For College Track East Palo Alto alumna, Marlene Castro, a sense of social justice and equity set in early on, very close to home. Marlene grew up naturally interested in school, but the same was not true for her brother. “We’re 11 months apart, and in many ways we felt like twins,” she recalls. “But not in school.”
Marlene began to observe a “stark difference” in how the siblings were treated as they advanced through the grades. “It was tough to see how teachers were supporting me, but not my brother.” In their East Palo Alto neighborhood, gang violence and rough schools were common – while visions of college were not. Most students’ parents, like Marlene’s, had not gone on to higher education. These realities had a way of limiting conversations about the future, even for ambitious students like Marlene. “You’d hear that college is important, through society at large, but not at school.”
This narrative shifted abruptly when Marlene joined College Track in the summer before 9th grade. “College Track staff really validated where we were coming from,” she says. “Their message was: We know it’s hard, the odds are against you, but that’s not an excuse to not make it.” That message would soon extend to her brother, who joined the program the next year.
College Track offered a refuge when Marlene enrolled in her high school’s International Baccalaureate program, where she was the only student of color. “This made me an outcast at school,” she recalls. “I was not in the classes my friends were in. It’s tough to be the one different kid. But when I went to College Track, everything shifted. I was there with students going through the same thing I was. It became my community. It sparked in me the idea that it is really important to be part of a community where people care for you.”
With College Track’s help, Marlene started “applying for scholarships like crazy.” She also learned the ins and outs of financial aid and put her personal statement through several rounds of edits. When these topics came up back at her high school, Marlene was struck to hear her friends asking, “How do you know all of this stuff?” Her answer: “It’s College Track.” This, like her brother’s treatment in school, kindled Marlene’s passion for social justice. “It was really tough seeing that most of my friends weren’t getting the same type of support because they didn’t have a program like College Track in their lives,” says Marlene.
Meanwhile, Marlene’s scholarship applications paid off in a huge way in the form of a full ride to UC Berkeley. She knew other students were heading off to college planning to put their old neighborhoods far behind them. “Growing up, my teachers’ vision was that to succeed, you have to get out and never look back,” Marlene explains. “But the way I see it, success is learning new things out in the wider world and then bringing it back to help change your own community for the better. College Track instilled that ‘share the wealth’ mentality.”
“When I got to college, I took those sentiments with me,” says Marlene. She secured a position through AmeriCorps as a college resource coordinator for Berkeley High School students. “I thought of myself as their College Track,” she says. In that role, she quickly set about mirroring the support she’d gotten through the program. “Everything College Track had done for me, I learned to give back to another community.” She organized college tours, brought in volunteers to critique seniors’ college essays, and more.
She also visited her own high school to speak with kids about scholarship opportunities and other college-minded matters. “There has been this constant thread of giving back and coming back in my life,” she reflects. Near the end of college, she thought she might give back by becoming a lawyer working for immigrants’ rights. “But I reached this tipping point where I realized I had this other calling,” Marlene says. “My other friends of color in college were saying they planned to stay in higher education, and I realized: our people are not going back to our classrooms. I said to myself, I need to be at a school.”
This calling led Marlene to join Teach for America, and secure placement as a 5th-grade teacher at Oakland’s Think College Now, a school that shares a lot in common with College Track. For her students, Marlene says, “I feel like I am their College Track, in 5th grade. Something College Track taught me is that it’s never too early and never too late. As a school that starts preparing kids for college in kindergarten, TCN definitely shares this philosophy. There are such high expectations and rigor, it’s just an amazing community. Every school in the Bay Are should look like this.”
Today, looking at her students in their desks, she sees her own 5th-grade self looking right back – at the kind of teacher she did not have. “I never had a teacher of color growing up, even though 99 percent of our students were Latino and African American. My students now tell me, ‘You’re the first Latino teacher I’ve ever had.’ I’m just so glad I’m teaching here. One of the biggest things College Track taught me is what giving back looks like. The more directly you give back, the better job we can do in helping kids not fall through the cracks. College Track has been a trailblazer in this way, and I want to carry on that legacy.”