High school students filter into the large meeting room in the Education Building at Canal Alliance after finishing up their tutoring and after-school activities in smaller adjoining classrooms, each room named after a California university.
As the last group of students leave ‘Chico State’ and settle into their seats, a few quickly check school assignments on their laptops while others chat with friends and instructors. “College Signing Day” reads the large projector at the front of the room and a nearby table is filled with fruit, flowers, and celebratory sweets.
Over the next hour, the graduating seniors are recognized for their culminating high school academic achievement – matriculation at a college or university – and share their reflections about the transition ahead.
One student tells the group that she will study Journalism at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a campus she fell in love with during a visit. Another student will pursue a business degree and has his sights set on becoming an investment manager.
The students express a range of emotions, from excitement about the independence that college will bring to nerves about leaving the community. “My whole life I have had a lot of responsibility,” one senior notes, “but college will be my first time away from home.”
Championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama, College Signing Day is marked at schools and after-school programs around the country to celebrate students who are committed to pursuing an education past high school. The national statistics, shared with the group gathered at the event, underscore the obstacles and the inequities that were overcome by the students in the Canal Alliance program: While 44% of students nationally attend college, only 21% of Latino students attend college. Of those, only 51% of Latinos complete a bachelor’s degree in six years, compared to 59% of their white peers.
The College Signing Day event is as much for the underclassmen in the audience as the seniors being recognized. The younger students in the audience, grades 9 to 11, hear tips about the college application process – ‘apply to your reach school’ and ‘start your applications early’ – and the advice from the graduates to take full advantage of clubs and classes during high school.
Over their middle school and high school years in the intensive after-school program at Canal Alliance, each cohort of University Prep (UP!) students receives academic and social-emotional support toward the goal of earning a degree at a four-year university. When they arrive on college campuses as first-generation students, they have ongoing support of senior Canal Alliance staff for over four years thanks to an emerging, innovative College to Career program.
Despite the fact that the Class of 2022 spent roughly half of their high school years learning remotely, there are surprisingly few mentions of the countless challenges – social, academic, or familial — that were wrought by the pandemic. Instead, the seniors are hopeful and focused on their future, and the possibilities ahead for themselves and their families.