RENTON — Before Cathylyn Abuan left prison last year, she completed a few high school credits that brought her closer to finally earning a diploma.

Abuan left with a hunger for more education — a chance to work toward a better future. She just didn’t know how to get there.

But late last month, at a high school completion program in Renton, Nicollette Roe introduced herself to Abuan. For the past three years, she’s been recruiting aspiring students like Abuan, offering to serve as their personal navigator through Washington’s tangled and ever-changing system of higher education.

“She’s really taken me under her wing and literally walked me through everything,” Abuan said. “I’m lucky to have her supporting me through this entire journey.”

Founded in 2002, the little-known Seattle Education Access (SEA) sends advocates like Roe across South King County to find so-called “opportunity youth,” 16- to 24-year-olds who are neither in school nor working. The advocates rely on colleges and other nonprofits to recruit opportunity youth and teach each student how to set and reach their own education and career goals.

And new research suggests it’s working: Just over two-thirds of SEA students enrolled in a postsecondary institution, compared with 23% of young people without such a navigator. An additional 71% of SEA students remain enrolled in college four quarters after first getting the help, according to the nonprofit’s internal data.

Abuan hopes to earn an associate degree at Highline College. If she starts classes in January as planned, she will join hundreds of individuals that the SEA reconnects with the education system each year.

“Most people just assume a young person who never finished high school will never go to college — period,” said Nicole Yohalem, with the Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit that works to improve educational outcomes in South King County.

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“Even if you take a couple years and then discover you probably should go back to school, there’s no infrastructure to help you do that,” she added.

Yohalem advocates for opportunity youth, and her research estimates that there are roughly 19,000 of them — mostly students of color — in King County.

“If you have as many as 20,000 disconnected young adults in a community — especially in an economy that’s on fire — you have a real problem,” she said. “It’s not like you can sort of have a couple new programs and just solve it…You have to think regionally.”

Translating bureaucracy

On a recent Wednesday morning, Abuan nervously tapped a pen on her notebook, neck craned to look for Roe in a classroom at Renton Technical College’s downtown campus.

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She twisted in her seat while listening, on speakerphone, to an IRS operator repeat her question about what exactly Abuan needed. She hesitated, and scanned the room again.

“Um, it’s called a nonfiler letter, I think,” Abuan responded. “I need it for 2017, not last year. And I need it before Oct. 8.”

Minutes before the call, Abuan learned she had just four days to collect the IRS form in person and submit it to Highline College — or she’d risk losing thousands of dollars in financial aid.

The official verification of nonfiling letter that Abuan needed is just one part of what often feels like the foreign language of higher education bureaucracy that Roe tries to translate.

“It’s my job to simplify all the hurdles in [college], when all those processes are very unclear,” Roe said. “I enjoy being someone who can really simplify that for someone … I would’ve been an SEA student if I knew about it.”

She soon returned to the classroom and talked Abuan through the rest of the call. The pair then arranged to meet on campus, to make sure Abuan met the financial aid deadline on time and knew where to find other critical departments and resources.

“I always knew in the back of my mind that it was going to be complicated; I just didn’t think it was this complicated,” said Abena Animako, another one of Roe’s students who needed similar help.

“I’m so glad I’m not doing this alone.”

Adding advocates

Five years ago, the SEA had just four full-time advocates on staff. Now it’s looking to hire a 15th soon.

Laura DiZazzo, who took the helm as executive director in July, will soon have to review even more job applications as the organization prepares to help more opportunity youth in Pierce and Snohomish counties. (The group will rebrand as Northwest Education Access in early 2020.)

The SEA secured $500,000 in new state funding to support that growth, and DiZazzo also plans to seek additional money from a $112 million program that the Metropolitan King County Council recently approved to help more underserved students to and through college.

“Historically, large systemic efforts focus on more traditional students,” who enroll directly in college after high school, DiZazzo said. “We sort of fall through the cracks because our students fall through the cracks.”

Not long after DiZazzo started in her new position, the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released an evaluation of SEA’s work and of similar programs in Hartford, Connecticut, and Philadelphia.

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All showed success — but participants in South King County were three times more likely to enroll in a postsecondary program than a comparison group in Tacoma.

“We did not expect the effects to be as large as they were,” said Theresa Anderson, lead author of the evaluation. “The consistency across the three [evaluated] sites and the magnitude of the size of the effect … it’s very clear that this was an effective program.”

The Urban Institute also found common challenges across each site: Housing, debt, hunger, transportation and other barriers loomed large in the lives of young people and made it difficult for some to stay in the program.

Roe’s no stranger to those barriers. Virtually all of SEA students identify as low income, and more than a third are homeless.

“So in that sense, we’re kind of a Band-Aid,” Roe said, referring to the SEA advocates.

Each connects their students — Roe currently juggles a caseload of 75 — with community resources to help pay for transportation to school, child care, legal services or even $25 exam fees for placement in college-level courses. The SEA also provides tutors for those tests, helps students budget and teaches them how to check degree requirements before wasting time — and money — on unnecessary credits.

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Still, Roe said, “if you don’t have a sustainable wage, how do you afford rent? Why would you stay in school if you’re looking for a place to live?”

For her part, Abuan frankly acknowledges the decisions she made that got her into the SEA’s target group. Now, hoping to repay the help that has kept her sober for three years, Abuan plans to work as a chemical dependency counselor.

And she credits with Roe for showing her how to get the necessary education.

“I’m more hungry to get it than when I was younger,” Abuan said. “I know what it’s like to live on minimum wage, to keep feeling like you’re going nowhere, and I want better.”

Nearly 15 years after she dropped out of high school, Abuan expects to earn her diploma just before Christmas.

Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly listed the age range of “opportunity youth.” It is 16- to 24-year olds.