Seven years ago, inside an eighth-grade classroom at Mount Vernon Junior High School in central Los Angeles, Deborah Membreno began to imagine a life beyond the chain-link fence surrounding the concrete schoolyard. Her outlook brightened the day an adviser from a University of California outreach program visited to talk about college.
The adviser who showed up at the school, where nearly 90 percent of students qualified for free lunch, was from the university’s Early Academic Outreach Program. She argued a positive side to being poor: The government would help pay for college.
“I thought I was smart,” Membreno says. “I had good grades. But before that day I didn’t think going to college was a possibility. My friends and I thought the cost would be too great.”
Membreno’s parents were undocumented Honduran immigrants trying to eke out a living. Her mom cleaned houses in the beachfront neighborhoods of Venice and Santa Monica. Her dad worked in a clothing warehouse downtown. They were divorced. Most of the time, Membreno lived with her father in a house with 12 other people: aunts, uncles, cousins, and a few nonrelatives.
The Early Academic Outreach Program adviser gave Membreno a chart listing the standardized tests and subjects needed for admission to the University of California—history, English, math, lab science, foreign language, visual/performing arts and electives—highlighting those courses that should be taken as Honors or Advanced Placement “to increase competitiveness.” At home that afternoon, Membreno framed the chart and hung it on the wall.