The college experience is intimidating for any student, let alone a student from a low-income upbringing in Richmond.
For DeMario Brown, a student-athlete at California State University, Bakersfield, the college intimidation factor wasn’t the consequence of being the only person of color in a classroom. That actually has been motivating for him. And while college coursework can be rigorous, Brown, an engineering major and member of the college track team, has found that adequate effort makes the grades go up.
What Brown has found most challenging about college, in fact, is staying focused amid the realities of life back home. That means answering dreaded phone calls in his dorm room about close friends who have died, including Javoni and Khalil Foster, brothers who were both fatally shot in incidents that occurred 17 months apart over the last two years.
It doesn’t take much of a distraction to derail a college career — almost 27 percent of students drop out of school after their first year, according to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Then again, Brown says, it also doesn’t take much to keep a college career on track.
In Brown’s case, all it took was a 30 minute phone call, once every two weeks, with someone who cares.
A graduate of Making Waves Academy in Richmond, Brown benefits from the College & Alumni Program (CAP), a Bay Area college success program that partners students from underserved families with specialized coaches. The coaches provide both academic support while also focusing on mental health and personal struggles.
Along with his supportive mother, Brown credits his CAP coach, Ryan Grady, with keeping him focused on his college and career goals. After Khalil’s death, an immensely distracted Brown went on to fail two of four finals and ended up on probation for his track scholarship. And after Javoni’s passing, Brown thought, “I just want to go home. I’m done. I’m defeated.”
But over that period, Brown did not quit, partly because Grady kept him engaged. In bi-weekly phone calls, Grady became his motivator. Brown said he appreciated being able to vent to someone. More importantly, Grady helped Brown strategize a path to success, providing input on scheduling, coursework and resources.
“When all of this was happening, especially when I messed up badly on my coursework sophomore year, we had bi-weekly meetings to be sure everything was OK,” Brown said. “He was somebody who wasn’t family or friends. It’s been a blessing. Without him advising me and motivating me every week, I probably would have dropped out that first time stuff went badly.”
CAP available to eligible students Bay Area-wide
A creation of the Making Waves Foundation, CAP began as a success story at the former Making Waves Education Program. Making Waves has now also grown to a charter school, Making Waves Academy, serving students from 5th through 12th grades. All students at the school benefit from the CAP program.
The program has since expanded and is now being offered to eligible low-income students throughout the Bay Area. Starting freshman year, students can apply to receive one-on-one college coaching, a personal Financial Services Coordinator, up to $5,000 of need-based scholarship funding annually for up to five years, and professional and peer networking opportunities.
Students interested in CAP Bay Area should apply now, as the deadline is Dec. 11. Click here to apply and for more information, including eligibility.
“For all college freshman, we talk to them 30 minutes every single week,” Grady said. “For all of our returning students, we call them every other week.”
CAP coaches use a database to track student GPAs and other data that help keep track of student progress.
“Mental health issues, physical health issues, when families members pass away — there can be so many things that can get in the way of a student realizing their big dream,” Grady said. “By talking to them every week, we’re able to catch them if they’re having one of their moments, remind them of their big dream…remind them of their strengths.”
Every meeting, goals are created to keep participants moving forward as a student, young professional and person, Grady said.
So far, the results are promising.
“Eighty-three percent of our students are on pace to graduate within six years,” he said.
That’s double what it was before CAP started, Grady said.
Grady praised Brown for being “so coachable,” self-aware and willing to be pushed and challenged.
“He committed to a lifestyle as an engineering major,” Grady said. “And that’s not a major, it’s a lifestyle.”
Brown, now succeeding at CSU Bakersfield, is jumping at the opportunity to recommend the CAP program to other students.
“Having him in my corner and the CAP program supporting me, I recommend that for anybody,” he said.
Brown says one of his dreams, still very much on track, is creating the next wave of electric cars. His grandfather, who worked for Union Pacific and Amtrak, was into cars, trains and building things, and he said that rubbed off on him. Inspiration certainly goes a long way.