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Courtesy of Monica Phann

For first-generation students, high school mentoring programs are often some of the best ways to build the skills necessary to apply to and succeed in college. 

At Penn, the Provost’s Summer Mentor Program and the Science Technology Engineering Mathematics Mentoring Program have helped Philadelphia students navigate the college-application process, which leads some of them back to Locust Walk.

The SMP is a four-week intensive course that helps first-generation and minority students in Philadelphia understand higher education as an attainable and worthwhile goal.

Students who participate in the two programs are often from under-resourced and/or underrepresented backgrounds. Out of the 35 rising 10-12th graders from Philadelphia public and charter schools, 59 percent are African American, 9 percent are Latino and 19 percent are Asian American.

Nursing junior Monica Phann started with SMP in her sophomore year at Masterman High School. Phann’s parents did not go to college — they were refugees from Cambodia during the Vietnam War and then immigrated to the United States.

“These programs are very special and unique because the students get so much individualized attention and they tailor it to each student’s needs,” Phann said.

Students who are selected for the program are able to partner with people from one of the five professional schools at Penn, including Dental, Nursing, Engineering, Law and the Perelman School of Medicine. The chosen high school students are able to learn about different career opportunities.

College sophomore Lizette Grajales first heard of the programs from her sister, Melanie, who also did SMP and is now in the Penn Dental School. 

“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would have got in,” Grajales said. “I really wanted to go to Penn in high school. Being on campus made me so happy. They helped me out with my college application for Penn.”

STEMMP provides students who completed the summer program with additional support during the academic year. All of the high school students participate in STEM classes as well as receive extensive mentoring from Penn undergraduate students.

“I found the year-long program so helpful with the college process. Every Saturday I would be at Penn learning about dorm room life, what it will be like to apply to college and resources on campus,” Phann said. “In my junior year, we would do tons of SAT practice tests. It was overwhelming but I don’t think I would be here without the two programs.”

The STEM mentoring programs provides a number of services for the high school student including life skills, academic support and college entrance assistance, such as SAT prep, college tours and college selection.

All of the high school participants hopefully become the first generation in their family to go to college. STEMMP becomes a strong support system through the difficult college process.

“My parents helped out by taking us on tours but it was hard because they didn’t have any personal college experiences,” Grajales said. “But with STEMMP, I would go there every Saturday and I would get personal help such as figuring out my reaches, my matches and my safety schools and rereading my college essay a million times. They were a second family to me.”

Since 2009, 21 of SMP and STEMMP students have enrolled in or graduated from Penn, the highest of any Penn Equity And Access community-based college access programs. 255 of 276 of SMP and STEMMP students are in or have graduated from postsecondary education.

Both Phann and Grajales are now mentors for STEMMP.

“My experience as a mentor has been so enriching and meaningful,” Phann said. “To hear a lot of students’ stories and talking about their personal life outside of school is eye opening. I remember thinking, ‘I was just in their seat a year or so ago, so it’s definitely helpful for them since I know how overwhelmed and stress the students are.”