Building a bridge to college

LIHUE — When he was a senior at Kapaa High School, Jason Iloreta had a conversation with a freshman he would never forget.

“He asked me where I was going to college, and when I told him I was going to Gonzaga University in Washington, his eyes lit up, and he said, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’” Iloreta said. “But in the same conversation, he said, ‘I’m never going to college.’”

When Iloreta asked the student why, he didn’t have a reason, other than he didn’t think it was possible.

That’s why Iloreta, now a leadership teacher at Waimea High School, volunteered to be a mentor with The Bridge: Kauai to College, a new community outreach program, partnered with St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal, Koloa Union and Lihue United churches, that aims to give high school students the resources to go to college.

Iloreta is one of about a dozen volunteers with The Bridge: College to Kauai. It’s the brainchild of Susan Davis, a psychologist who, after hearing stories of students who didn’t think they could go to college, decided to do something about it.

“There’s a deficiency in knowing college is possible — it’s a cultural norm for some reason,” Iloreta said.

Participants will be matched with a mentor, who will help them plan for college, from finding the right school and how to pay for it, to helping them study for the SAT and editing college application essays.

“I’ve heard stories from my halau, my patients and my husband’s employees of students who struggle and don’t really have a sense on how to get into college,” Davis said. “Part of those stories were about young women getting pregnant in their senior year of high school, or substance abuse in high school — so many kids have a sense of a dead-end job.”

In May, Davis started talking to people on the island about starting a nonprofit to help those kids find their way. Several churches invited her to speak to their parishioners about volunteer mentor possibilities and to help spread the word.

“There was so much enthusiasm,” she said.

The free program is open to all high school students, freshman to seniors, who want to go to college.

“Our focus is on kids who are able to go to college, and don’t know how,” she said. “Very little of it is tutoring or getting people up to speed.”

Instead of meeting students in an office, mentors will meet students where they are comfortable — whether that is Starbucks or at a surfing competition.

“The first step is building relationships, then you can talk about finances and classes,” Davis said.

Tory O’Malley said she wanted to be a mentor because it gives her a way to give back.

“I was one of those parents who didn’t know how to help my daughter get into college,” she said. “I had a dear friend who helped her, and she did well in college. So now I’m paying it forward.”

A chance to give back to the community inspired Kaci Manion to volunteer with The Bridge: Kauai to College.

“I have a big heart for kids, so I wanted to be a tutor or mentor of some kind,” she said.

Margaret Guiler, another mentor, wants her story to serve as a “cautionary tale” for students.

“I didn’t go to college right after high school,” she said. “But after I was divorced with two little children at the age of 29, I felt pretty unable to do anything.”

Guiler said her family helped her get through nursing school. She later went on to get a law degree and a master’s degree in counseling.

She was 34 when she graduated from college.

“If you wait, it can be really hard to go back to school,” she said.

The group isn’t trying to do the job of high school counselors — they want to be another resource for students, and work alongside the schools, Davis said.

The Bridge: Kauai to College is looking for both students and mentors.

Info: 650-464-1654 or susandavisphd@gmail.com.

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