Bright Futures program that helps first-generation college students looks forward amid pandemic
On Aug. 5 Bright Futures wrapped its 2020 Summer Academy in a much different way than it had in the previous four years. Instead of meeting in person, students and advisers took to Zoom because of COVID-19.
“When the coronavirus hit Park City, it was all wait-and-see, like a lot of things,” said Kara Cody, program director of the Park City Education Foundation, which facilitates the multi-year program that provides resources and opportunities to first-generation college students from low-income families to help them succeed in high school and college. “The program staff knew it wasn’t going to be business as usual, but we also knew the plan was to continue the program for the students.”
The Summer Academy is akin to college orientation that motivates students, and helps them build confidence and relationships, according to Cody.
“The students also learn the ins and outs of what it’s like being on a college campus,” she said. “Through it, the students learn what to expect once they start expanding their education.”
Other things Bright Futures helps students with include choosing the right school, how to apply for the school, and how to complete financial aid forms, she said.
During the Zoom conference, Bright Futures program coordinator Nikki Blumin told the students she and the other advisers want the students to “explore and discover” choices that were best for them regarding their upcoming college careers.
“We want to help you make great choices,” she said. “We don’t want to tell you where you want to go. We want you to work with the pace that’s best for you, and help you identify lots of choices.”
This type of guidance is crucial for students who start the program when they are in ninth grade, said Cody.
“Bright Futures steps in with social and emotional support, and it teaches kids some executive functioning, as well as how to become an advocate for themselves,” she said. “It also teaches them that it’s OK to ask for help and resources when they find themselves struggling. Especially since their parents can’t help because they haven’t been in those situations.”
Camilla B. Escobar, a Bright Futures participant who graduated from Park City High School this year, said the program helped her find a clear path of attending medical school and becoming a surgeon. She has been accepted into the University of Utah Honors College on a full-ride scholarship.
Escobar, who started the program at the beginning of her sophomore year, said Blumin helped her maneuver through the college application and scholarship process.
“Being a first-generation college student is hard because our parents don’t know the college application process,” Escobar said. “Nikki also pushed me to find scholarships that matched my achievements and abilities. It was good for me to have someone to go to who knew how to do things the correct way.”
Escobar will officially start her online classes on Aug. 24. With a plan to major in biology with an emphasis in anatomy and physiology and minor in forensics or psychology, Escobar is grateful that Bright Futures’ support doesn’t end once students are accepted to college.
“It’s nice to know that there will be someone to turn to when things get difficult,” she said. “The support means a lot to me.”
Most first-generation college students drop-out during or after their first year, Cody said.
“The reason is because it’s such a change in setting and expectations, so Bright Futures tries to prepare the students for those things,” she said.
Escobar feels she is prepared to face these new challenges, especially since she had already experienced some personal upheaval when COVID-19 hit Park City.
After her parents, who work full-time jobs in the local hospitality industry, were furloughed from their jobs in March, Escobar became her family’s only source of income because she had an essential job at a nursing home.
“I had the responsibility of paying bills, buying groceries and making sure my family was OK,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, Escobar’s Bright Futures advisers stepped in to connect her with resources such as the Christian Center of Park City that helped her family with food and rent, she said.
“Even though my parents are back at work, it’s still pretty hard because there was a debt that built up over that time, but connecting us to the Christian Center helped us a lot,” she said.
With her family on the road to financial recovery, Escobar is ready for her first semester at college.
“With the scholarship, I will be able to live in the dorms, even though I will be taking online classes,” she said. “It will be good for me, because I will be able to focus fully on my classes.”
Escobar said there is a chance that she would have still been able to attend college without the help of Bright Futures, but it would have been more difficult emotionally and financially.
“I would have gotten very deep into debt by taking out loans,” she said.
With that in mind, Cody said financial support for Bright Futures is needed more than ever, and people can donate by visiting pcef4kids.org.
“A lot of these kids, especially the ones in college, have lost work-study jobs when they shut down the campuses,” she said. “Some, like Camilla, even if they have jobs, have had to take some of the money they are saving for tuition to help their families for rent and other basic needs.”
With the support of the community, Bright Futures, which currently serves 90 students, will be able to continue, Cody said.
“Our oldest students in the program will be starting their second year of college this year, and we’re at the point where these students are seeing their younger siblings and cousins starting the program,” she said.
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