Vanessa Hernandez was preparing for college before she even fully understood the concept of higher education. When she was in second grade, she heard from a staff member at a local community center about a college readiness program for elementary school students and decided to apply.
“She just told me it was for me to prepare for college. I knew what college was, I knew it was higher education, but I didn’t really understand what it took to get there and how,” Hernandez said. “I was like, ‘I want to go to college. I don’t know what it is, but I want to.'”
She began receiving tutoring through PEOPLE Prep, the elementary school precursor to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s PEOPLE Pre-College Program for middle and high school students. In the years since, Hernandez has made her way through the PEOPLE programs and also joined AVID/TOPS, which is operated by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County in partnership with Madison public schools to provide tutoring and college and professional resources to middle and high school students.
Hernandez, now a senior at Madison East High School, was the Boys & Girls Club’s youth of the year for 2021 and plans to attend UW-Madison in the fall. She has firsthand experience in how these programs prepare young people, especially first-generation and low-income students like herself, for college.
“The biggest thing it has provided me with is a platform to share my story and be a leader,” Hernandez said. “I have a new sense of confidence and leadership style that I’m using everyday.”
The Boys & Girls Club annually invests over $1.4 million into its college success programs, which serves a group that is between 85% to 90% students of color, low income and/or first generation. On March 15, it announced receiving an additional $750,000 through a continued partnership with American Family Insurance.
Programs like PEOPLE and AVID/TOPS are even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as students admitted to college now require continued support between receiving acceptance letters in the spring and enrolling in the fall. Seniors are in the thick of what Terrica Peyton, Boys & Girls Club’s manager of enrollment, calls “award letter season”: Most have decided which college feels like the best fit, but on top of logistical roadblocks and financial aid, they are also experiencing worse mental health and academic burnout than past years’ graduates.