PHILADELPHIA -- Four University of Pennsylvania students with Native American roots are working with nearly 100 high school sophomores and juniors of Native American, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian descent who are on campus this week to learn how to navigate the college-application process.
Penn sophomores Sean Massa of San Jose, Calif., Ken Schindler of Eugene, Ore., Caroline Kee of Alexandria, Va., and Austin Lara of Modesto, Calif., are interning with College Horizons, a non-profit organization that supports the higher education of students with indigenous ethnicity through college admissions workshops. The program is at Penn through June 29.
Also during the week, the Penn sophomores are helping to introduce the high school students – including 17 Native Hawaiians -- to the University environment. There will be bonding activities, panels and group discussions, tours of the campus and the city, scavenger hunts, barbecues and both Penn games and a traditional Lakota game. Kee and Lara are even planning to stay in the campus residence halls along with the students.
By the end of the program, each participant will have completed a list of 10 colleges suited to individual interests, a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, a college admissions essay and standardized test tutorials.
“The goal is to provide them with the experience so that they gain the skills necessary to successfully navigate this complex process,” said Tina Fragoso, Penn regional admissions director and coordinator of Native American recruitment.
The four Penn students know personally how daunting the college-application process can be.
Schindler, a member of the Miskito tribe, said he never thought college was in his future until he attended a similar program for aspiring first generation college students two years ago at Princeton.
“Before then, I didn't think going to college was feasible,” the physics and astrophysics major said. “That’s when I visited Penn and fell in love with it. It was a distant dream that worked out.”
Lara said he actually met a Penn rep at the College Horizons session he attended in 2010 in Wisconsin.
“She talked about the vast traditions, challenging curriculum and its location in Philly. These all impressed me so I decided to apply. Looking at the stats I was doubtful of getting in; however, when April came, I read the letter and declared myself a Quaker.”
Kee and Massa both heard about Penn through college representatives who came to their schools.
“I came to Penn because of its diverse group of students, urban location and because of the amazing health and societies department for undergraduates,” said Kee, who will likely major in health and societies and minor in creative writing.
Though it was Penn’s admissions packet that sold Massa on Penn, it was the University’s financial-aid package that sealed the deal. Of the eight schools that admitted him, Penn, with its grants instead of loans, offered the best value, he said. He’s majoring in biological basis of behavior.
All four have extensive campus involvement that goes beyond the classroom, but central to most is the organization Natives at Penn. Housed at Greenfield Intercultural Center, Natives at Penn offers activities to build Native community on campus and to raise awareness of the needs of Native students.
“It’s just like Grandma’s house!” Massa said of GIC.
When he first came to campus, Massa, who is Apache and Hawaiian, said it was somewhat overwhelming. He found it hard to find a job and he was homesick. But now he has a home away from home in GIC, landed a job in a neurosciences lab and credits Natives at Penn and the campus Christian organization PENNCru with giving him friendships and community. He also enjoys singing with the New Spirit of Penn gospel choir.
Kee, a member of the Choctaw tribe, serves as an undergraduate co-chair of Natives at Penn, is a member of Delta Phi Eta (St. Elmo Club) and is WQHS radio D.J.
Lara, of the Washoe tribe, said he’s majoring in philosophy, political science and economics.
“With these skills I hope to get into one of the top law schools in the country and become a lawyer focusing on contractual and copyright law,” he said.
And Schindler? In addition to Natives at Penn -- he’s actually working part-time there this summer – Schindler is on the varsity crew team, joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and is a member of Kite and Key and the Japanese Student Association.
And what is the most important thing they hope their young charges will learn this week?
“To stop thinking ‘I’m not going to get into these crazy schools, no way,’” Massa said, “and realize that opportunities and resources are there; they just have to go after them and be passionate.”
“I want,” Schindler said, “to give them the awareness that they should follow their dreams, tell them: the tools are here for you; don’t be apathetic about your future.”
“I think this program is an incredible opportunity,” Kee said, “because we can help other kids applying to colleges by sharing important tips and insights from our own unique experiences.”
Lara planned to share his story of how he survived freshman year in hopes that they will survive it too.
“I want to reassure them that it is okay to travel outside of their bubble and to try a new experience,” he said.
Fragoso, of the Nanticoke Lenni Lenape tribe, said that the GIC, Penn’s Office of Admissions and College Horizons partnered to create these internships. Typically only graduates of College Horizons are invited to serve as interns.
“We had such a strong and passionate group of students in Natives at Penn this year,” she said, “that we in Penn’s College Horizon planning group wanted them to be very involved in the program.
“Not only will they be working in the program, they have been very involved in the planning of the event. They have shown tremendous leadership, and we thought interning in this program would enable them to also develop these leadership qualities and enhance their Penn experience.”
Though Penn has had a seven-year relationship with College Horizons, this is the first time the workshops will be held here.
Additional information about College Horizons is available at this link.