Hawthorne High School senior Juan Cueva pored over a set of college applications with several classmates recently, weighing the steep costs of higher education.
An above-average student, he and his classmates have a good chance at being admitted to a University of California or Cal State campus, according to their counselor. Cueva, the ninth of 10 children, would be the first in his family to attend college.
"My parents came here to make it better for us," said Cueva, whose parents emigrated from Mexico before he was born. "I have my future ahead of me. I hope to make the best of it."
Cueva is one among a dozen Hawthorne High School students attending workshops on college admissions, a process that got under way at many universities with the opening of the application period Nov. 1. Though high school seniors across the country must contend with the labyrinth of college entrance filing deadlines and forms, few have had to face as many hurdles as this group of teen-agers, all of whom live in Lennox.
In Lennox, gang members use textbooks for target practice, and poverty is a way of life. The community has emerged as a starter area for recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, largely because Lennox offers affordable housing and is just minutes from the hotels and airport-related businesses where many of them work. English is a second language here, the first of many barriers encountered by children in the Lennox School District--an elementary and middle school system that sends many of its graduates to Hawthorne High.
"They've overcome a lot," said Pam Rector, a Lennox Middle School counselor who organized the college application workshops for her former pupils. "Most of them have left their own countries because of poverty or because of the opportunities in the United States for education . . . They come to Lennox, where many people will live together in one house. These guys don't have a quiet place to study, their parents don't (read) English, so they can't help them with their homework."
The pressures of applying to college, to be sure, are enough to give pause to any high school senior.
Students applying to the University of California or Cal State systems and private universities generally must earn good grades in a core curriculum of college preparatory high school classes and score well on college entrance exams.
Many universities also require that essays and teacher recommendations be submitted with applications. Add financial aid applications, and the whole process can seem like a nonstop roller-coaster ride to many high school seniors.
"It's gonna be a long year, I can already see it," said Hawthorne student Marvelyn Garcia, 17. For the past few weeks, Garcia has spent her time between homework assignments filling out applications to Cal State Dominguez Hills, UCLA and Loyola Marymount University--and preparing for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a rigorous college entrance exam.
"It gives you a headache just thinking about it," Garcia said.
In addition to such problems, however, the Hawthorne High students have had to overcome other barriers.
Most, for instance, knew little English when they were first enrolled in elementary school in the Lennox School District, which comprises five elementary schools and one middle school. To make it through the Lennox school system, they had to successfully complete the district's bilingual education program, which gradually teaches English to non-native speakers while giving academic instruction to the students in their primary language.
The goal of the program is to move the students to English-only classes at or above the academic level of their native English-speaking peers. (Because there is no high school in Lennox, youths in the 1.25-square-mile community attend senior high schools in either Hawthorne or Lawndale.)
"These kids represent the success of what we've been trying to do here," Rector said.
Given their parents' lack of English, even filling out applications presents a challenge. Angelica Jaime, 17, a Hawthorne High School senior, wants to attend either Cal State Dominguez Hills or Loyola Marymount University. She was on hand at one of Rector's admissions workshops last week, obtaining help in filling out lengthy questionnaires.
Her parents, though more than willing, were unable to assist her, Jaime said.
"For one thing, they can't read English that well," she said.
Money is another barrier confronting the 12 Lennox youths attending the college application workshops. Because a majority of Lennox students come from low-income backgrounds, those applying for financial assistance doubt such aid will be enough to cover their costs.
Jim Woods, director of financial aid at Cal State Dominguez Hills, blames the recession for a surge in the number of students eligible for financial aid as well as an increase in the number applying for scholarships.