PORTLAND — Like many high school juniors, Sahara Hassan, 17, is thinking about college these days. Her hard work at Deering High School has paid off with good grades, and her writing talent has already caught the attention of some professional writers in Portland.
But her father, Mohamed Hassan, 50, doesn’t know how to help her take the next big step in her life — college.
Mohamed Hassan grew up in Somalia and lived with his family for 16 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. He has no formal education. The SATs, college application forms, financial aid packages, college tours — all of them are a mystery.
“There is a lot I don’t understand about school,” he said, speaking in Somali though a translator at his apartment in the Riverton Park housing project. “For example, I would not know how much she has learned, how far that she has yet to go, where to go.”
Helping a child make the transition from high school to college is a daunting and perplexing task for native-born middle class Americans. For poor immigrant families, it can seem impossible.
The Portland School District is trying to lower that barrier with Make it Happen! — a modest but innovative program that started at Deering High five years ago and now operates in the city’s three public high schools. It’s open to any student for whom English is a second language.
“We try to help anybody who walks through the door,” said Tim Cronin, the project’s coordinator and the only full-time staff person paid by Portland schools.
In addition to Cronin, a full-time AmeriCorps volunteer works at each high school.
In the afternoons, volunteer “academic coaches,” many of them retirees, work with students one-on-one on homework and academic projects. More than 40 volunteers are working this year with about 200 students in the three schools.
More than half of the students are at Deering High. The idea came from a student from Sudan who thought the school needed to do more to help immigrant students take academics seriously, said Grace Valenzuela, who oversees the school system’s Multilingual & Multicultural Center.
This is the first year it is being implemented at Portland High School. To get the program started, an ed tech who specializes in helping immigrant students in the classroom works for the program in the afternoon.
Although aimed at getting students to college, the program begins working with students in their freshman year because that’s when they start making decisions about what kind of courses they take. They need to know what colleges are looking for in an academic profile, Cronin said.
To improve that profile, students are encouraged to take part in programs that develop leadership skills, such as working as a counselor at the Seeds of Peace summer camp or at the Young Writer & Leaders program at the Telling Room, a nonprofit in Portland.
Sahara Hassan, the Somali student, is one of the writing program’s top talents and has published two essays in Telling Room anthologies. She’ll be attending a writing workshop this summer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
She said she plans to apply to college at UMass Boston, the University of Southern Maine and also Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Sahara said she could not imagine going to college without help from the staff and volunteers at Make it Happen!
“Without them, I don’t think I would have done anything,” she said.
Three weeks ago, a bus filled with about 40 freshmen and sophomores in the program from the three high schools traveled to the University of Maine in Orono for a tour of the campus.
Dejaunie Madourie, 14, a Portland High School freshman who moved from Jamaica to Maine with her mother less than two years ago, said she was impressed with how much flexibility college students have to arrange their schedule and course load.
“I could imagine myself being there,” she said.
Dejaunie, whose mother works as a hotel chambermaid, said the Make It Happen! volunteers have encouraged her to take honors-level courses next year. She spends four or five hours every afternoon doing homework in Room 2011, the classroom set aside for the program.
Even in an accepting place like Portland High, immigrant students can feel like outsiders and embarrassed about asking for help, said Todd Remage-Healey, 62, a retired math teacher who volunteers to tutor students in the program two afternoons a week.
“In this program they can be themselves,” he said. “They feel accepted and cared for and that people want them to do well.”
The program’s staff and volunteers help students select a college, apply for financial aid and arrange for college tours and interviews.
Many immigrant families don’t understand that their children can attend college and get financial help, said Gary Canter, owner of College Placement Services in Portland.
“The price tag is often what keeps them away from even applying,” he said.
The complexity of the process — rather than a student’s academic potential — serves as a “gatekeeper” that determines who goes to college and who doesn’t, he said.
In reality, there is a lot of opportunity and financial help available for ambitious, hard-working students from poor families, Canter said.
“If a kid is motivated, there is a way,” he said.
Sometimes, the staff must persuade parents to let their children leave home for college. Many immigrant families are close-knit and protective of their children — particularly daughters — and don’t want to see them go far from home.
One father, for example, refused to let his daughter attend an elite private university in Massachusetts, even though she had received a full scholarship. Canter, who had volunteered to help the girl with her college applications, said that he, Cronin and an interpreter visited the girl’s father and successfully persuaded him to let her attend.
Ironically, while the college application process can seem intimidating, many immigrant families have already overcome a bigger obstacle — finding their way to the United States. Faizal Alwakeel and her 19-year-old daughter, Melak Al Qayyar, for example, fled from Iraq to the Ukraine before obtaining refugee status that allowed them to move to Maine in 2009.
Still, even though Melak earned top grades at Deering, the idea of college for her seems impossibly expensive, Alwakeel said,
But she made it. Melak, who graduated from Deering High last year, received a scholarship to study at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
“I want to say, spread this program though the whole country because many people need this help,” Alwakeel said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at email@example.com