Andrea Gonzales, second from left, is one of many recent graduates from Bourgade Catholic High School who will be the first generation in their family to go to college. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Andrea Gonzales, second from left, is one of many recent graduates from Bourgade Catholic High School who will be the first generation in their family to go to college. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Getting into and paying for college is a years-long endeavor. Being the first in the family to navigate those waters can make it even tougher.

It’s a reality that an average of 60 percent of seniors each year at Bourgade Catholic High School, 4602 N. 31st Avenue, face. People and programs long in place, however, smoothly guide all parents and students through the college and financial aid process.

“Just thinking about us going out and living on our own at the university was daunting,” said Andrea Gonzalez, shortly before graduating from Bourgade Catholic in May.

There’s selecting a college, the application process, finding financial aid and scholarships       and making logistical preparations to either live on their own or at least be more in charge of their futures. All of it was uncharted waters for more than half of Bourgade families.

“We had no clue even what to expect,” Gonzalez said.

She endured an additional hardship with a language barrier between her mother’s native language and the language used on most financial aid and college application forms. That’s where Carol Caruso, college counselor, comes in. The head of the counseling department moved exclusively to college preparation work this year.

“It was just the biggest help I’ve ever had,” Gonzalez said. She praised Caruso for making time to help her and every other senior individually.

Caruso’s redefined role also allowed her to continue offering regular extensive parent meetings and workshops and launch separate junior and senior parent newsletters to reach parents who can’t make the meetings. The newsletters highlight relevant deadlines, recap college search strategies and student internship offers.

Students received more than $7 million in merit-based scholarship offers. Caruso has said in past school years that the money spent on high school tuition often offsets what colleges offer Bourgade graduates.

Gonzalez, who has taken honors classes since sophomore year, ended up applying for 15 scholarships and to 10 schools. She decided on the University of Arizona so she could be independent for a new experience yet close to home.

“Not going to college would not be acceptable,” said Gonzalez.

She watched her family remain in low-income jobs, something she said a college degree would address.

“The strong work ethic that their parents instill in them and we continue to motivate in them really makes a difference,” Caruso said.

She also acknowledged the role of peer and faculty encouragement to do their best and strive for higher education. Several English teachers made resume writing an assignment that was also tracked through the counseling office.

Jake Lambros
Jake Lambros

Classmate Jake Lambros said he didn’t know where he’d be in the college admission process by graduation if it weren’t for Caruso’s guidance and tips, especially those he took away from her College 101 class. The senior elective course teaches students how to apply to college and scholarships as well as budgeting. Students earn extra credit if a college accepts them.

“She made it a point to help us take a step forward,” Lambros said.

He received several full-ride offers. The visual learner mapped the pros/cons of each college on a chalkboard to help him make a decision. He ultimately decided on studying business administration at Grand Canyon University. Lambros earned many medals through Bourgade’s five-year-old swim team and is the first graduate to earn a swimming scholarship to a Division I school.

“She prepared us mentally for this huge step in our lives,” Lambros said.

Caruso said her class also features practical lessons. One assignment required seniors to head to the grocery store with an adult family member so they could get used to finding good buys and cooking meals. Another lesson involved the laundry and cleaning the bathroom.

These Bourgade graduates aren’t afraid to venture off to college and live as an adult.

“It’s my turn to take the driver’s seat,” Lambros said.