On to College: Nonprofit Helps Students Achieve Their Dreams

On Sunday, September 23rd local non-profit Advance! hosted an event at the La Habra Community Center aimed at making college more accessible to students who might not have thought it was an option.

“The purpose of ‘La Habra Goes to College’ is to bring the community together so the families can learn how the college preparation system works,” said Fred Lentz, a founder of Advance!.

Local students, primarily from La Habra and Sonora Highs Schools, attended the event with their parents, where they were given the opportunity to speak with representatives from various colleges.


Students meet with college representatives.

The program also included presentations on college applications, scholarship options, as well as a “student-parent” panel, where people who’d benefitted from Advance! told their success stories.

Advance! got started in 2002, when Lentz (who taught at La Habra High School) and a former student realized that many students weren’t even thinking about college as an option. At that time, college counseling was aimed primarily at “top students” and many others were left behind.

“I got tired of complaining about it and decided to do something,” said Lentz.

They began the program in 2002, and were able to help 51 students from La Habra and Sonora High Schools apply to college.

“We started this whole organization with really a table, a cabinet, and a computer,” said JP Gonzalez, Executive Director of Advance!, “All we wanted to do was help them get into college…little by little every year, it started getting bigger and bigger.

Last year, Advance! helped over 900 students get into college, and they now have an office in La Habra, which is open in the evenings to provide better access to working families.


Students and their families learn about the process of applying to college.

The program has expanded beyond La Habra, and also includes Fullerton High School, Troy, Sunny Hills, and more.

“The main benefit is knowledge,” said Cristina Alvarez, the head college advisor at Advance!, “A lot of people don’t know what they need to get done, especially financial aid-wise…You can definitely pay for college if you just look through all the avenues.”

Many of the students and parents who seek help from Advance! are low income, and sometimes are first generation students—children of immigrants who do not know how to navigate the complex systems of college preparation and application.

“I’ve seen that the more exposure they get to the college system, the more it sticks,” said Gonzalez, “You can see their eyes light up when they start to get information and realize, ‘I can do this.’”

A featured speaker at the event was  La Habra City Council Member Rose Espinosa, founder of Rosie’s Garage, an after school program she started 28 years ago to help students stay in school and out of trouble.

“What we’re trying to do is just keep the dream alive,” Espinoza said to a full house of students and their families, “You have the opportunity, everyone in this country has the opportunity to go to college. Your success is our success.”


La Habra City Council Member Rose Espinoza speaks to the crowd.

The success stories of Advance! are countless, but here are a few.

Vanessa Juarez, a graduate of Sonora High School, obtained her bachelors from CSUF, her masters from the University of La Verne, and now works as a counselor at two community colleges.

Alex Bielawiec, who was awarded the Alex Buck Scholarship through Advance!, got into Cal Poly Pomona, and now works as as a mechatronics engineer designing spaceflight mechanisms at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Lesly Victoria Martinez, with the support of Advance! obtained scholarships and ultimately graduated as medical doctor from UCI.

Luis Liang, an undocumented immigrant student and a recipient of the Friends of Advance! Scholarship, graduated from the Haas school of business at the University of Berkeley, was honored at the White House by President Obama, and received the LGBT DREAMers Courage Award. He currently works for Univision, the leading Spanish-Language Broadcast Media Company.

To learn more about Advance! visit www.ontocollege.org

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