By Deanna C. White
For New York native Maria Prestigiacomo, the path to college was something she could always clearly envision. That's because her parents, Italian immigrants who came to the United States to pursue their dream of a better life, worked hard to teach their four children to appreciate the value of education.
"My dad instilled a drive to learn in us", Prestigiacomo said. "He taught us the importance of rising above challenges to earn our degree."
So when Prestigiacomo, now a senior associate at Ernst & Young in Boston, Massachusetts, had the chance to pass that drive along to others, she didn't hesitate.
Prestigiacomo is one of more than 200 Ernst & Young employees in the United States helping low-income high school students see college as a reality by participating in the firm's College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence) initiative.
Cosponsored by the nonprofit College for Every Student (CFES) organization, College MAP is a formal mentoring program for underserved students, designed to demystify the process of applying to and paying for college.
Launched in 2009, College MAP encourages students who might not have considered applying to college to do so by matching teams of Ernst & Young mentors with groups of high school students for monthly sessions focused on accessing higher education.
Mentors instill in students the lifelong benefits of higher education, help them navigate the college application and financial aid process, familiarize them with campus life, and teach the study and persistence skills necessary for long-term success.
Program organizers say the students are a diverse group. They come from twelve different cities, including Chicago, San Jose, and New York. Many are first- or second-generation Americans. Numerous students are the first in their families to attend college. Some have endured personal hardships. All require financial aid to complete their education.
It's a program widely embraced by the Ernst & Young community, Ernst & Young officials say; perhaps no surprise given the fact nearly one-third of all Ernst & Young employees are the first in their families to graduate from college.
To date, more than 145 high school seniors from across the United States have successfully completed the two-year College MAP program. Ninety-percent have enrolled in colleges across the country.
For Boston native Jessica Diaz, who was mentored by Prestigiacomo and is majoring in nursing at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the opportunity to participate in the College MAP program transformed her journey to college from a nebulous and distant idea into a very real and achievable goal.
"During my junior year of high school, the last thing I thought about was college. I didn't know when I should begin planning for college or what first steps I should take to enroll", Diaz said. "When College MAP came into the picture I realized that I was just in time. Without them my journey to college would have been much more difficult and much more stressful."
Diaz said College MAP's step-by-step guidance with the college application process, monthly "buddy sessions" with mentors, and college visits were invaluable in ensuring she successfully enrolled in college and opened her eyes to the educational opportunities available to her and cemented her goals.
"Even after I started my first year of college, College MAP helped me with college materials that I needed, and I still keep in touch with my College MAP mentor and people I met through the program", Diaz said. "I'm extremely grateful for the help I received through College MAP."
Prestigiacomo said it has been both an honor and a delight to see her mentees, including Diaz, grow from tentative high school juniors with nebulous and undefined college dreams, to successful and determined college students firmly on their path to success.
"It has been great to see them become more optimistic about their futures", Prestigiacomo said. "Many of these students are conditioned to believe that when they graduate from high school their only option is to go directly into the workforce. We make sure they know they aren't limited to just one choice. We want to open their minds to options they aren't necessarily exposed to."
Like her father, Prestigiacomo hopes that spirit trickles down to the next generation.
"I really hope the students we work with develop an appreciation for the value of education and can serve as role models to their peers", Prestigiacomo said. "I hope they can show others there are struggles and barriers into getting to college, but if they stick to it, they can achieve their goals."