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College Prep Academy offers ‘extra push’ toward first-year student success

College Prep Academy offers ‘extra push’ toward first-year student success

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Christopher Nguyen

LINCOLN — Christopher Nguyen, a first-year architecture major from Grand Island, started college in the midst of the pandemic last fall. His participation in the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy has helped him acclimate to campus despite the strangeness of the past year.

Nguyen’s introduction to college life has been a little unconventional, to say the least.

The activities that would have welcomed him to campus last fall — a traditional tunnel walk into Memorial Stadium, attending football games and social gatherings with new friends — were largely replaced with Zoom lectures, masks and social distancing.

Nguyen also missed another fairly important milestone: finding his way around.

“Next year, if campus is open, I won’t know where anything is,” Nguyen said with a laugh. “I think I have two in-person classes this semester.”

The first in his family

Despite the strangeness of the past year, Nguyen is rolling with the punches and stepping confidently into his college career with the help of the NCPA.

As the first in his family to attend a four-year university, the campus program has been a vital source of academic and financial support as he adjusts to a new city and way of life.

“College is a huge difference from being in high school, and getting that extra assistance and that extra push is really nice,” Nguyen said. “It’s accountability, and somebody that keeps you motivated and makes sure you’re on track.”

Originally from Grand Island, Nguyen has participated in the NCPA since eighth grade. The program selects an annual cohort of low-income, first-generation, high-achieving students to receive one-on-one mentorship and leadership training throughout high school to prepare them for college.

NCPA participants also receive a financial aid package that pays the full costs of attending the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, which was essential for Nguyen.

“Neither of my parents could afford sending me to college, so this was my chance,” he said.

The program doesn’t just end when students graduate from high school. When they arrive at Nebraska, they attend seminars, workshops and frequent check-ins with academy staff members to help them thrive.

That system has had great success. Eighty-five percent of the academy’s 2014 cohort graduated in five years, which exceeds the university’s overall average by 23%. Its 2016 cohort is on track to achieve a 90% five-year graduation rate — 40% higher when compared to Pell-eligible students nationwide.

“They’re very much focused on trying to get you through college, rather than just getting you to college,” Nguyen said.

A critical year

In normal times, first-generation college students face an uphill battle.

Without a financial safety net, they can’t afford to make small mistakes, like failing a class or losing a scholarship. And as the first in their family to attend college, they lack a support system in parents or siblings who have prior experience in a university environment.

As a result, one-third drop out within three years, and only 11% graduate compared to 56% of their wealthier peers.

The pandemic has only worsened this divide. In 2020, graduates from high-poverty high schools were 50% more likely to put off attending college in the fall than those at lower-poverty schools.

“Over the past year, the NCPA has become an even more vital resource for students,” said Moi Padilla, director of the program. “It’s allowed our scholars to start their college journey despite the global circumstances, having the financial security and support system to be successful in their first year.”

So far, the program has adapted to COVID-19 by holding virtual events throughout the year. Participants continue to receive personal and academic support via text messages and one-on-one academic appointments on Zoom or in-person. Additionally, the fall 2020 entering cohort participated in an early move-in program designed to acclimate them to campus.

Padilla is proud of the way students have persisted, adding that the program is also celebrating an important milestone in 2021.

“This year, the NCPA is celebrating 15 years on campus,” he said. “We’ve now had 105 scholars graduate from Nebraska and go on to join the workforce. I’m looking forward to seeing that number and our impact continue to grow.”

Interested donors who would like to support NCPA can contact Steve Hill at stephen.hill@nufoundation.org or 402-458-1186 for more information.

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