COSTA MESA — A dozen local high school students on Monday morning piled into two vans, which were to take them on a tour of Northern and Central California universities to see what college life could be like beyond the Orange Curtain.
Embarking with their luggage and a stuffed purple-colored unicorn, the 12 headed north for the six-day trip with Save Our Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to helping students make positive decisions in Costa Mesa's largely lower-income Westside.
"I'm pretty excited to get the feel about what it is like to go to college up north," Vanessa Rodriguez, a junior at Estancia High School, said. "I want to see what schools I could be interested in."
The group will also be welcomed at the campuses by a current student and SOY alumni, who will give the students a tour and the low down on what the university is like.
For many of the students, it's their only chance to visit colleges to which they might be applying for admission, said Eduardo Iniestra, SOY's music and arts program coordinator.
SOY Executive Director Trevor Murphy started the program about five years ago after he noticed how many of the students in the community were unfamiliar with their options for going away for college, he said.
So SOY started looking at students in its scholarship program and began inviting those with the highest GPAs to go on the road trip, Murphy said.
"They definitely are able to see themselves going away to school and being independent [after the trip]," he said.
For 16-year-old Vanessa, the trip will help her decide what schools she will apply to next year.
She originally was planning on going to a local college, but she said she wants to keep her options open.
"I'm ready to broaden my horizons," Vanessa said.
Estancia senior Johanna Torres, who went on the trip last year as a junior, knows just how much the trip means to the students.
Last year was the 18-year-old's first trip away from home. It was also how she found her dream school, UC Berkeley.
"I fell in love with it," she said.
Torres is waiting to hear back from Cal and her other top pick, UC Santa Barbara. She has already been accepted to San Francisco State and San Diego State.
Her parents didn't want her to go on the road trip, or go away to school, she said.
Getting parents to let their children go away to school, let alone scout out schools on the road trip, is a problem for SOY that has been harder than ever this year, said Silvia Rosales, SOY's academic coordinator.
"In traditional families, it's much harder for kids to get out of their home," she said.
Rosales, who grew up in a traditional Latino family and struggled to get her parents to let her go away to college, knows firsthand how hard it can be to convince parents that it would benefit their children to have the full college experience.
Which is one of the reasons why SOY puts on the road trip program.
It allows students to check out the school for themselves and tell their parents it's the right choice for them, Iniestra said.
"It's another tool to empower them to say 'look, this is what I want to do with my future,' " he said.