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Gaby Perez goes to UC Davis to follow her dream of becoming a vet

Vows and celebrations: A matter of Degrees

Nonprofit helps 'avid' students cross Marin's college-bound divide

by Ronnie Cohen

Gaby Perez's parents dropped out of middle school. Her mother works at Taco Bell, and her father does manual labor.

Anxious to break her family's cycle of poverty, the Terra Linda High School senior planned to do what no one in her family has ever done before—go to college. But she could not imagine raising the nearly $30,000 a year it costs to attend her dream University of California school. Given her family's limited financial resources, she figured her only option would be the local community college. So, in her first two years of high school, she did not sign up for honors or "advanced placement" classes, and she did not push herself to work as hard as she could. Why bother, she figured, when she could get into College of Marin regardless of the rigor of her classes or her grades?

Then she began participating in the AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, program. It targets capable college-bound students who are falling short of their potential, helps them develop organizational and study skills and puts them on a college track. Through AVID, Gaby learned about the Marin Education Fund. Now called 10,000 Degrees, the San Rafael nonprofit provided Gaby with confidence and resources as well as information about financial aid and scholarships so she could apply to four-year schools and contemplate a way to pay for them.

In the fall, she's going to her first-choice college—the University of California at Davis.

"It's my dream school because I want to become a vet. I thought I would apply, but I didn't think I would get accepted," she says, smiling so widely that every tooth in her mouth shows. She hesitates and, underscoring how she still cannot believe her good luck, she adds, "It's amazing."

Gaby is one of 100 high school seniors 10,000 Degrees helped get into colleges and secure financial aid and scholarships to pay for them this year. The graduating seniors, most from Marin County, will go to schools across the state and the nation—from UCLA to the University of Oregon to Boston University.

Last month, Marin Education Fund changed its name to 10,000 Degrees to clarify its mission of not only sending kids to college but helping them graduate. Kim Mazzuca, president of 10,000 Degrees, says 54 percent of American students who begin college graduate within six years, while only 24 percent of low-income students graduate. All 10,000 Degrees' students are low-income, yet 84 percent of them graduate within six years, she says.

"The data shows that once you get the kids to college, that's only half the hurdle," Mazzuca says. "Our work is not just about getting them there but providing them the longitudinal support. We are focused on access and success."

A major piece of succeeding in earning a college degree for students like Gaby is being able to pay tuition and living expenses. Although she has been taking three AP classes (calculus, environmental science and Spanish), throughout this school year, Gaby has been working three seven-hour days a week at a San Rafael movie theater. The job has allowed her to save $2,000—which she will use to pay tuition and living expenses not covered by grants and scholarships.

Through a 10,000 Degrees program, Angela Lusk served as a mentor to Gaby, guiding her through the college-application process. A San Rafael human-resources consultant, Lusk went through the same process two years ago with her daughter, now a sophomore at UCLA. Lusk was struck by the differences between the resources lavished upon most Marin County students and students like Gaby.

"There's a real inequity in Marin, and often it's not visible to the naked eye," she says. "Most of us aren't exposed to this kind of poverty in Marin.

"The kids in Marin at the local high school have had so much that we take for granted until you meet a child like Gaby. They haven't had any of the advantages of Marin kids—lessons, driving to all the events, vacations. These kids don't have any private SAT tutors, like many Marin kids do. Gaby has never had a swimming lesson or a music lesson or any other lesson. Every teenager wants to get their license, and it's not going to happen for Gaby."

A first-generation American whose parents came from Mexico, Gaby lives with her mother and brother in an apartment in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael. Though she loves animals so much that she wants to become a veterinarian, there's no room in the apartment for a pet.

No one in Gaby's family drives. At 18, she has been eligible for a driver's license for the past two years, but has never had a driving lesson. She walks or takes buses wherever she goes.

She showed up after school at the 10,000 Degrees office the other day to talk about how the program helped her realize her dream. Wearing brand new white Converse sneakers, jeans, a black V-neck T-shirt, a heart necklace and pale pink nail polish, she seems to be bursting with joy and excitement about her future.

"I actually think I would have ended up going to College of Marin if it hadn't been for 10,000 Degrees," she says. "They gave us the tools we needed to go through the process.

If you ever have questions, you can call anyone from here. They're just there for you. It encouraged me more because I have the resources and the opportunity, so why not take it?"

Yearning to Breathe Free

>Following is an excerpt from Terra Linda High School graduating senior Gaby Perez's successful application to the University of California at Davis:

The full moon was shining like a fluorescent bulb in the night sky, illuminating our path across the Sonora Desert. I was able to clearly see my mother's worried and exhausted face.

As the group of us walked toward the border, three masked men, covered from head to foot in black, jumped out from behind bushes. They pointed guns at us and demanded we give them everything of value. Just as my mother was about to be disowned of what little she had, a man in the group told the robbers, "She is my wife and these are my children." So they took his money and assumed that my mother had none of her own. We were left intact. To this day, I am grateful for that man's kindness.

Although I was born in Phoenix, Arizona, my family had returned to Mexico when I was a baby. We lived at the top of a dusty mountain road in my grandmother's three-room house. The house was painted aqua green and had a corrugated tin roof. This is where my early life unfolded.

At the age of 6, my mother decided that we would return to the U.S. for better opportunities. My father had left Mexico in search of work a year earlier. My mother, brother and I eventually settled in San Rafael near my mother's relatives. I started school here when I was 7. Although I didn't understand a word, I quickly made friends and they helped me learn English.

"Estudien hijos, learn and better yourselves so that you don't end up like us," is what my parents tell my brother and me. My mother works at Taco Bell and my father does manual labor. They both work very hard all the time. Because they were not able to complete their educations, these are the jobs they have to do to provide for us. Whenever possible my father helps us financially, but it is never enough. My brother and I always need things and it puts a strain on my mother. I want to go to college to be able to obtain a good job so that I can always support myself.

My family background has taught me to work hard and to value education. It has also taught me the hardships that come with a lack of education. I am proud of my Latina heritage and am privileged to be the first person in my family who will go to college. In the future, I hope that my children and their children will go to college too.

View the Pacific Sun article