to have connected with other like-minded students who want to continue their education.

“There’s a lot of people that have the same dreams as me; I kind of feel like we motivate each other to succeed,” she said.

Students chosen to participate in the program had to provide an academic reference, have a GPA of above 2.0 and meet income requirements.

The students represent 17 high schools across the state, including all five major high schools in Tacoma.

And the students participating are serious about their studies. Seventy five percent of them are part of the College Bound Scholarship program that provides low-income students with financial scholarships if they graduate high school with good grades, among other requirements.

If last year’s class of Achiever Scholars is any indication of success, this year’s scholars have a bright future: 96 percent of them had college plans in place at graduation.

Nakano said the program creates a sense of community for students as they navigate their way through the college admission process.

“By being an Achiever, they are part of the larger statewide community who have the goal of graduating from high school and going to college,” she said.