November-December 2012 | Hometown

Guides to Higher Education

At two local high schools, CollegeTracks is helping underprivileged students get where they want to go

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Angel Galvez knew he wanted to go to college, but he didn’t know how to get there. His friends at Wheaton High were not encouraging. “I would talk to them about it,” he says, “and they just wouldn’t know what to say. They were like, ‘Oh, right.’ ”

His parents were supportive but could offer little help. His father had left school early in El Salvador, and worked as a janitor. His mother, an immigrant from Mexico, was a hotel maid. “I wanted to do good in my life,” Galvez recalls, “but I thought I was over my head.”

Then he found CollegeTracks, a program serving two local high schools, Wheaton and Bethesda-Chevy Chase. Its staff does for young people like Galvez what affluent and educated parents in Montgomery County routinely do for their own kids: edit essays, visit campuses, find scholarships, make sure forms are completed and deadlines met.

Galvez, a gregarious 21-year-old with a round, open face, remembers the day he got a letter from McDaniel, the small private college in Westminster, Md., where he spent the last three years. Not only were they accepting him, they were covering most of his costs.

“I was stunned, I was confused,” he says. “I knew it was a private school and I knew it was over 30 grand for tuition, 40-plus with room and board. I just looked at the letter and I was like, ‘Dad, I think they’re giving me a lot of money here.’ ”

Tsolaye Dorsu (whose first name, pronounced Shuh-LI-ah, means “God favors me”) emigrated from Nigeria at age 12 with a single mother who carefully researched local schools before renting an apartment in the B-CC district.

“When I came to America, I thought it was a dream or something,” says the  engaging 20-year-old with the bright smile and flashing gold earrings. “Like maybe I’ll wake up and I’ll be in my house in Nigeria. But every time I woke up I was in Silver Spring.”

The transition was tough. Kids made fun of her accent. One boy threw a basketball at her “and it hurt really bad.” After a Catholic boarding school background, she was “shocked” at the attitude of her new classmates. “They were rude to the teachers, very disrespectful.”

Dorsu’s mother had two advanced degrees but could only find work as a seamstress and nursing home aide. And since “she didn’t know the system in America,” Dorsu says, she couldn’t help her daughter in school. CollegeTracks could.

Dorsu didn’t think she was “smart enough” to take advanced placement courses, but the program’s counselors pushed her to enroll anyway. When her mother had to work, a CollegeTracks staff member drove her to a college interview and calmed her down when she started “freaking out.”

“They care about you a lot,” says Dorsu, a senior and aspiring pediatrician at Trinity Washington University, near the Capitol. “They check on you every single time.”

That’s precisely the point of CollegeTracks. “We call it nagging and stalking,” says Executive Director Nancy Leopold, 57, as she sits at the organization’s “world headquarters”—her dining room table on Manning Drive in Bethesda. The “biggest barrier” to college for many youngsters, she says, is the lack of “adults with the time, money and knowledge to help them.”

In the late ’90s, Leopold and two friends were volunteering at B-CC when they noticed a pattern: One-third of the student body was nonwhite, but few minorities were entering elite academic programs.

When their own children started applying to college, Leopold found herself deluged with questions from her daughter’s friends, many of them from immigrant families.

That led to the founding of CollegeTracks. It started at B-CC in 2003 with an all-volunteer staff. Early funding came from the county council and the B-CC High School Educational Foundation; a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation enabled it to expand to Wheaton and hire full-time counselors.

Today the organization employs 10 professionals and has served more than 1,900 students at the two schools since its founding. In other county high schools, where guidance offices are overworked and understaffed, students like Galvez and Dorsu often lack the special attention CollegeTracks provides. The program would like to expand, Leopold says, but that would require “investments from community partners”—foundations, individuals and a cash-strapped county government.

To Leopold, the organization’s goal is a matter of fairness.

“For kids to be graduating from one of the best public school systems in the country, and not having the opportunity for higher education—it’s just not right,” she says.

But it’s also a matter of self-interest. Montgomery is one of the country’s wealthiest counties, and yet two out of five public school students, about 60,000 in all, qualify for subsidized meals.

“What’s our prosperity based on?” asks Leopold, who used to accompany her mother to civil rights marches in Washington, D.C. “It’s based on a highly educated population that’s able to generate an enormous tax base. The investment is nothing compared to the return.”

Getting kids into college, however, is only the beginning. As a college teacher, I see minority students who have plenty of natural talent but lack the extras—lessons, books, trips, camps—that privileged parents provide as a matter of course. On top of that, these kids often have to work to pay their bills, and worry about messy family situations back home.

That’s why CollegeTracks has added a “college success” program that monitors students at about a dozen colleges. Galvez, who’s now studying respiratory therapy at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, recalls the “culture shock” of his early college days. “I was a mess, I wasn’t making any friends, I didn’t know what to do,” he says. He wondered: “Did I make the right decision? Why am I here?”

He called his CollegeTracks counselor, who assured him: “It’s OK, it’s normal, you’re not the only one going through this. The first semester of college is the most awkward time of your whole life.” After the pep talk, Galvez says, “I was able to pull through.”  

Dorsu, too, has her moments of despair, and in a way, she is still surprised to wake up in Silver Spring and not Nigeria. “Sometimes I feel I just want to give up right now,” she tells me. Then she talks to a counselor and “they’re like, ‘No. Why do you want to give up?’ They talk you through it and you realize: Actually, I don’t.”

The county’s future depends on students like Galvez and Dorsu not giving up, and CollegeTracks makes sure that they don’t.

Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to