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The college admissions process can be daunting for anyone, but for first generation students, it can be even more overwhelming and complex. Between applying to schools (plus the fees that come with that), figuring out financial aid and scholarships, taking the SATs and ACTs, and balancing responsibilities with family, school and possibly work, Operation Jump Start helps steer first generation students through the college path.

For the past 27 years, Operation Jump Start has served low-income, high achieving, first generation youth, to meet their goals of getting into and then staying in college. The organization provides academic resources and mentoring to approximately 250 to 350 students annually, with the hope of getting that number even higher in the next few years.

There are two programs students can participate in: Operation Jump Start’s original program, College Access, that starts in eighth grade and guides students through the college process, and its later addition, College Success, that helps college students graduate with a degree.

“We didn’t want to just get our students into college, we wanted to see them graduate and we wanted to make sure we were doing everything in our power to make sure that that happens,” said community outreach supervisor Rebecca Ridge.  “We’re not college success if we’re just getting them to college . . . We want to help change legacies, and really be there to support our students.”

Operation Jump Start aids students for upwards of five years, through extensive and involved support involving tutors, mentors and counselors.

“One of our former mentors . . .  (who’s) probably been out of the program for about 10 years now was telling me that she’s helping her former mentee plan a wedding,” said Ridge. “It’s one of my favorite stories, and we just have so many mentors who went on to have these lifelong relationships with their mentees, and it’s just so beautiful to see.”

Operation Jump Start students participate in Justin Rudd’s monthly beach clean-up in September, 2021. Operation Jump Start emphasizes community service for its students. Photo courtesy of Operation Jump Start.

According to Ridge, low income students are significantly underrepresented on four-year college campuses both in California and across the nation. Since the pandemic, this has been exacerbated even further, with low income students, especially those who are Black or Hispanic, turning more to work opportunities rather than pursuing higher education.

For first generation students particularly, there can be added challenges to pursuing college.

“I’m a first generation student myself, and my family did not know what to do,” said Ridge, who when it came time to apply for college, was unaware of all the tests involved and the extent of application fees. “So part of why we do what we do is we want to give our students the possibilities to do the framework.”

Besides providing guidance, for students who stay in good academic standing throughout middle and high school, there is even more support to offer: a scholarship from Operation Jump Start each semester of college.

Financial support can often be a huge obstacle, but Operation Jump Start helps students navigate scholarship applications while learning to maintain balance between managing grades, extracurriculars, and family responsibilities.

“A lot of our students have a really tight knit family where they have to take on a lot of responsibility within the household and outside of the household,” said Ridge.

According to Ridge, it can sometimes be a challenge helping students and their families learn why pursuing higher education is important.

To remedy this, Operation Jump Start strives to help the families of students as well with a monthly Parent Academy program, which offers a webinar series to educate parents about the college process.

“All of our parents didn’t graduate college, some of our parents didn’t graduate high school,” said Ridge. “We want to make sure that they have the tools in place to support their students alongside us.”

In March, Ridge is looking forward to the “Operation College Extravaganza” event in partnership with CSULB, that offers prospective college students and their families a day of workshops exploring both the admissions process and an introduction to college life.

However, for Ridge, one of the most impactful aspects that Operation Jump Start assists with is mental health services. By teaming up with CSULB Masters of Social Work interns, Operation Jump Start students are each assigned to a counselor for one-on-one support and socio-emotional counseling, she said.

Initially, this service was only available for students in the College Success program, but since the pandemic, Operation Jump Start was able to expand, and offer one-on-one mental health counseling to every student involved.

“We wanted to make sure all of our students are feeling the support that they needed in such a hard time,” said Ridge.

Ultimately, the nonprofit seeks to empower students to reach the future they are capable of, while giving them the tools and resources to do so.

“We’re here to not only offer that support, but let our students know that they can go to college,” said Ridge. “Some students, depending on their circumstances, or their experience with the college education system can write themselves off before they’ve even given themselves a chance to acknowledge that they are college potential. They don’t just have the potential to go to college, they can make it happen with their hard work.”

Students interested in participating can apply here. Operation Jump Start also accepts mentors on a rolling basis.