The Dream Project, started and run by undergraduates at the University of Washington, helps students from schools in high-poverty areas around Seattle apply for college and find scholarship money.

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One day in mid-December, a purple-clad army of college students prepared to sweep through Renton High School, bringing snacks, drinks and most of all, information.

Laura McDowell marshaled the forces — about 50 University of Washington students — in the school’s counseling center, making sure they were all working on the same thing before they fanned out across the building.

“Have your students go to fafsa-dot-gov,” McDowell rapped out in a commanding voice. “Can anyone tell me what it stands for? Anybody?”

“Free Application for Federal Student Aid,” the students responded, not exactly in unison. Filling out the form is a necessary step to getting financial aid for college.

“Why do you have to fill it out?” McDowell asked.

The response was immediate: “Money!”

The UW students are part of the Dream Project, a 5-year-old mentoring program started by a handful of undergraduates in 2005. Since then, it has grown rapidly, and last year reached 1,300 seniors in 16 high-poverty Seattle-area high schools, many of whom would be the first in their families to go to college.

Recently, it received a $972,000 grant over a four-year period from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About 500 UW students participated this past year, spending an hour a week in high-school classrooms to prep students on the SAT or ACT, help them fill out college applications and apply for public and private scholarship money. For those who don’t plan to go to college, the UW students help them think about what they will do when they graduate.

Washington has one of the lowest rates in the nation of college-bound teens — by one count, this state is 46th, with only about half of its graduates going to college directly from high school. The national average is 63 percent, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

The Dream Project message: “We’re one, two, three years older than you. We just did it. You can do it, too,” said McDowell, who is a junior majoring in accounting and business administration and is coordinator of the Dream Project at Renton High.

Teen spoken here

The UW mentors speak teen, and can pull out all the social-networking stops: They use texting, Facebook and email to cajole their mentees to write their essays, sign up for free scholarship workshops and fill out financial-aid paperwork.

With their recent success at getting into the most selective public university in the state, UW students have both technical knowledge and pragmatic advice for anyone applying to college, said Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs at the UW.

Taylor said college mentoring projects abound — many colleges and universities offer some form of help to high-school students. What sets the Dream Project apart is that it has a “complexity and theory of action” that makes it more effective. Its students are sophisticated, well-trained and unusually committed, he said.

Renton High principal Damien Pattenaude agreed. “The Dream Project itself is not a silver bullet,” he said. Rather, it’s the strength of the mentors and their relationships with the students at Renton High, where 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Renton is one of two schools where the whole senior class is being mentored; the other school is the Tyee Educational Complex, three small schools on one campus in the Highline School District.

Senior Fabian Del Toro is one of the mentees at Renton High. Del Toro hopes to become the first person in his family to go to college, but when he sat down to write an essay for his application to Washington State University, he didn’t think he had much of a story to tell.

Then his mentor, Olivia Kozyra, began quizzing him about his life story. She learned he had helped his father raise corn and jalapeño peppers in Mexico, shouldering a substantial part of the burden of running the family’s 12-acre farm during a summer trip.

“Hey — that’s a great story,” she told him. And that became Del Toro’s most important college essay.

“It’s more helpful to get help from someone around your age,” Del Toro said. “The experiences they went through are really fresh.” And praise from college students was helpful, too: “When they tell you it’s a great paper, you get a sense of accomplishment,” he said.

Founded by UW grads

Alula Asfaw, a 2008 graduate of the UW, started the Dream Project with a few close friends and help from UW adviser Stanley Chernicoff. Asfaw, who was born in Ethiopia, moved to Seattle when he was 6 years old, and said he felt lucky to get the right mentoring help and land a scholarship to go to the UW.

Asfaw said the program goes beyond helping underprivileged kids get into college; it helps the UW students, too. As part of the Dream Project, UW students take a general-studies class for credit that delves into social justice, empowerment and the relationship between the two.

“If we believe that a university is where society’s leaders — policymakers, educators, and businessmen and women — are fostered and developed, then we have a duty to ensure they do not graduate blind to the struggles of individuals whose lives are different from their own,” Asfaw said by email from Ethiopia, where he was visiting family members in December. He is now doing postgraduate work at the University of Cambridge in England.

Asfaw said he’s pleased, but not surprised, by how much the program has grown. He called it “a validation of our early conviction that students who have the grades and the desire to attend college only need a little guidance and support to make a successful transition to the next level.”

The program targets high-school students starting in the spring of their junior year. The UW students go to high schools every week for an hour and help younger students figure out if they’re on track with a transcript that fulfills college requirements. They assist in SAT and ACT preparation and help with applications for college and for scholarships.

Dustin Dacuan, a Dream Project mentor and Renton High graduate, is one of the project’s success stories. His parents were supportive of his dreams, but blunt: “They told me they didn’t have the money for me to go to college,” said Dacuan, who received one of the project’s “Live The Dream” $1,000 scholarships.

Now that the project is 5 years old, many UW students who participate — like Dacuan — were themselves mentored in high school by Dream Project students.

That’s another way the Dream Project helps low-income college students, because they have lower rates of college completion than middle- and upper-income students but are more likely to stay in school if they are engaged in meaningful extracurricular activities, said Jenee Myers Twitchell, assistant director of the Dream Project and another of its founders.

Measuring success

As part of the grant the UW received from the Gates Foundation, Myers Twitchell is gathering data to determine if the project has been effective at getting more first-generation students to go to college.

But there’s anecdotal evidence that it is working.

UW student Olivia Kozyra, who grew up in Spokane and graduated from a high school that was 90 percent white, said it has opened her eyes to poverty and social justice.

“Anyone that gets involved in this project — their life will be changed,” said Kozyra, who has been part of the Dream Project for six quarters. “It’s defined my college experience, for sure. I’ve got one student who’s now at Yale. It’s amazing.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

A photo caption on seattletimes.com earlier misidentified the Dream Project as part of The Fund For The Needy fundraising campaign. The project is not part of the fund.