Paying it forward: Pomona College program preps high schoolers for success

Associate Dean and Director of the Draper Center Sefa Aina, left, with Andres Aguilar, director of Pomona College Academy for Youth Success program and the Draper’s assistant director for educational outreach. Courier photo/Andrew Alonzo

by Andrew Alonzo |

On June 25, Pomona College welcomed 33 high schoolers for its annual Pomona College Academy for Youth Success, or PAYS, four-week academically rigorous summer program meant to prepare students for college and life beyond.

The program began in 2002 with a similar goal of serving underprivileged and under-resourced youth from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties.

“The need has always been there,” said Andres “Fluffy” Aguilar, director of PAYS and assistant director for educational outreach at the Draper Center. “Most of the schools that [students] are looking at, like Pomona College, all these small liberal arts schools, these elite schools, have always been predominately white institutions.

“How do we make sure those that need to be in these spaces are occupying those spaces? We know all our students are capable, so it’s [figuring out] what’s holding them back. We want to make sure we’re preparing our students to be critical thinkers of the world.”

Sefa Aina, associate dean and director of the Draper Center, echoed Aguilar’s comments.

“The kinds of schools that our students aspire to go to are highly selective institutions and we really focus on helping them get there,” he said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is demystify the whole process.”

From the get-go, PAYS is an emulation of college. Students must complete a free application, produce two letters of recommendation, two essays, and attach their current transcripts. If they’re selected there is no fee to attend the program, which costs Pomona College about $4,000 per student, Aina and Aguilar said.

The program is meant to help high schoolers take the next step in their academic careers by getting involved with college research projects alongside faculty, through application readiness courses, weekly field trips, math and critical inquiry classes, and electives of their choosing.

The program also helps sophomores choose high school courses that best help them reach their dream schools. Juniors go through 13 weeks of SAT prep. Seniors can polish their college applications as well, who “By the time they leave here in the summer, they’ll have a working application ready to be sent out,” Aina said.

Program alumni include recipients of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Gates, and Questbridge scholarships. Beyond prestigious accolades, Aina said the program’s success leans heavily on current students following in the footsteps of their older peers.

“These are neighborhood kids,” he said. “These are the kids from these schools, and the kids who come now can see that. They’ll hopefully find some hope and optimism in the fact that these folks who have done it have come back to help the next generation.”

Aguilar added the longevity of the program has produced new avenues for students.

“Within that work of 20 years long, there’s people who are doctors, lawyers doing amazing things, teachers, professionals all over the world,” he said. “It’s like, we can connect you; what do you want to do?”

Born and raised in San Bernardino, Aguilar is a proud PAYS alumnus. He attests to the full circle affect the program can have on its alumni.

“Allowing students to see that success is possible, is not only my story but there’s so many more other alums that have different paths and very successful stories,” he said.

The program saw about 217 applicants this year and accepted just 33. Applicants are typically already taking advanced courses and have consistently high grade point averages. Most are also looking to become a first-generation college student.

The program runs weekdays from June 26 to July 21. A 7 p.m. closing ceremony is set for Friday, July 21 at Bridges Hall of Music, 150 E. Fourth St., Claremont, and will feature a graduation ceremony for rising senior PAYS students. Alumni attending Stanford, Brown, and the Universities of California at Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Diego in the fall will also be recognized.

“These young people are very hopeful and focused on getting into a great school, not just for themselves but for their whole family and the whole community,” Aina said. “This is a complete college effort. It’s a full-court press with regards to getting these kids to be successful.”

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