Coast Guard Academy alum counsels New London youth

By Chris Soto's reckoning, not many graduates of the Coast Guard Academy return to New London, except maybe to accept a new Coast Guard assignment, or to retire.

Certainly not many academy graduates come back to start a nonprofit to help make the city a better place.

But that's what Soto, Class of 2003, is doing.

Soto, whose first return to New London after graduating was as a civilian employee at the academy, in the school's diversity program, left again to get a master's degree at Brown University.

While studying in Providence, he interned with a program there that helps high school students get into college and then stays in touch, mentoring them as they work toward a degree.

Soto knew from his work in New London that Connecticut was behind the country in using nonprofits to help high school kids into college. So he decided to come back to the city he knew from college to get a college access program started.

He calls it helping kids who tend to fall under the radar.

He said it seems especially appropriate in New London, where there are more college students than high school students and lots of college resources.

Soto said his youth as a Latino in a community in New Jersey similar to New London helped him relate to New London students.

In its first year, the program Soto started enrolled six students. All of them applied and were accepted into college.

This year, the second full year, as the college application season draws to a close, Soto's College Access Program is working with 22 students. Plans are in place to increase that to 40.

The program has two full-time employees, Soto and another student adviser, and they are assisted by volunteers. More than half of the annual budget of about $75,000 has been raised from grants from local foundations and businesses.

Other funds come from individuals and organizations that pay a fee. Some groups, for instance, might sponsor a student, at a cost of about $1,000.

The New London Board of Education has appointed a subcommittee, with representation from all the city's colleges, to help with the goal of increasing college attendance and graduation.

The college access organization has been working as an adjunct to the First Hispanic Baptist Church, which has been supplying space in its community center on Redden Avenue.

But Soto said the program is developing its own nonprofit legal status, recruiting a board of directors and looking to expand geographically into other towns in the region. They are also planning a new name to reflect expanding ambitions.

"People are really embracing the idea of what we are trying to do," he said. "It could be replicated elsewhere in eastern Connecticut."

In general, students from low-income households in which parents did not attend college end up graduating from college at the rate of about one out of 10. But some college access programs can improve that rate to seven out of 10 for low-income, first-generation students, Soto said.

The program here in many ways replicates the kind of support and guidance that many students get from parents who attended college.

Participants meet weekly with an adviser and get help and counseling throughout the college application process, from choosing schools to college visits to writing applications. Parents are also encouraged to participate and learn more about the process, from applications to what to expect for tuition assistance.

Once the student is enrolled in college, the support continues, an important part of the process, Soto says, so that students know they can seek help if they are considering dropping out.

The program also helps the college students find summer jobs, which can help them stay enrolled.

Soto says he was surprised, when he first started working with New London high school students, while at the academy, to hear many of them say they are not prepared for college. He knew many of them had better test scores than the ones that got him into the Coast Guard Academy, for instance.

Soto said he had an uncle who mentored him and encouraged him to apply to the academy. He said he wants to see that kind of support offered to New London high school kids.

"You would be surprised how many kids are falling through the cracks," he said.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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