Kirsten Guarini, a junior in high school, spent spring break traveling from her hometown of San Francisco to Los Angeles, visiting seven colleges on the way. If she enrolls in 2013, she will become the first person in her family to attend college in America, the goal of First Graduate, the group that organized the road trip for Ms. Guarini and 20 other students in the program.
“My parents would not have known how to schedule a tour,” says Ms. Guarini, whose parents immigrated from Denmark and Guatemala. “First Graduate planned it all out for us and said, 'Show up here ready to learn, with your walking shoes.’ ”
Founded in 2002, First Graduate prepares students academically for college and helps their families navigate the admissions and financial-aid process. The program currently works with 230 students, from the end of sixth grade to high school and into college.
Four in five of the students who started in First Graduate have stuck with it through high school, and all those who completed senior year have gone on to college. As of this spring, 14 students in the program will have finished college.
The First Graduate program is intense. Students must participate in 300 annual hours of academic instruction and tutoring. “Being first in your family to attend college is a huge challenge and a huge accomplishment,” says Thomas Ahn, head of the San Francisco group. “We look for kids who need our services but also have the capacity to take advantage of it and do the extra work.”
The extra academic work, along with family support and an early start, leads to success. Mr. Ahn, who, like half of the organization’s employees, was also the first in his family to attend college.
First Graduate links each student with a staff member whose role is to be a college and career coach. The staff member helps the student choose classes, plan summer enrichment activities, and craft personal essays for applications. After the student has entered college, the coach remains involved by checking in each month. The group also gives each student an annual scholarship of $1,000.
While the only prerequisite is that students in the program would become the first in their families to attend college, 63 percent of participants are from immigrant families and the average family income of participants is $26,000, says Mr. Ahn.
Foundations and individuals each provide 40 percent of the group’s $1.6-million budget; the rest comes from corporations and the city government.
The group hopes to expand to 1,000 students in San Francisco in the next five years. Interest is already high: Last year 150 middle-school students applied for 40 slots in next year’s program.
Ms. Guarini’s younger sister is among the applicants. “I really hope she gets in,” Ms. Guarini says. “They have opened up so many opportunities for me.”
Here, she and Cesar Zamora, a fellow participant, signal what they hope will be their academic future.