Going to college was something that Yvette Sanchez never considered. It wasn’t until she reached fifth grade that she and her parents discovered USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative, and the idea of college became a possibility.
“I remember being a little kid, and I never really thought about college, never really knew about college,” said Sanchez, a junior majoring in psychology. “It wasn’t until I started NAI and they told us that there is much more that you can do.”
USC established NAI as a college preparatory program for low-income minority students living in the area surrounding campus. Students who complete the program with good standing and meet all requirements for admission to USC are eligible for a full four and a half-year financial aid package.
“Being from [South Los Angeles], you’re not expected to do much. They think that we can’t make it or that we’re not smart enough or that we don’t have the resources,” Sanchez said. “[It’s an accomplishment] being able to prove that wrong, showing that we can do something.”
The average college attendance rate of NAI scholars is 99 percent, and more than 35 percent of NAI scholars have attended or are attending USC.
According to Kim Thomas-Barrios, executive director of NAI, there are currently about 500 students in the program and more than 80 NAI graduates attending USC.
“NAI offers its students, grades seven through 12, a wide array of enhanced educational experiences designed to create a college-bound mindset and a holistic preparedness for academic success,” Barrios said in an e-mail.
The six-year program, which first accepted students in 1991, prepares students for college beginning in seventh grade. Students and parents apply for the program when the student is in sixth grade. Acceptance is not necessarily merit based, although there are certain grade criteria that applicants must meet in order to be eligible, Barrios said.
“The Neighborhood Academic Initiative is not a gifted program. It seeks to reach local, underserved, inner-city students who display the desire and determination to attend college,” Barrios said.
In order to prepare for college, the students are exposed to a rigorous curriculum, hands-on instruction and high expectations regarding both academic and personal conduct, Barrios said.
In high school, students attend morning classes for math and English on USC’s campus, and are then bused back to their high schools to finish the remainder of the school day. Students also go to class on Saturdays on USC’s campus to discuss what they’ve learned that week.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for kids of our community to experience college, and it takes you on a different road for a better future,” said Amarilis Bolanos, a junior majoring in Spanish and graduate of NAI.
Despite the rigorous curriculum, Bolanos said the workload was manageable and viewed school as a challenge she enjoyed.
“I think that if I had been in the regular classes with the regular kids I wouldn’t have been so competitive,” Bolanos said. “I wouldn’t have thought about going to college as much. I would’ve still thought about it, but it wouldn’t have been so intense.”
NAI not only emphasizes commitment from students in the classroom but also commitment from parents. When the program was first developed, organizers decided that parents would be required to actively participate in the educational process since research has proven that students perform better academically when their parents are involved. Parents are required to go to seminars held by the NAI Family Development Institute.
“People from NAI would inform us more and tell us what to do for prepping for college,” Sanchez said. “NAI did a really great job in telling us [how to prepare]. I think it definitely pushed me for something.”
Barrios said the goals of the program are to help students get accepted to college as well as ensure success upon graduation so they can lead an enriched life.
NAI is looking to enlarge the program to include more students from the neighborhoods surrounding campus and make the program more effective.
“If it wasn’t for the program, then I wouldn’t be here at USC,” Bolanos said. “I’m really glad the program is there — hopefully it brings more kids in.”