Giving Compass' Take:

• In this excerpt from The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America, Richard Whitmire shares the story of Truong Nguyen and how the EMERGE college counseling program is helping him and other first-generation students find college success. 

• How can this type of program be spread, replicated, and improved? 

• Learn more about supporting first-generation college students

His mom is a nail technician, his father a barber. Those are the jobs they found here. Truong Nguyen moved to the United States just five years ago, equipped with only the rudimentary English he learned in Vietnam. In middle school, he endured students making fun of his accent. “That was really discouraging for me.” He earned mostly C’s and D’s, partly because he was scared to speak English. Not that he cared that much about his grades anyway. “I don’t know why, but at the time I was OK with that.” And from middle school he was headed right into César E. Chávez High School, one of the highest-poverty high schools in Houston, a high-poverty district where that distinction means something. Nguyen didn’t seem to be college material.

But one day, something snapped in him. “I realized that college was the only way for me to give something back to my parents, because they had sacrificed so much for me. In Vietnam, they had their own stable lives. But then they sacrificed everything they built to move here to start over. That changed my perspective about trying harder in class. So I pushed myself by staying after school and doing tutorials. I would ask my teachers lots of questions.” As for being taunted for his accent, Nguyen took a positive tack: “I saw that as a way of knowing there’s still a lot of room for [speech] improvement.”

Nguyen was just the kind of student to get detected by EMERGE, the counseling program here in Houston aimed at first-generation students who, with some extra help, would have good shots at winning full scholarships to elite universities. He fit all the criteria, from strong PSAT scores to good grades. Offered a chance to sign up, he did, which is where I found him during a 2017 visit after school in the library, with other EMERGE students working on college selection strategies.

Today, Nguyen ranks first in his class of 715 juniors, and he just got accepted as a Yale Young Global Scholar. That’s a school Nguyen fell in love with while on an EMERGE-sponsored college tour. “The moment I stepped off the bus, I realized I could see myself here as a student. I really want to come back.” His goal is to become a doctor. In studies now famous among educators, economists Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, from Stanford University and the University of Virginia, respectively, found that the majority of high-achieving, low-income students never apply to even a single competitive college. That study might as well have named Nguyen — until EMERGE picked him up.

Read the full article about helping low-income, first-generation students by Richard Whitmire at The 74.