ALAMEDA -- Almost every St. Joseph Notre Dame High School student goes on to college.
Out of 100 seniors who graduated last June, 98 percent are attending college -- 87 percent are in four-year schools. Those impressive numbers may get even better in the coming years thanks to the Alameda school's "Path to College" program, which just added a full-time college counselor, Dr. Angelica Bailon.
Bailon, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Fordham University and received a doctorate from Loyola Marymount University, was the first in her family to go to college, so she knows how difficult it can be to navigate the admissions process.
"When you serve a diverse community like St. Joe's, where some students' parents have gone to college and other students may be the first in their family to go, it's important to provide some basic foundational information so they can wrap their minds around what they need to do," Bailon said.
That foundation starts in ninth grade, when Bailon visits freshman classrooms to open the door to a conversation about college. She explains the differences between four-year and two-year colleges, talks about public and private universities and describes what a major is. It's the first step in helping students develop skills that will support them in the college application process.
Sophomores participate in career assessments, personality testing and developing self-advocacy skills that will be necessary for writing personal statements and completing college and scholarship applications down the line. Juniors get individual counseling and are encouraged to attend college representatives' visits to the high school campus. Seniors work closely with Bailon in deciding where they want to apply, looking at all of their options and completing all of the requirements of the application process.
"It's really a process of self-discovery," Bailon said. "I'm acting as a coach on the sidelines."
One of the tools St. Joseph's provides is Naviance, a personalized college guidance website that helps students find colleges that match their interests, plan which courses they need to take to meet college requirements and track deadlines. Students start with their own research and Bailon helps them refine it.
Senior Nigel Duniven used Naviance to research colleges with strong nursing programs. The first in his family to go to college, Duniven is interested in a four-year degree program and hopes to eventually pursue an advanced degree. He has applied to Stanford, the University of San Francisco and several University of California campuses.
"Dr. Bailon has been a really valuable resource to me," Duniven said. "I couldn't imagine doing it without having her beside me throughout the whole process. From the beginning, she helped me organize what kinds of colleges I want to go to. I had this long list, and she helped me narrow it down. Moving on in the process, she helped me keep up with deadlines and helped me plan my personal statement, and then she helped with getting my transcripts and everything sent out. I couldn't imagine doing all of that by myself."
Junior Kimberley Gonzalez, also the first in her family to go to college, wants to be a biomedical engineer. She found out about the field during a college representative's visit to St. Joseph's.
"In the fall, I attended a lot of the college visits to get an idea of what different colleges are out there and what they are requiring of students," Gonzalez said. "It helped me to form my idea of what I want to do in my career and when I go to college, whether I want a master's degree or a Ph.D."
During the visit, she discovered a very specific area of research that she wants to pursue.
"There's a subcategory of biomedical engineering that has to do with tissue regeneration," Gonzalez said. "It involves creating organs from different body cells."
She used Naviance to research colleges with strong departments and found two schools, the University of Miami and the University of Southern California.
As most parents know all too well, however, getting into college isn't the only hurdle. Somebody has to pay for it. While St. Joseph's graduates often receive generous financial aid packages -- students in the Class of 2012 were offered a total of $3.16 million in scholarships -- the cost of a college education can be overwhelming. St. Joseph's hosts a financial aid night for parents.
"Affordability is a huge issue," Bailon said. "I went to a private school. I know what the costs are. I know what the debt load is. Those are decisions that need to be made with real care, and that is what we are here to guide them to do."
Many parents pay big money to get the kind of assistance that Bailon is able to offer at no extra cost through St. Joseph's Path to College program. She balks at taking credit for it, though.
"I'm the go-to person but we have so many amazing people who support the students along the way," Bailon said. "Teachers, staff members, parents and other family members are a really important support system. Everybody is moving toward that same goal. It makes the job I do much easier because there are so many people patting the students on the back all along the way."