Poverty, broken families and rough neighborhoods litter the paths of Dr. Emil Bogenmann's students, making higher education seem like a hazy dream.
But five years after launching the Latino & African-American High School Program, or LA-HIP — a rigorous science research immersion program for low-income students at Children's Hospital Los Angeles — Bogenmann is helping to bring their academic aspirations into sharper focus.
While dropout rates within the Los Angeles Unified School District, from which LA-HIP participants are drawn, hover around 50%, Bogenmann has never lost a student. And all 46 graduates are now enrolled at distinguished four-year institutions, including UC Berkley, Yale, John Hopkins, West Point and Brown.
"These kids are dynamite kids, every single one of them," Bogenmann, a longtime La Crescenta resident, said. "It really is incredible."
Funded by the National Institutes of Health and private donations, LA-HIP is operated out of the Saban Research Institute at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Dozens of students apply each February for up to 15 spots. Those who are accepted spend six weeks in the summer paired with top scientists working on research projects and are provided with transportation, lunch and a one-time $1,000 stipend. The program also includes an SAT prep course and college and financial aid counseling which continues through the following school year.
The work is hard and the expectations high — students have dubbed the first week in the lab "hell week." But they said it fosters self confidence and a desire to excel.
"The mentorship was probably the most valuable aspect of it," said LA-HIP alum Oscar Calzada, now a junior at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. "It was one of the very few experiences I had where my work mattered, and it mattered to important people."
Getting the program off the ground was difficult, Bogenmann said. Some colleagues simply refused to take on a student.
"People told me, 'They are going to steal my microscope,'" said Bogenmann, who is also an associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.
Then there is the occasional resistance from parents who worry about sending their children across the city, let alone across the country for college.
But Bogenmann, 60, is proving to colleagues, parents and, perhaps most importantly, to the students themselves, that ambition and hard work know no bounds.
Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, LA-HIP alum Alex Marquez said he was plagued with health problems from early infancy. His parents exhausted their savings on doctors, but no one could offer a definitive diagnosis. Desperate, his mother gave him a strong dose of Tylenol, placed him in a small duffle bag, and handed him over the border to an aunt who was living in the United States.
Marquez was examined at numerous Southern California hospitals until landing at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles at 5 months old. He was eventually diagnosed with glycogen storage disease, a rare liver disease.
In 2006, then a student at Jordan High School in Watts, he decided to explore his lifelong interest in science and apply to the inaugural year of LA-HIP. Seventeen years after his first visit, he returned to Children's Hospital as a researcher.
"I said, 'I am here for a reason, and I am going to have to do my best.' I put my head into it," Marquez said. "I started learning about chromosomes, and what my project was about."
Now 21, Marquez is studying molecular biology at UC San Diego. He is scheduled to graduate next year — the first in his family to do so — and plans to attend medical school at UCLA.
It is a thrill to see students enroll at some of the nation's top schools, Bogenmann said, but the commitment and hard work does not end with college acceptance letters.
"It is one thing to get into these fancy colleges, it is something else to succeed [at them]," he said.
LA-HIP's staff track the progress of their graduates, making regular contact via phone, e-mail and Facebook.
"[Bogenmann] will call and say, 'I need your transcripts, I need to see how you are doing,'" said project coordinator Mercedes Gonzales. "There are a couple of kids who weren't doing so well. He reached out to the university…Sometimes you have to step in and advocate for them."