In the hot, crowded classroom of a San Francisco public high school one recent Sunday afternoon, a student I'll call Yu twirls a yellow highlighter nervously while her 826 Valencia writing tutor, Kate Bueler, scribbles in the margins of her college application essay draft. Yu is stuck on the first paragraph. How best to convey the skills she acquired as a child translating for her Chinese immigrant parents? Or what it would mean to be the first person in her family to go to college, especially now that her father is out of work and her family is surviving on what her mother makes sewing alterations? The highlighter cap shoots off and bounces on the linoleum floor, puncturing the quiet intensity.
Bueler and Yu are sandwiched between dozens of tutor/student pairs here at Mission High, all peering with similar intensity at college application essay drafts, or huddled together around computer screens. This particular workshop—one of many offerings from 826 Valencia, the tutoring nonprofit founded by writer Dave Eggers—is meant to help low-income and immigrant college applicants like Yu, whose parents can't afford private tutors and often don't speak English. Since about half of the students in San Francisco's public schools are considered low-income, and a third have lived in the US for less than two years, volunteers like Bueler can be enormously important. (PDF)
Because if Yu doesn't impress the college admissions officers this year, she may lose the best chance she has to help her family escape poverty. "For most of these kids, this is their only shot," explains Bueler, who also interns as a counselor at an inner-city high school in San Francisco. "Many of the low-income students I work with are asked to become adults very early in their life. They are pressured by their parents to make money. And if they don't get into college right after high school, they won't try again next year."