Girls Inc. of Orange County helps make college accessible for local girls

A College Bound Girls Inc. girl tours a college campus.
(Courtesy of Girls Inc. of Orange County)

Beckman High School senior Iris Shen admits without the help of Girls Inc. of Orange County’s Grad Lab program, she might have turned in her college applications a little late.

“They kept me on time because when I started with the program everyone at my school was already going to teachers for their essays, and I was like, ‘Oh I didn’t start my essay yet,’” said Shen. “Having Girls Inc. and College Bound giving me deadlines, it kept me on track.”

The College Bound program at Girls Inc. of Orange County is designed to reach local girls at all points on their road to higher education.

“College Bound provides college readiness education opportunities and resources for our girls,” said Jessica Hubbard, Girls Inc.‘s chief program officer in Orange County. “It is offered in three main opportunities for girls, so we are providing it year round and we are structuring it so it reaches girls at different phases of their college preparedness and higher education journey.”

Girls Inc.‘s Summer Boot Camp College program is offered to girls entering the ninth grade.

“That is to make sure girls are thinking about higher education before they even set foot on campus for their first day of high school, because we know that journey to higher education starts early,” said Hubbard.

Programs are also available for 11th-grade girls, when their journeys start to get a little more serious, Hubbard said.

“But the program that folks really adore and get excited about is our Grad Lab program,” she said.

Grad Lab takes high school seniors at all different levels of readiness and preparedness and gives them access to higher education through mentors, education and resources. The program offers scholarship and financial aid guidance, individual college advising and mentorship and helps with personal statement training and revision.

And as the college application process evolves, so does Girls Inc. Most recently, College Bound has been reworked as a virtual program.

“Our programs have been in person either at our old center or in schools for as long as we have been around,” said Hubbard. “Then the pandemic hit and we needed to still stay in touch with our girls.”

College Bound scholarship recipients, products of Girls Inc. of Orange County.
(Courtesy of Girls Inc. of Orange County)

Hubbard has a background in virtual education and had started conversations with her superiors about moving the program to an online platform before the pandemic. When taking Grad Lab virtual became necessary, Hubbard was ready. She said the group was able to take its programs virtual in about a week, putting content on YouTube almost immediately. More robust programs were moved to Canvas, which is the platform many colleges and universities use.

In past years, Grad Lab was limited to 30 students because that was classroom capacity. Since taking the program virtual, Grad Lab has been able to reach 9,200 girls.

“The College Bound Grad Lab program is being offered on Canvas and on Zoom so that when we say we can serve all girls in Orange County, we truly can,” said Hubbard. “There are no barriers because of transportation or room size or anything like that.”

Any 12th-grade student in Orange County can apply, and a needs assessment is taken at the start of the program to make sure each girl is provided with any technology or resources she is lacking in order to participate.

“One of the driving forces in all that we do at Girls Inc. is we want to create a more equitable society.”

Hubbard said girls are often told their gender shouldn’t hold them back, but the reality is it sometimes does, Hubbard said.

“Girls already are a more vulnerable population, and then when they come from less privilege and when they are girls of color, then you are just adding on to the possible obstacles that might stand in their way,” she said. “Our goal is to remove those barriers. The pursuit of higher education should be available to every single individual.”

The program also made adjustments when most colleges stopped requiring SAT and ACT scores.

“We had always provided ACT and SAT test prep,” said Hubbard. “We have removed the test prep because that is not where the high need is. We spend far more time on essay prep now.”

With the elimination of test scores, Hubbard said more schools are focused on grade-point averages and the personal statement essays.

“They are really looking at the personal statement as a chance for you to jump off that page of numbers and facts and figures and just tell who you are and why you will be successful,” said Hubbard.

Writing coaches are brought in for the students, and before the girls even put pen to paper, they get comfortable opening up with a vulnerability exercise.

“We want our girls to find a way to verbalize and articulate who they are, where they come from and more importantly, where they are going,” said Hubbard.

Shen said her time with her writing coach stood out as the most valuable aspect of the program.

“I got paired with a student from UC San Diego and it was really helpful, because that is one of the schools that I applied for. I was able to ask her all about housing, all about the environment at UC San Diego.”

Girls with the College Bound Girls Inc. program tour a college campus.
(Courtesy of Girls Inc. of Orange County

Shen said her writing coach was also more accessible than the resources at school.

“Personally, at my school if I wanted to have my English teacher review my essay, we had to make appointments,” said Shen. “That was once a month, depending on if you get an appointment in time.”

Meetings with her writing coach took place weekly, and Shen said her coach answered questions via email and hosted office hours.

“I was doing my activities list, and it was the day before I was supposed to turn it in, and she stayed up late at night to go over it with me,” said Shen.

Shen, who plans to pursue pharmaceutical science or chemistry in college, said her applications are completed and in on time largely due in part to Grad Lab. She highly recommends the program to other local students.

“I think if they have the chance to join the College Bound Grad Lab, they should join,” Shen said.

Beginning in January 2022, the program will open up to girls in the ninth through 11th grades, and the program will explore career readiness and mental health along with college planning.

Hubbard said she is confident the program can be valuable to any girl who wants to attend college.

“If you have the will and the drive,” said Hubbard. “We can get you there.”

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