Briana Ramirez and Troy Harrington, both seniors at Santa Monica High School, recently spent an afternoon at a local community center, searching the Internet for college scholarships. Thousands of results appeared on the computer screen, making the confusing process even more daunting.
But nearby was a walking, talking college resource, ready to answer their questions. Three afternoons a week, Pamela Flores, 21, can be found at the Santa Monica Police Activities League, a community outreach center for children and teens, where she works as a student ambassador from Mount St. Mary's College, a Catholic school in Los Angeles.
The college's outreach program, launched in 1991, works to encourage students in the greater Los Angeles area to complete high school and aspire to attend college.
The program is an attempt to combat a troubling reality in the county's school system.
For the 2006-07 academic year, the most recent year for which data is available, L.A. County reported a high school graduation rate of 76.1%, even lower than the statewide figure of 80.6%, according to the state Department of Education.
But the Mount St. Mary's ambassadors, who number 46 this year, dedicate hours of their time to improve those numbers and boost college entry among the students with whom they work.
The program, which is funded through private donations, community organizations and education foundations, helps more than 7,000 students enroll in college each year, said Bernadette Robert, the program's administrator.
"It gives kids a more direct connection to someone who is already out there in college," she said. "Our student ambassadors know what the college process is like, and they see themselves in the students they help."
The students they work with are encouraged to apply to the college of their choosing, whether that's Mount St. Mary's or somewhere else.
"We just want them to consider college," Robert said. "We don't care where, as long as it's a right fit for them."
Many of the ambassadors are assigned to schools in their home communities -- sometimes at schools they've once attended -- and are expected to work with students for 12-15 hours per week, in exchange for a stipend. Others help students at local community outreach centers.
"I had the passion to go to college and took the initiative to seek out the information necessary to pursue it," said Yoselin Munoz, 22, an ambassador stationed at Downtown Value, an elementary school in Los Angeles. "But not every kid has the passion. If more information is put out for them, and if they get the encouragement to see the possibilities, they'd be more inclined to apply themselves."
The student ambassadors offer their charges guidance in selecting the right high school courses to meet higher education requirements. They also help students fill out the often time-consuming and complex financial aid forms, sort through piles of college pamphlets and construct the well-written personal statement that is required by many colleges.
"It's nice to have someone around who knows how frustrating it can be," said Harrington, who has applied to Cal State Northridge and Menlo College, a private school in the Bay Area. He wants to study sports medicine.
Although open to everyone, the ambassadors program targets high school students not in the top 5% of their class -- students who may have the ambition but not necessarily the financial ability or the grades to achieve their goals.
"It's important for the majority of high school students who don't perceive they're good enough," Robert said. "They're the ones that need somebody to say 'hey, this is something you can do.' "
For many of the ambassadors, the chance to help others like them is what keeps them returning, in some cases for years.
"I didn't receive as much help as other students at my high school," said Flores, a nursing major who has been an ambassador for three years. "It was up to me to learn about the process, and I didn't think that was fair. This is my chance to help others who are like me."