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Latino students get lift toward college

Program helps high schoolers plan for future

Aida Zapata, a senior at Emmanuel College, is an intern at the Sociedad Latina’s Mission Possible program by serving as a mentor to high school students headed for college.
Aida Zapata, a senior at Emmanuel College, is an intern at the Sociedad Latina’s Mission Possible program by serving as a mentor to high school students headed for college.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Vickie Miranda was sure she would fail.

It was September and the 17-year-old at East Boston High School was entering her junior year. It would be a pivotal time in her education, her counselors told her, a yardstick for college entrance.

“My classes were hard,’’ she said, recalling the challenge of taking her first honors-level classes.

With the help of a new program administered by Mission Hill nonprofit Sociedad Latina, Miranda is now among dozens of at-risk Boston teens who spend one day a month on a college campus, where young mentors teach them the skills they need to thrive after high school.

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Yesterday at Wheelock College, that meant envisioning a future lifestyle and career, then developing a budget to see what it would take to pay for it.

Miranda said she would drive a used Honda Civic, live in a mid-range apartment, and buy groceries rather than eating out to save money. In all, she calculated the cost of basic food, shelter, and transportation for her dream life at $1,300 a month.

“Oh, that’s a lot of money,’’ she said, scrunching her face at the bottom line. “I didn’t even add any expenses. It costs a lot to raise three kids and have a husband,’’ she said of her model family.

The weekend sessions, which started last month, are part of a program called Mission Possible, now in its fourth year. It seeks to boost college preparation for Hispanic teenagers, who historically have struggled to graduate from high school, get into universities, and complete degrees at the same rates as their classmates.

In the coming months, students in the program are scheduled to visit Northeastern University, Boston College, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Harvard University, among others.

“It makes me feel like I can get anywhere, and go everywhere I want to go,’’ the soft-spoken teenager said after the financial responsibility and budgeting session. Now she is taking all honors classes and earned a spot on the honor roll last quarter, which she said she owed to Sociedad Latino.

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“Being here and learning to be comfortable in a college space is a big goal of this program,’’ said Katie Magyar, program coordinator for Mission Possible.

Many Latino high school students’ parents who never attended college struggle to navigate the complexities of financial aid, the application process, and how to cope once they get to college, Magyar said.

Although data provided by the state Department of Secondary and Elementary Education show that 64 percent of Boston Public School students graduate on time and that the city’s high-school drop-out rate is at the lowest it has been since the state started keeping track 16 years ago, Latino youths consistently fall behind.

In the 2009-2010 school year, the latest period for which data was available, 484 Latino students dropped out, about 43 percent of all students to do so that year, making the demographic group the most likely to not finish school.

Sociedad Latina said that more than a quarter of all Latino public school students in Boston will drop out before graduating.

Aida Zapata, a 21-year-old senior at Emmanuel College who interns for Sociedad Latina and mentors students, said that although programs such as Mission Possible are helpful, much work remains to acclimate teens entering a mostly white college environment.

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“Just a few years ago I was in their shoes,’’ said Zapata, who grew up in New York City. “I know what it’s like to go to a [high] school where a lot people don’t go to college.’’

Zapata said that a program similar to Mission Possible would have helped her during high school. Even now with strong mentoring, she said, college students of color like herself still struggle to find nonwhite faculty role models who connect with the Latino experience.

The Sociedad Latino program is a response to a need that will only grow more pronounced, said the group’s executive director, Alexandra Oliver-Davila.

“In reality, we shouldn’t even [need to] be doing this,’’ Oliver-Davila said. “This is a Band-Aid for a broken education system.’’


Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.