By Deanna C. White
As a young man growing up in the Bronx, Dennis Pacheco always knew what he wanted – to become a chef. To achieve his goal, he wanted to attend college and major in culinary arts.
But despite his mother’s unwavering inspiration and his enthusiasm to earn a degree, the challenge of being the first person in his family to attend college, the cost of tuition, and the lengthy and confusing application process led Pacheco to believe his dream was unattainable.
This fall, however, thanks to the assistance of a new mentoring initiative, College MAP (Mentoring for Access and Persistence), co-sponsored by the nonprofit College for Every Student and Ernst & Young, Pacheco will take the first steps toward his culinary career at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York.
Launched in 2009, College MAP is designed to demystify the process of applying to and affording college. The program encourages students who might not have considered applying to college to do so. More than 120 high school seniors from across the United States have successfully completed the College MAP program and will enroll in college in the fall.
“Without the MAP program, I highly doubt I would be going to college,” Pacheco said. “The MAP mentors walked us through every single step in the application process, from applying for financial aid to SAT prep. We were never left alone.”
College MAP matches 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 nine different cities. 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.
Pacheco was one of twelve students in the first graduating class of high school students from the College MAP chapter in the Bronx. The students were honored at a June 14 College MAP graduation ceremony to celebrate the completion of the pilot program and their acceptance into college.
Dave Sewell, senior manager at Ernst & Young and College MAP program manager in New York, said, “I strongly believe if we didn’t get involved, there was no way these kids were going to college. They came from schools that have traditionally had low graduation rates, and the number of students who went on to college was even less. To see all twelve of them succeed and go to college is incredible. These were students who had potential, but were stuck in the middle of the road and just needed a little push to get them over the hump.”
Sewell affirmed that many students in College MAP are the first in their families to attend a college or university and, as such, they can be unfamiliar with, or even intimidated by, the application process. A scenario, Sewell says, he knows well: “I relate to these kids because I was one of them. I grew up in the Bronx. I was the first one in my family to go to college. When I got to college, I realized that just changing my attitude and my work habits made a huge difference. I went from a 2.0 GPA in high school to a 3.98 GPA in college. I’m someone they can see as a role model.”
He isn’t alone. One-third of all Ernst & Young employees are the first in their families to graduate from college. “If you think about the demographics, it’s not hard to imagine why we had so many people wanting to volunteer and give back to the community,” Sewell said. “It wasn’t a hard sell.”
Many dedicated mentors have gone above and beyond the parameters of the College MAP curriculum, taking students on college tours, helping them apply for summer jobs, and making themselves available to students for advice and support even after students have completed the program.
In aspiring-chef Pacheco’s case, that above-and-beyond effort included arranging a private tour of executive chef Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York City. “When you hear stories like that . . . you take a kid who’s never been in a restaurant before, then take him into one of Bobby Flay’s kitchens . . . you know it’s going to make an impact,” Sewell said.
It is an impact that was not lost on Pacheco, who said, “Meeting with the executive chef at Mesa Grill showed me this career isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to be a lot of hard work and networking. It will help me stay focused in college.”
But Pacheco said the restaurant tour is just one of the life-changing impressions College MAP has made on him. “This program changed my entire perspective. Before this program, I was laid back and I just let things come to me. Now I don’t just follow my dreams, I lead them.”
To learn more about these aspiring college students, read the best college admissions essays submitted by Pacheco and other 2011 College MAP scholars.