A high school mentoring program at the University of Pennsylvania designed for local first-generation students helped two sisters navigate the college-appication process. That path ultimately led both back to Penn.
Melanie and Lizette Grajales grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and are both first-generation college students: Lizette is a sophomore at Penn and Melanie received a bachelor’s degree from Lehigh University before starting at Penn Dental Medicine this year.
“I wouldn’t have known how to even apply to colleges or that I should be going on tours or anything,” says Melanie. “I was the oldest of our family who’s gone to college. Definitely being first-generation is a little difficult since you don’t have that help from anyone else.”
“Both sisters were very dedicated in applying and gaining admissions into college,” said Gail Oberton, the program director of the SMP. “But at the time, they really did not have the resources to help them through that journey.”
Both sisters credit the STEMMP for giving them the support they needed.
“I don’t think we noticed until recently that it was a really life-changing program,” says Lizette. “We probably wouldn’t be where we are today without it.”
The first year of the Summer Mentorship Program allows students to explore one of five professional degree fields: medicine, nursing, engineering, law and dentistry.
Both sisters were accepted into the dentistry track. For four weeks the summer before their junior years of high school, they were exposed to the same kind of lectures and hands-on experiments that Penn’s dental students experience.
“We were actually allowed to use the drills and do impressions and do work in the simulation lab, so this is equipment that I would never have been able to work with,” Melanie says.
Students attended lectures on the fundamentals of dentistry. Melanie credits the experience as a primary reason why she’s perusing a degree at Penn Dental Medicine today.
Beverley Crawford, Dental Medicine’s director of diversity and inclusion and director of the dental Summer Mentorship Program, remembers Melanie and Lizette as committed and hard working.
“Melanie was insistent that I grade one of her units similarly to the criteria used to grade our first-year dental students,” says Crawford. “Pipeline programs such as the Summer Mentorship Program are essential to bring students who would not normally consider careers in the health professions to the realization that they are needed and can accomplish their goals.”
As part of the program, a smaller group of students receives guidance and mentorship in applying to college. Students enroll in SAT-prep classes, meet with Penn undergraduates to work on college-admission essays and receive help arranging college visits. To Lizette, this support was the most important part of her SMP experience.
“I was thinking I wanted to go to an Ivy League school, but I didn’t know if I could really get in,” she says. “The program really helped me and pushed me to do the application.”
The SMP not only provides resources for high school students during the college-application process but also builds mentoring relationships between students and Penn staff and faculty. Melanie, for instance, continued to seek advice from Crawford throughout her four years of college and as she was applying to dental school.
The SMP also gave the sisters a chance to bond with other first-generation students also figuring out the application process.
“They were like a second family to me,” says Lizette. “That was my favorite part of the program, and I’m so excited that I still get to be a part of it.”
Lizette now volunteers with the SMP as a student mentor. She spent this past summer supporting current high school students who are writing personal essays, taking college tours and learning the ins and outs of the application process.
The SMP is entering its 10th year this summer and continues to help high school students around Philadelphia broaden their horizons.
“I think that one of the things that this program does best is it introduces kids from public high schools in Philadelphia to the possibility of attending college and the possibility of becoming doctors and dentists,” says Melanie.