Focus on higher education and debt free graduation

Though the pandemic has curtailed plane rides and group visits to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Educating Students Together, Inc. (EST), a local nonprofit, college access program, is still working with high schoolers to advance their education.

“Five of our students are finalists for four-year, full ride scholarships,” said Yasmin Delahoussaye, EST co-founder and treasurer. “Three for Pepperdine (University); one young lady who is a finalist for Middlebury College in Vermont; and one, is a finalist for Northwestern (University.) They’ll get about $78,000 a year, if they make it through these full-ride scholarship competitions.”

When EST began in 1987, it focused on organizing HBCU tours for local high school seniors, hoping they would consider matriculation at one of those Black schools. Now, the organization that Delahoussaye founded with her husband, Greg, has focused its services toward helping LA area students prepare for tests, complete financial aid paperwork, file applications, writing essays for grants and gaining access to a variety of colleges across the country.

In its 34 years of service, EST has worked with more than 5,000 low-income youth and all of them have been accepted into four-year colleges. EST does not charge families in the program, but relies on donations and grants to provide free college counseling and scholarship assistance.  

“My goal is to improve the program in any way I can,” Delahoussaye said, noting that EST also serves a variety of students, not just concentrating on at-risk African-American teens. “One Vietnamese student in the program recently got a perfect 800 on the math portion of the SAT,” she added.

“What I did this summer was concentrate on financial literacy, because as you know, as a people, we don’t do too well with money,” Delahoussaye said. “We taught them budgeting; avoiding credit card debt; how to invest in the stock market, etc. And then we did a college essay writing course for them. How to write an essay so you don’t sound like everybody else. We kept them busy all summer long.”

As this year’s EST seniors ready themselves for graduation, they spend a lot of afterschool and weekend time with EST. Many of the youth ranked below average on their standardized test scores before they joined the program, which coaches them up to above average performance. 

Students are also encouraged to volunteer in the community, especially tutoring children at the Al Wooten Center. Delahoussay insists these experiences help the youth write unique community impact stories for their college essays, in that the school-to-prison pipeline statistics are sobering. For example, nearly 85 percent of those in prison do not have education past the third grade. 

Delahoussaye and her colleagues at EST see higher education and debt-free graduation as the goal.

“It can be done, it just takes time,” she said.   

EST’s writing boot camp is especially focused and strenuous.  

“I don’t sugar-coat things,” Delahoussaye said. “I’m not your mother, I’m not your father. I’m here to give it to you straight. You can take it or leave it. Just hang with me.”

Delahoussaye said she had to get a little tougher with one of the foster youth in the program. She met with him each weekday night at 7 p.m. to work on his college essays and applications.  

“You can’t do anything until I get my applications,” she told him. “I know he was like, rolling his eyes, but he does want it.”

Some students do not have structure at home, or anyone who will push them toward a higher education goal, Delahoussaye explained. There is no one who will stand over them and make sure they complete the necessary work.

The right essay paid off for another one of the EST students, who recently received a $2500 scholarship from Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. and is being considered for a full ride to Pepperdine.

“In writing essays, you need to stand out from the crowd,” Delahoussaye explained. “Some of these students have never really put pen to paper. Because of  the pandemic, school started earlier this year, at the beginning of August, so we didn’t have as much time with them as we wanted. We want them to put pen to paper so by the time summer is over, their essay is already done and they can hit the ground running and look for scholarships.”

In its 2021 Impact Report, EST Executive Director Gregory Delahoussaye noted that the past pandemic year was not an easy one, as the organization had to establish a COVID-19 Relief Fund. EST proactively worked to get students access to broadband internet, laptops, printers and the like to enable them to finish their online coursework. Additionally, EST assisted in finding housing for foster youth when they were forced to vacate college dorm rooms and had nowhere to go. 

He thanked the organization’s financial supporters (including the LA County Board of Supervisors; Microsoft employees; the S. Mark Taper Foundation; and the Gene Hale Foundation) and the numerous EST volunteers. Together they enabled the organization to boast that 50 percent of the high school students in the program received scholarships and would not have to experience student loan debt upon graduation.

“EST remains dedicated to serving high school and college students as they seek to achieve their educational goals and career aspirations, stabilizing them as they face these difficult times,” the director said. “Together, we are changing generations — one student at a time.”

 For more information about EST, visit https://estcap.org/.

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