I first set my eyes on Pepperdine University, the 800-acre campus nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, as a little kid when I helped my mom clean houses in the wealthy parts of Los Angeles. During the summers, we’d wake up at five in the morning to catch multiple buses to Malibu, Bel-Air and Beverly Hills — communities that felt like a world away from MacArthur Park, the low-income and immigrant enclave I grew up in.
When our bus navigated the curves of the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu, I often found myself awestruck by the campus that towered high above us, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
My dream became to go to Pepperdine. That dream, however, seemed far-fetched. While my Salvadoran immigrant parents instilled in me the value of hard work and the importance of education, we lacked access to the resources I needed to make such an elite education a reality. What’s worse, my neighborhood schools left much to be desired, and my academic preparation was underwhelming.
Often, hard work simply isn’t enough.
This is why the new SAT “adversity score,” which takes into account 31 factors — such as a neighborhood’s crime rate, the unemployment rate, median family income and the percentage of households in poverty — is a step in the right direction.
As for me, in eleventh grade, I met Ms. Jackson, the sole college counselor at my high school of 2,000 students. In a fortunate stroke of serendipity, Ms. Jackson selected me to attend a summer leadership camp at Pepperdine, founded by Charlie Runnels, Pepperdine’s chancellor.
While at the leadership camp, I fell in love with Pepperdine. I returned to high school as a senior and submitted my application to Pepperdine for early admission.
I was rejected.
“I didn’t get in, but I still have another shot,” I told my mom as I brainstormed how to strengthen my application for the regular admissions deadline. I had the perfect idea: Connect with the chancellor. I called his office and requested an appointment.
When I didn’t get a meeting, I did what only a bold and fearless 17-year-old would do: I went directly to the chancellor’s office.
I eventually met with Dr. Runnels, and I made my case to him. With my heart palpitating fast, I then made a bold request: “I’m going to submit my application again, and I’d like to ask you to write me a letter of recommendation.”
He said yes.
A few months later, I’ll never forget opening a thick envelope and reading the words, “I am pleased to offer you admission to Pepperdine University.”
Graduating from Pepperdine allowed me to access a quality of life that my parents and my family in El Salvador could only dream about. Given this life-changing experience, I’ve devoted my career to expanding opportunities for students who find themselves in the shoes I once walked in.
I recently saw the documentary Personal Statement, which tells the story of three outstanding high school seniors in Brooklyn, New York, who help their peers navigate the complex college application process, all while applying to college themselves. The film vividly captures the wide range of challenges that low-income students face as they apply to college, such as figuring out tax forms, persuading parents to accept their college preferences, determining financial aid, and writing compelling personal statements. Doing all of this without any adult help — at home or at school — is too often the reality for many poor students.
The film reminded me of the many hurdles I had to clear just to get into the chancellor’s office at Pepperdine. While I worked hard, I also experienced some good fortune at critical turning points along my unlikely path to college. Unfortunately, for many students growing up in poverty, a stroke of good luck isn’t in the cards as they seek to pursue college.
For the hardworking low-income students who won’t have the opportunity to meet with a university chancellor, the added SAT adversity score data will contextualize their applications by acknowledging the myriad challenges they face in their journeys through a broken education system.
If we want to fully realize the American Dream, we must minimize the outsized role that good fortune plays in getting to and through college. We can intentionally demand and design a better system for our students — one, for instance, that reduces the staggering student-to-counselor ratio (which currently averages 500 to 1 across America). For the sake of our young people and our nation’s future, let’s not leave a better reality for our kids up to chance.
Andy Canales is executive director of Greater Houston at Latinos for Education.