By Sue Pascoe
My favorite days in the fall are when I read college application essays by seniors at Palisades High School. I often help students brainstorm about topics that will allow a college to get to know them better, which is really the point of the essay.
Most of the kids I work with come from families that can’t afford a writing coach or a personal college counselor and try to write what they think a college will want to hear: usually about some sort of community-service project.
But colleges want to know what makes this teenager unique, and so we start talking.
For example, a kid who got up at 5 a.m. to take a train and then two buses to get to Pali on time didn’t at first think that was worthy of writing about. His assumption was that everyone would work that hard to go to school— that the 90 minutes of travel time was nothing special.
Or the kid who came to this country as an elementary school student, speaking only Farsi, yet gradually not only learned to speak fluent English, but served as an interpreter or her family. She also found a part-time job to help support the family when her father lost his job.
Another student was raising his sibling. Why? His single mother worked as a nanny for a family in the Palisades, and the hours she worked were at the family’s whim.
Why didn’t the mother quit? According to the student, his mom wanted her kids to be in a good school and was able to use the address for her kids. There was no bitterness that his mom was sometime gone on weekends.
He understood that his mother thought that an education was the most important thing in the world.
There was the kid whose father was in jail, and I wondered, Do you write about it for a college essay? (Yes.) Do you talk about the trips to see your dad? (Yes.) And how many more household responsibilities did this kid have than your average senior?
For numerous kids I have worked with, English was a second language, but some of them spoke three or four fluently. Yet because that skill was just part of their day-to-day life, they never realized how unique it is in the United States; they just assumed everyone was like them.
Almost all parents in Pacific Palisades expect their kids to attend college, and that expectation is shared at PaliHi, where 91 percent of last year’s graduating seniors pursued higher education.
About one-third of this year’s seniors are on free and reduced lunch plans, which means that the annual income for a family of four is less than $31,590, which brings us to the “Off to College” fund.
Three years ago, four girls were accepted to a private college in Minnesota. All were the first in their family to go to college, but even though their tuition and board were paid for, their families couldn’t afford winter clothes or the transportation cost to get them to and from the school.
I wrote about their plight in the Palisades News and residents came forward with donations.
Two years ago, one student I helped with an essay received a four-year full ride to M.I.T. and had the same problem. The College Center gave me a list of 11 kids with the greatest needs, who would be attending Long
Beach State, M.I.T., Morehouse College, UC Riverside, Sonoma State, UC Merced, San Jose State, Columbia College Chicago, International Fashion Academy in Paris, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and UC Santa Cruz.
I asked residents to “treat” these kids to a gift card as an “Off to College” mini-scholarship, and all 11 students received some help.
Now, Palisades Optimist Club member Don Scott has more formally organized an “Off to College Fund,” in which Palisadians can aid a low income college-bound senior.
Last year, 44 donors gave a total of $5,950. This allowed for one $2,000 scholarship and 16 Target gift cards that could be used to purchase dorm items, such as sheets and pillows.
It’s that time of year, and once again we’re appealing to good-hearted people in the Palisades.
“We are asking residents to help support our community asset [PaliHi and its students],” said Scott. “By giving a hand to more graduating students, we make Pali an even more attractive school to attend.”
College Counselor Diana Hurst said, “Many of our top students are offered scholarships for merit or need, but there is always a gap between the actual out-of-pocket cost and the scholarships or grants they receive. Some low-income graduates will take a bus to college because their families can’t afford to drive them or pay for airline tickets.”
Contributions can be made to the Palisades Optimist Foundation (tax ID # 95-4706527), with checks sent to P.O. Box 242, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, or left with Arnie Wishnick at the Pacific Palisades Chamber of Commerce office, 15330 Antioch St., or contact the College Center 310-230-6643.