Transcript of the episode “Paying it forward: a peer-staffed program for navigating college admissions”

[00:00:15] Jon M: I’m Jon Moscow.

[00:00:17] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Michael Sanchez. Mr. Sanchez is founder and executive director of Circle Match, a program to help students in underserved public high schools navigate the college admissions process. Circle Match was known as TCAT until this month. Welcome, Michael! 

[00:00:39] Mike S: Hi, Amy and Jon, it’s so nice to see both of you, and I’m so excited to meet, albeit virtually. 

[00:00:45] Jon M: So are we. Would you speak about your own K through 12 and college admission experiences? 

[00:00:52] Mike S: Yeah, sure. I would love to. So on my end, I ended up actually going to private school from kindergarten through the eighth grade. And the reason why is that my parents were getting divorced, so it just made more sense to go to a place where I’d be able to go to the same school for a long period of time as opposed to having to move a lot and go to different schools and different school districts. But then from there, we, I mean, me and my parents, went through the high school application process and through a bunch of what I thought were, at that point, unfortunate events.

I ended up at a public high school. In retrospect, I realize that this is one of the best things that could have happened to me. But I ended up at a public school in West New York, New Jersey, called Memorial High School, and we’re a Title One high school. Specifically, the majority of students are Hispanic. 

There are lots of first-gen low-income students, and also lots of students who were ESL and multilingual learners. I ended up doing really well at my high school and I really loved the culture there and I was able to really thrive at my school. I. Four years later, I was named valedictorian, student council president, and a bunch of other really great awards, and I ended up being admitted to four different Ivy League schools, so Yale, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown.

I ended up ultimately matriculating to Yale. I just graduated from Yale this past June or this past May. So here I am. That’s my education journey, I guess the SparkNotes version of it. 

[00:02:16] Amy H-L: How did your experience influence the concept for Circle Match? 

[00:02:22] Mike S: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think what ended up happening was, in preparing to apply to high schools, I wasn’t really admitted to the schools I really wanted to go to, and schools I was admitted didn’t receive financial aid, so it wasn’t feasible. I think having that experience of an application process. Instead of studying for the SAT, we were studying for the SSAT. We had high school interviews as opposed to college interviews. We had safety schools and reach schools and match schools and all of those different things, and so it was a very involved process. But I think having the experience of having applied to something so young, I then knew what a college application process would look later on.

I think there’s also the fact that I was part of this college-going culture in that I went to elementary and middle schools where the rest of my peers were all considering going to college and all had talks about that already at a very young age. And so when I got to my high school, those conversations weren’t necessarily happening as much. Students didn’t know if they wanted to go to college. Students didn’t know a lot about it. And that’s part of being in a culture where you’re feeling disconnected from the college-going process. And so that’s how Circle Match first started. I knew a lot about the college application because I knew about high school applications. And so I started talking to my peers about applying to college. People started coming to me for help on what’s a GPA. How does this work? And you know, at this point I was maybe a year or two younger than the other students who were asking me these questions, but I knew enough so I tried to answer. What ended up happening was, going into my senior year of high school, my mom was able to afford a college advisor, whom we essentially hired. We knew that our school, my high school, didn’t necessarily have the resources to navigate or to help me navigate applying to an elite college.

I knew I had a solid shot, but I didn’t know how solid of a shot. And so I remember during one of those first meetings we were chatting and according to the algorithm that they had had, They told me Michael, you have a 60% shot of being admitted to Cornell and a 40% shot of getting admitted to Yale. And I just saw those stats and I, at this point, these universities, Yale had a 5% acceptance rate, Cornell a 9% acceptance rate. And so hearing those numbers be so high for me, really, really weird. I never expected it. But then I think that college advising really meant that I was able to then attend these really amazing colleges, but then graduating from high school in those last final moments when I saw our salutatorian got rejected to our local state school, and people around me weren’t really going to college or it wasn’t affordable, so they had to go to community college, which isn’t a bad option, but these students were so compelling academically and so intellectual that if they had the right resources and the right guidance and the right handholding that’s necessary and one-on-one attention, they could have been admitted to selective universities with very generous financial aid offers that could have opened up a whole world of possibilities. And so the week before I graduated high school, I spoke to the principal of my school and asked if it was is it okay to talk to some of the rising seniors about the college application process. And then from there, that’s how college guidance started, that’s how Circle Match started. 

[00:05:47] Jon M: How does Circle Match work?

[00:05:49] Mike S: I love talking about how Circle Match works. I’m excited to share this with you. Essentially, the way it works on a macro scale is we partner with different high schools. Specifically, we’re looking for schools where the majority of students are on free and reduced-price lunches. We look for schools where many students are students of color. We also look at test scores to make sure that we’re not partnering with schools that may serve low-income students but have enough resources. You know, is this a magnet school where there’s an entire college-going culture by virtue of them having selective admissions? Is it a charter school, which would also most likely have lots of parents who are informed about application processes because they’re able to be involved for some reason? And so we partner with these kinds of schools. 

[00:06:38] Jon M: You partner with the schools where they have the resources or with the schools that don’t have the resources? 

[00:06:43] Mike S: The schools that don’t have resources. And specifically serving many low-income students. And then from there, we work with a cohort of around five students per year.

Every student who applies to Circle Match, regardless if they’re admitted or rejected, gets personalized application feedback. 

And so what we do is we work with students from January of their junior year all the way through around January of their senior year, when the formal programming ends. And so this covers them applying to multiple scholarship programs and also applying to college. And so our students apply to College Prep Scholars and QuestBridge. 

It’ll help if I explain that Quest Bridges first. It offers four-year full rides to students who are low-income if they’re admitted to some of their partner schools, which are some of the best universities in the country. And College Prep Scholars is actually a feeder program to that program. And so we just want our students to get iterations and iterations and iterations of applications because they’ve never had to spend a month on an application before. They don’t know how much time is necessary for their application to really stand out. Because so many students who apply to these schools and apply to these programs have stellar academic backing. They’ve worked hard, but now they need to be very thoughtful about how they display that. 

After that, our students apply early action or early decision to at least one college, usually a state college. And then, if they have time, a college outside of that as well. Afterward, our students apply regular decision to universities if they don’t match or get into a school early action that they’d like to go to. So this is just very standard college application stuff for the most part. 

But my favorite part is, because our students do not pay, we ask that they pay it forward. And what that means is they actually join the ranks of Circle Match advisors and Circle Match staff members. And they are actually helping make this operation continue to work. And so what that means is, let’s say a student applies to Circle Match, they’re admitted, and they’re receiving college admissions help. By the time they finish the program, they’ve actually been empowered to the point where they’re able to become actual advisors within their communities. And so that flips a script of the script of, I’d say, nonprofits as a whole, that one nonprofit leader who is saying, I’m going to help you. I think the nonprofit treats students as if they have nothing to really offer, but we believe our students have so much to offer. Our students are these community leaders, and so in giving them access or helping them gain access to some of the most selective universities in the US and in the world, you know, our students are able to become these leaders about college access. And then in doing that, we’re also able to sneakily check in on them and see how they’re doing in college because it’s really hard to navigate college as a first-gen, low-income student.

And so, It’s my favorite part. Our students who are paying it forward will actually reach out to their former advisors and ask for help. And so the students who are advising high school students now, will actually reach out to me and say, Hey, what college class should I take, or what do you think of my major in this instead of that? And so, while they are still helping their community, I, alongside other people who are older and have already graduated college in the Circle Match team, are able to also offer that advice. Because I think navigating a university, again as a first-gen, low-income student, but also as a student who attended a high school where not many students went to college, a high school that is disconnected from the college-going culture, we know there are very specific insights that we have. And so that’s my favorite part. I think enabling students to care about their communities and see that it’s something normal and something that’s expected and something that’s good. 

[00:10:22] Amy H-L: That’s really exciting. And just to clarify, first-gen means the first generation in their family to have gone to college, right?

[00:10:30] Mike S: Yeah. first-gen, or sometimes you’ll hear people say FGLI, which means first-generation low-income. 

[00:10:36] Amy H-L: That’s really exciting. And, of course, the fact that you’re also teaching ethics, this idea that we pay it forward and we have some loyalty and responsibility to our community to give back. When you say “we,” who is involved other than you? Obviously, this is a huge project.

[00:10:58] Mike S: Yeah, I mean there’s a really large “we” to match the really large project. I think a large part of our “we” is the students that we’ve advised in the past, and so that’s really exciting. They just, again, are joining us because they believe in it. And so I’ve had, I’m thinking right now of one student who was admitted to Vanderbilt and after she got into a bunch of universities besides Vanderbilt, I remember her texting me.” Michael, I am so excited to be a college advisor. I’m going to be the best college advisor out there. I have so many resources and so many ideas, and I learned so much from doing this, and I want to see people grow just like me.” And so she’s certainly part of the “we.”

There are also people who maybe weren’t in the program, but feel as if a community would benefit from this and so they’ve also joined us. For example, before Circle Match existed, so we started in 2019, in June of 2019, so before that I actually have, there were different alumni from my high school who reached out to me and asked to join. And they believe that they have some sort of nuanced idea, some sort of thing or belief or expertise that could really be helpful. And so that’s meant that we’ve had people volunteer to help with our photography. We’ve had people help with our videography. We’ve had people who’ve decided to step up as the director of strategy. One of my favorite stories is, I remember after starting this nonprofit around January of that year, the head of guidance counseling reached out to me and said, “Hey Michael, there’s another former alum who was interested in doing similar work. Here’s his name, connect with him on Facebook. I’m sure he’d love to talk more about this and see how he could join.”

And so that’s another way that we just kept growing. And so that’s how we met our director of strategy, Max. And so what happens with this is there’s a lot of people who care about this so much, but there’s just never really been some sort of structure in place for people to really help their communities in this college advising fashion and be hyper-focused on their community. And so “we” has also meant getting current college students who care about their communities, who are interested in college access work, and getting them to help their own communities.

And so that’s how we partnered with two of our four schools. One person, we were on the same floor of a dorm at Yale. He was a year younger than I, from East LA, and really wanted to help students from his high school. Another student, her college advisor, because she got free college advising through another nonprofit, her college advisor shared with me that her student was really interested in college advising. She was also going to Yale. I said, “Okay, great. Let’s have a conversation.” And then she shared that she would really want to help her community and that she actually had access to our stuff in the past through our public programming.

And so it’s really cool to see. I can say “we” very confidently, and we is an ever-evolving term at the same time, which is very cool. 

[00:13:57] Jon M: How do you help students deal with potential culture shock at Ivy League schools?

[00:14:03] Mike S: Yeah, I think the first thing is having our students really be intentional about the universities that they choose. Right. Most of our students are admitted to multiple really amazing universities. We’re able to get lots of full rides and that’s great, and so we want them to really tease out the options and really be able to understand what the differentiator is between each school. I think outside of that, there’s also a level of having our students through them paying it forward, they end up actually connecting with their communities. And that’s what I’ve noticed has actually helped alleviate our students’ feeling, at least a bit of feeling, that they’re imposters or they don’t fit into the school. Because in helping other students be admitted to these universities, you actually realize, “oh wait, this admissions officer didn’t make a mistake on me. They accepted another student the same year or the next year from my high school. That’s great.” And so I think there’s also a level of our students really connecting with other students who are maybe similarly first-gen, low-income or connecting with students who, I don’t know, maybe came from communities where not many students went to college. And so they’re able to really find community there, which really is a big, big part of feeling you fit in. Because in order to feel you fit into a university, you have to feel you fit into a community. And so by finding these micro-communities, because I love where I attended, but by no means was all of Yale for first-gen, low-income, or by no means is all of Yale Hispanic, queer males. The point is I was able to find smaller forms of community at these universities and that’s all we can ask for our students. So that’s our big thing for helping students get over all of that. 

[00:15:47] Jon M: What do you find in general about how students react, not just feel, but act off of encountering the giant differences sometimes in wealth and income and expectations and kids flying off to Europe for vacations and things like that? What feedback do you get from students and what was, well in your case, you had experienced some of those kinds of students when you were, I’m assuming, when you were in the private school. How do students respond to that?

[00:16:20] Mike S: it’s difficult, right. Many of our students have actually never really left the state. And so you go from students who’ve never left the state, suddenly they’re leaving the state for the first or second time in their lives, and they’re being put in a classroom with students who are leaving the state on a weekly basis or leaving the country on a monthly basis. And so it’s really difficult for our students, but again, we’ve created a community for them to be able to connect to their home roots. And so that makes things a lot easier and they’re able to actually just laugh it off, you know. And so in creating those cultures where they’re able to laugh it off, they’re able to really connect over how different their university is in comparison to their high school community. 

But at the same time, I think our students understand that they’re going to be attending universities that were historically and structurally not made for them. And I think that’s a really not-so-good feeling, to say the least in the most moderate terms possible. It’s a terrible feeling to go to a place that was not built for you. But I think there is a cost-benefit analysis that students need to do, where they realize while there might be moments of discomfort at this university, there’s also going to be an abundance of resources that I’m going to be getting because I attended that university.

Our students understand that in attending these schools, they are making huge pivotal shifts in their lives. And you know, there are so many great things to be coming for these students and for their families and for their communities. By just being at these universities, they are resisting this historically racist, historically classist institution. And so in them being there, they then also function as a means of representation for other people who look like them, who’ve experienced similar things as they have, who maybe have similar financial backgrounds. There are so many different things that they stand in to represent at these universities, and that can be really exhausting. But at the same time, our students are determined. They are our superstars, our heroes. They’re such hard workers. And so to see them not only attend some of the most rigorous universities in the US but also to want to help others be connected to that process because they think it’ll help them in the long run, I think is really empowering and amazing to see.

[00:18:56] Amy H-L: Are there existing affinity groups, Latiné affinity groups, at some of these schools? 

[00:19:03] Mike S: Yeah, there are. But what’s interesting about that, there’s actually lots of education research on this. Where we saw this butt up during the affirmative action ruling where people said, “Oh, things like affirmative action don’t work because they don’t attract low-income people of color as opposed to just people of color.” And so what ends up happening once universities go off of just race for admissions, it’s just not necessarily representative of everyone of all different income brackets. With that being said, it shouldn’t necessarily be representative of that, which is to say that if you place a Hispanic person at a university, they don’t need to be low income to prove their Latinidad, to prove their Hispanicness, right. And so them just being Hispanic is good enough, you know, that’s fine. And I think that when students go into these cultural centers in the past, they’ve actually felt the students don’t look like the majority of students at their high school.

That’s what happened with me personally. I remember going to the cultural center at Yale for Hispanic students, La Casa Cultural. Everyone there was trying their best, but the students looked different from what I was used to at my high school. I was used to just being able to speak in Spanish and everyone would understand me, and the majority of students around me were low-income. And when I went to a cultural center at Yale, many of the students were actually not low-income who were identified as Hispanic and Latinx. And so I think our students find some refuge there, maybe a cultural refuge, but understand that culture is a multifaceted thing. It’s not just ethnicity or race. There are other things that contribute to culture as well. And so when our students go to these spaces, they find some community, but they’ll find community in other places that aren’t necessarily called cultural centers, but maybe they’ll find it at a club meant for first-gen low-income students, or maybe they find it in a queer affinity group, or maybe they find it a group of students who are really passionate about, I don’t know, environmental welfare. And so that’s just to say that our students are able to find community in different spaces and while cultural centers are a part of it, that’s not the only piece. 

[00:21:12] Jon M: You said that you tend to focus on Ivy League schools or other prestigious schools. Obviously, there are hundreds or thousands of schools out there. Why have you made that decision or those decisions, and what are some of the ways that some of the students you’re working with make the decisions as to where they want to go? 

[00:21:31] Mike S: Yeah. We help our students apply to anywhere they want to go. I will say that the application processes to elite and selective universities are a lot more involved. Certain universities will ask students to write multiple essays, and these schools tend to be more selective, while the schools that are less selective might even ask the student not to write any essays at all, or they have an optional essay. And so in focusing on a more involved application, we’re able to actually support them more because there are more things that they need to get done. I think the other part is that at these elite and selective universities, they generally have more funding. They generally have larger endowments. They generally have more resources to actually support our students. Albeit through maybe let’s say financial aid or let’s say if it’s not financial aid, then through other kinds of work-study programs or through having a winter clothing grant for our students. And so there’s just more money to go around and also more opportunities. I think the other thing is our students want an academic challenge and so they want to go to a university where they’re going to feel really challenged and all university is challenging for nearly any student who goes to any kind of university.

I think there’s also something about being around your peers who are also seeking that same academic challenge. It’s really great for them, intellectually stimulating. And I think the last part is that at these universities they have higher graduation rates because you’re part of not just a college-going process, but a college completion process and college completion culture. So at an Ivy League institution that has 98 or 99% graduation rate, it’s going to almost guarantee that our student will graduate at some point from this university as opposed to attending a college with maybe a 50 or 60% graduation rate. Or maybe they end up not finding a community or being in a community where a lot of students are then dropping out. And especially now, when Latinx and Black students are facing a chronic dropout rate through university, I think it’s important that they go to a school where there’s a strong culture of actual completion. 

[00:23:37] Amy H-L: And what about the good but not great students who probably won’t get into Ivy League schools?

[00:23:43] Mike S: You help them apply to schools and identify funding sources. Yeah, I think that what we noticed at our high schools was a) that, we’re facing a huge teacher shortage and we’re facing a guidance counselor shortage. We’re facing just a staffing issue at high schools. Not everyone wants to be a teacher anymore because teaching is so much work, really not enough pay, and so our students are not necessarily getting supported. And so what ends up happening at a lot of these high schools and happened, my own personal experience, was there’s an underlying understanding that, hey, this kid is smart. These kids are smart. They’ll figure it out on their own. And so while they will figure it out, for the most part on their own, I think that, and by “it” I mean the college application process,. While they will figure out the college application process somewhat on their own, they won’t necessarily be admitted to the universities that’ll be the most generous financially for them. And that quickly becomes an issue because then our students are not attending the cheapest schools possible for them. They’re not attending the schools that are going to support them through graduation.

The other thing is, if a student applies to Circle Match, whether they’re rejected or admitted, they receive personalized feedback on their application with actionable goals on what they can do to improve their application, if it’s taking calculus or planning to earn an A in a specific class or joining extracurriculars or really going for that one leadership position that they’re so close to getting. And we also have public programming for partner schools, which any student, regardless of whether or not they’re in the program, can attend. These public programming calls in the past have looked like having an admissions officer and a director of financial education and financial aid from a university go talk to students about how to negotiate their financial aid offers. We had an Ivy League speaker panel where we had one student from each of the Ivy League schools go talk to students about what their experience is actually as specifically a student of color or a low-income student, and what they’ve seen to just humanize that process, humanize those schools a little bit. And we’ve gone past those schools now, too, where we have students that, not Ivy League schools also talking about their experience.

And so I think partially it’s an issue on our end where we don’t have enough volunteers to really make the most robust programming possible. But in the near future, we want to have more conversations about state schools and what they can offer and about non-elite colleges and what they can offer as well.

But I think right now our big focus is on big ticket schools that are going to offer students close to full rides, and it’s mostly going to be the cheapest option. 

[00:26:23] Jon M: West New York Memorial, from what you said, sounded as though they’re overwhelmingly Latiné. Obviously, there are many other students, African-American students, other students of color, and low-income whites who face many of the same issues. Have you been able to, or are you aiming to expand and be able to make connections with other communities of color? Or maybe you’ve already done so? 

[00:26:51] Mike S: Yeah, I think it has to do with the schools that we partner with. Right now we’re partnering with four schools. The majority of students are Hispanic, and so the majority of our students are also going to look that as well. So I think that’s just what it is. But of course we want to open up to other communities of color, but I think it matters that we get advisors who look like hem, advisors who are from the same communities, and so that’s a harder ask. I would say, you know, I’m able to offer, I used to be a college advisor in my community through this program and worked specifically at Memorial High School. I think even if I were to work. . . . One year, I tried working at a school actually, a neighboring high school. I didn’t have the same insights because the college application process is so, so, so specific to one’s own community because the college application process will require that students write essays , tell me about your community, or tell me about a community you’re a part of.

What’s it ? What do you bring to it? What do they bring to you? And so answering a question that, suddenly you need to be aware of the community the student’s coming from to best write that essay and to best assist the the child or the student, and thinking critically about how to answer that question in a way that’s both honest but also sells them and puts them in a good light.

And so, yeah, we would love to connect with more schools. That’s, that’s our goal. We want to help high schools all over different communities. But again, I think what differentiates us from other kinds of college advising programs is that we rely on something closer to grassroots organizing than actual nonprofit management perhaps, because every year we’re at the schools working with our students. Every year we’re empowering them to become these advisors who care about their community and believe that these universities are something that their students can actually achieve. 

[00:28:39] Amy H-L: Have you identified the next schools you want to go into? 

[00:28:44] Mike S: We’re starting to now. I think we’re looking at other schools in New Jersey just so we can really continue to build a culture of college-going within the state. We want to work at the schools where maybe there’s not enough grants going in that direction. Maybe they’re underperforming in state standards. We want to work at the schools where people aren’t going to college, where people aren’t going to university, because that’s where we believe we can make the most change. Because in helping a small cohort of students every single year, the one thing that we haven’t highlighted yet that I think is super important is that these five students become ambassadors for college access, even while they’re current students in that high school. And so our students from an early on, as soon as we start working with them, we share with them that they’re getting this college advising, this is really great, but not everyone from their community is, so they need to share that information with your peers. And they do that, you know, they edit their peers’ essays, they tell them about the programs that we’re helping them to apply for. Even in passing, maybe a student, you know, high school students can be a little bratty sometimes. High schoolers are high schoolers. And so maybe they’re complaining or a little ornery about writing their personal statement in September, right, them complaining about it, maybe in their English class. Perhaps they just got four or five other kids to think, wait, personal statement, I should be writing that right now. And so in that way, it creates even more of a culture of applying to college. And we’re empowering our students to do that work on their end because it shouldn’t just be us doing it, but it should also be them. Because with knowledge comes responsibility, but that responsibility can be difficult, but it can also be really exciting to help other people. And so we want our students to understand that while they’re in high school, so that once they’re in college they can really see the value and merit in it and continue to do that work.

[00:30:24] Amy H-L: Michael, you mentioned immigrant parents for whom this idea of going to a four year college away from home would be very foreign. Do you have a program to educate some of these parents? 

[00:30:41] Mike S: What we’ve done, and we’re still doing now is we’ve had a parent liaison in place and so this parent liaison talks to the parents of our students as soon as the students are committed to our program and explains to them exactly what’s going on with the college application process because it’s a difficult but rewarding process, ideally, the whole family can get involved in, right. And so we want our parents to understand that it doesn’t necessarily work as it does in the movies. And that if a student has As and B’s and has never done an extracurricular in their life, they’re probably not going to get admitted to Harvard with the four year full ride and all the merits possible. That’s just not how it goes anymore. So our parent liaison explains to parents what this process, the application process, looks like, what it looks like to support students through the college application process. And then there are periodic check-ins with parents to explain to them what we’re doing, what’s going on, on the syllabus and on a curriculum level.

And I think from there, something we’re looking forward to adding shortly, is more formalized parent programming where we have talks about how do you do the FAFSA. What is the FAFSA to begin with, which is for federal financial aid or similarly, what is the CSS. I was so confused by that. And that’s financial aid for private schools through the College Board, which was not well explained to me so I had no idea. I think right now a lot of that information goes to students, but not necessarily their parents. And parents want to be part of this process because parents want to see their students succeed and they want to help their students get to that point. 

And so the other thing is our advisors actually meet with parents sometimes and explain what’s going on if the student needs some extra push or maybe needs some extra support. I was talking to one student’s parent. Essentially the student was working on the application really last minute to apply to her dream college early decision. And the night of, I looked at the application, I thought this isn’t where it needs to be for the student to really have a solid chance. They’d have a better chance if they applied later on, regular even though the admissions rate would be lower because her application could be stronger. And so talking to that parent, explaining that to them, they really understood the importance of helping their student manage their time better.

Because while I can work with the student for a certain amount of hours per week, the parents can be meeting up with the student more often, because they usually live in the same home. 

[00:33:06] Amy H-L: Could you tell us about these parents and these families? 

[00:33:11] Mike S: We actually recently collected a bunch of statistics after four years of advising, and what we’ve noticed is the average familial income of the students we serve is $44,000. The majority of our families are Hispanic, around 82%. And then from there, we have a smaller Asian population, Black population, and white population. We haven’t worked with any students who are Indigenous yet, but we’re looking forward to that opportunity soon. You’ll also see that 95% are on free and reduced price lunch, which means that their high schools are actually supplying them lunch so that they have stable access to food during school day. And also the majority of our students, a little over 80%, are first-generation college students. 

[00:33:58] Jon M: So you’ve had four years of admissions to colleges. What have you been finding in terms of the success rate of the students that you’re working with in terms of getting into colleges? 

[00:34:10] Mike S: You’ll hear a lot from me that our students are really just superstars, but on our end, there are 27 students so far who’ve completed the program, and that’s because every year there’s this huge jump in how many students we serve, but of these 27 students, a hundred percent of them were admitted to a four year college, which is really exciting. And all but one of the students chose to go to a four year college. One student chose a community college because it made more sense for her financially. You’ll see that 74% of our students actually are admitted to a top 25 university or liberal arts college, which is really exciting, especially now after Covid, when these admissions rates have just plummeted. We’re talking about schools that have acceptance rates of anywhere from 4% to maybe around 15%. So it’s really exciting that our students are being able to be admitted to these universities through their hard work, through partnering with us. Then in total, we’ve had in the past four years, a hundred and forty three four year college acceptances. So our students are getting lots of options and they’re really excited about all of them. But yeah, we’ve had students admitted to six of the eight Ivy League schools right now. We’re missing Princeton and Harvard. We’ve also had students be named scholars at schools like Vanderbilt and also be admitted to really amazing universities that they’re excited about. All of our students are still in college now, mostly because our oldest class, they’re now going to be rising seniors, so they haven’t finished yet, but we’ve had no dropouts. Everyone’s still in school, everyone’s still learning, and everyone’s still thriving. 

[00:35:46] Amy H-L: That’s great. What about just the whole concept of going away to college? So aside from the process, which, where parents certainly want to be involved. But how about just the concept, if that’s not part of the culture, the idea of students actually leaving home and going someplace to study, and not necessarily study something vocational, for four years?

[00:36:13] Mike S: Yeah. I think a big thing is having parents understand their why. And what I mean by that is the majority of our parents right now are immigrants. And so this is to say they’ve left their country, the country they called home, the country that was comfortable for them, the country where they had family and community. And they left that country because they believed that the US offered some sort of resource or some sort of opportunity for them, and they went for opportunity. And so I think it’s talking to parents, having them understand the place you’re going to get the most opportunity, the place you’re going to get the most options for things that your student may want to do and be able to access all the things they’re going to dream of, they’re going to find those things at some of these elite universities. And while it might be against the cultural script of what maybe you’ve been exposed to understand that you yourself also went against a cultural script. You decided to leave your community to go to a new one for in search of better opportunities for your children.

And so your students worked so, so hard to access these opportunities and you’ve done such a great job parenting, right? You’ve helped and supported the student to excel in high school, right? To even be considered a candidate at these universities. 

Now’s the final point, and now’s the point where you have to trust that you’ve done a good enough job raising your child, that you know that they’re not going to go off the right path. And our students do really well. In fact, our students, excel at these universities, especially when they’re paying it forward, and we’re able to connect with them and support them. 

[00:38:00] Jon M: Where does your funding come from? 

[00:38:03] Mike S: Right now a lot of our funding comes from fundraisers and also from past accelerator programs I was a part of. So I can go into the first part, then the second part. With fundraisers, we just finished having our second annual, a summer dinner fundraiser, which is really cool ’cause it connected the entire community. We had parents come, we had students come. Our students actually got awards this year, which is really cool. I have to sign off and put my signature on things as the executive director, which is very fun. But beyond that, we also have parents who, after getting the service, have chosen to donate. It’s not required at all, but they just believe in what we’ve been doing. It’s not millions and millions of dollars or anything. Still, any money is really helpful. 

The other thing is our advisors volunteer their time pro bono because they believe in our programming. They believe in what we’re doing, and they want to help others. So that has helped alleviate a lot of the cost. And then I was also admitted to multiple accelerator programs, which essentially means programs that have seen real potential in what we’re doing and have wanted us to get to the next point to accelerate, for lack of better terms. So I was in one called the EGF Accelerator Fellows Program, which is one of the only New York City based education nonprofit accelerators, which is a niche field, but they’ve seen some really cool groups. Teach for America and SEO also went through there. So really large and really powerful forces to be reckoned with nonprofits. And then I was also in the Tsai City Summer Accelerator Program. And so that was a program hosted through Yale, through our entrepreneurship hub. And so I just finished doing that program. In the future, we’re actually looking for corporate partnerships and just sponsorships on that end. So that we could more so: a) because it’d be really amazing for these corporate sponsors to be able to really invest in the communities that surround them, but b) because our students could really benefit from seeing different kinds of corporate sponsors and understanding what different kinds of jobs could be out there for them, depending on what they choose to study and depending on what they choose to pursue post grad. We’re also partnering with schools right now to be the sub-recipients of grants. A lot of our schools can apply for grants to help house us because we do need more funding to exist, especially as we get more and more kids. We need full-time staffing. Really, we do. 

[00:40:34] Jon M: And when you say schools, in this case, you mean the colleges or the high schools?

[00:40:38] Mike S: High schools. We are also interested in partnering with universities that are located in low income communities and having them actually potentially sponsor us to work in some of those high schools in the nearby community.

[00:40:56] Amy H-L: Thank you so much, Michael Sanchez, and congratulations. You’ve really done a whole lot in a short time. 

[00:41:04] Mike S: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure. 

And thank you, listeners. 

[00:41:07] Jon M: Check out our new video series, “What would YOU do?”, a collaboration with Dr. Meira Levinson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website,, and click video.

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