Two years ago, Adriana Maldonado hadn’t thought much about college. Now, the Atrisco Heritage Academy senior is about to send applications to 14 schools, including Stanford, Columbia and Vassar.
She credits friend and mentor Daisy Astorga for pushing her to dream big.
“My parents don’t really know what to do – they didn’t go to college,” said Maldonado, an aspiring nurse. “Daisy made my mind open.”
At 19, Astorga is only a year older than Maldonado, but she’s a pro at the application process, earning a Gates Millennium Scholarship to Smith College in Northampton, Mass. The competitive liberal arts school, one of the famous “Seven Sisters,” has big green lawns, old brick buildings and $46,000-per-year tuition.
“It’s a dream just to be at Smith,” said Astorga, whose mother is an immigrant with two fast-food jobs. “I tell everyone, ‘Work hard, believe in yourself and apply to everything.’ ”
Astorga is driven to pass that motto on to other Albuquerque students, particularly kids with “all the statistics against them.”
Last fall, she launched Atrisco Heritage Academy’s chapter of Students With Ambition Go to College, or SWAG, a Houston-based organization that pairs teens with college mentors.
Forty-five Atrisco students signed up to participate, including Maldonado, who became friends with Astorga through varsity soccer. The pair discuss Maldonado’s college plans every week, either in person or over the phone, and work on a list of concrete monthly goals like “complete personal statement” or “create study schedule.”
“It helps make it less overwhelming,” Maldonado said.
Astorga, who applied to 50 college scholarships, is also her mentee’s biggest cheerleader, stressing that she shouldn’t be afraid of rejections because they are part of life.
“You can’t take it personally,” Astorga said. “Things will work out.”
That positive attitude has impressed Raj Salhotra, a Harvard Law student who helped launch SWAG to College in 2015.
“Daisy is by far one of the best mentors we have,” he said. “She is the real deal. We have been incredibly fortunate to have her as part of the team.”
SWAG to College currently serves 225 mentees from 41 schools – numbers Astorga hopes to boost with more New Mexico participants. This fall, she will approach several local high schools about joining the program.
Research shows that mentorship organizations can make a big difference, particularly for kids with disadvantaged backgrounds.
A 2011 study, titled “The Role of Mentoring in College Access and Success,” found that it boosts interest in college among students whose parents did not attend higher education. In addition, minority college students who received mentoring were twice as likely to persist and earned higher GPAs than those who weren’t mentored.
Maldonado said she has seen the value of mentoring first-hand and is determined to pay it forward. Already, she’s talking to her neighbor and three younger sisters about becoming their mentor one day.
“They won’t have any excuses not to go to college,” Maldonado said.