“During my first week of college one of the things I struggled with was finding my classes,” chuckled Robert Cunningham, an Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School (ASLA) alumnus. As a freshman and a commuter student, Cunningham struggled with establishing connections on campus and adjusting to the culture at his college. Now a sophomore at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) he can reflect and laugh at his freshman year. Cunningham’s experiences remind us that while our schools help students see themselves at college and provides them with the tools to successfully navigate the complexities of the college system, there are still barriers first generation students must overcome in order to feel successful in their postsecondary journey.
“Reflecting on my first year at CSUDH, it would’ve been nice to have guidance from someone that was in my position maybe a year or two ago,” said Cunningham. “Our counselors are great, but at times it’s easier to confide in someone who is closer to your age and has recently been through what you’re going through.” This is one of the reasons he joined Green Dot’s newly developed Alumni Mentor program. The program helps address the challenges first generation students face, by providing a bridge of supports that focuses on increasing cultural capital to help students better navigate college. We pair students with current alumni who have shared experiences and come from similar backgrounds to help ease the transition to college. “I’ve been communicating with some recent graduates from ASLA and we’ve talked about campus resources, accessing syllabi, and campus life,” said Cunningham. He has established connections at CSUDH and has been successful in his classes and is eager to help Green Dot alumni discover the best path to academic and career success.
Pathway to College
Before attending ASLA, Cunningham transferred to Ánimo Western Charter Middle School, this experience was one of the reasons he wanted to attend a Green Dot high school. “I wasn't doing my best at my other middle school, but when I got to Ánimo Western I felt important and for the first time my education felt important. It helped that the teachers made learning fun,” reflected Cunningham. In 2014, when he was a ninth grader at ASLA a massive fire broke out on the campus of Ánimo South Los Angeles Charter High School. Fortunately, no students or teachers were hurt, but the roof, 11 classrooms, the main office, and all furniture, equipment, and fittings were destroyed. For three years, ASLA was physically divided, with the main campus being restricted to serving only freshman and sophomore students while the Henry Clay Learning Complex was able to accommodate junior and senior students. Cunningham believes that the tragedy helped bring students together and contributed to the sense of family that resonates with ASLA students, teachers, staff and alumni.
“At ASLA all the teachers made you feel at home. I remember taking a Read 180 class and at first I had the impression that it was a remedial class for students not smart enough to be in composition,” admitted Cunningham. “Eventually I saw this class as something positive, an opportunity for us to tap into our potential and expand our skill sets.” Read 180 is one way our English classes accelerate student learning, this program that blends traditional instruction and individualized attention with innovative software to better meet each student’s needs in improving literacy.
Cunningham is especially grateful for the ethnic studies course he was enrolled in at ASLA. The course was steeped in Chicano and African American culture and pulled from the students experiences. “The class showed me that our history goes beyond the impacts of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Cesar Chavez. I learned about Dolores Huerta, the civil rights boycotts and other things I had not known,” recalled Cunningham. While our college preparatory curriculum serves to help students develop the discipline and resolve needed to find success in college courses, we strive to ensure that our curriculum is culturally relevant and serves students as they contend with the implications of class, race, and ethnicity on their road to college.
A Bright Future
Now a sophomore at CSUDH, Cunningham is enrolled in the marketing program, which he hopes will provide him with the knowledge and tools to access to a variety of career opportunities once he graduates. Once he graduates and gains experience he eventually hopes to establish an affordable quality clothing line. “The big clothing brands are usually really expensive and inaccessible. I want to create a quality clothing line that looks stylish but is affordable,” reflected Cunningham. Our schools are committed to preparing all students for college, leadership, and life as a means of equipping them with the knowledge, skills, and tools to achieve their dreams. We are proud of Cunningham for his success at CSUDH and his dedication to supporting students from his community effectively transition to college and thrive.