SAN LEANDRO -- As graduation day approaches, some high school seniors without college plans fear they may have missed their chance to pursue higher education at the school of their dreams.

Hundreds of students in the East Bay were told this week that community college can be the key to their higher education goals, while saving them money.

"Honestly, the first two years in general ed, you are all taking the same classes, so it doesn't matter if you take them at a UC, or a CSU or a community college," 19-year-old Joy Obiri told a crowd of seniors at San Leandro High School on Thursday. Obiri, a chemistry major who transferred from a community college to UC Berkeley, interned at Intel during her second year at the community college and appreciated the smaller class sizes the school offered.

The gathering was one of 10 events from Oakland to Fremont offered all week as part of Alameda County Higher Education Week to provide worried seniors options and juniors a chance to meet up to 35 university recruiters from all over the country.

The event, now in its second year, was hosted by the Alameda County Office of Education, Cal State East Bay and UC Berkeley in partnership with the San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Oakland, Hayward and Fremont school districts. High school campuses were selected based on low test scores, officials said.

The events "bridge the gap between underrepresented students and higher education opportunities," said L. Karen Monroe, associate superintendent of education for the ¿office of education, in a statement.

At Thursday's senior workshop in San Leandro, students learned that some community colleges offer study abroad programs and that a Transfer Admission Guarantee program is available at six UC schools.

Jorge Benavides, of Costa Rica, told San Leandro seniors that if he can transfer from Oakland's Laney College to UC Berkeley, anyone can.

"I am a high school dropout. I was an illegal immigrant in the United States for a long period of my life. I got married, and I have a 3-year-old daughter," he said, wearing a Cal baseball cap. Community college, he said, "is the great secret. You are so lucky, you have no idea. You live in the Bay Area with top-notch everything. Silicon Valley is right there. Apple is an hour away from here," as are Stanford and UC Berkeley, he said.

"You are next to some of the smartest people on the planet. ... Seize on that and make it work to your advantage. It is really going to change your life."

San Leandro High seniors Deon Barron, who wants to study criminal justice and become a detective, and Yaneivi Quinn said the session was inspirational.

"It made me think it's not where you start, it's where you end," Barron said.

Quinn said higher education costs are an obstacle, but she hopes to soon receive a financial aid package to attend Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn.

"The more conversations you have about it, it's easier for you to understand and know what to expect," she said.

Money is also the issue for Kiyoshi Ito, who was accepted to state universities in the East Bay, Sacramento and San Jose. Ito wants a bachelor's degree, so he might more easily rank up and become a fire chief someday.

"Four years there is $100,000. ... We don't really have money right now, and I kind of messed up. I didn't apply for scholarships as much as I could have, so I am going to learn from my high school mistake and go to Berkeley City (College), then transfer out and go to University of Hawaii and use the money I can find," he said.

When senior Tekia Doby's college plans didn't pan out, she was discouraged and resisted the thought of attending community college at first.

"Since things didn't work out, and my family kind of looked down on community college, I was kind of discouraged about going," she said. "I was, like, 'Fine, then I just won't go,' but then that wouldn't help me pursue my career in medical, being a nurse. I am going to start off at community college."

Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/ashlyreports.