Education is a gateway to opportunity. Long-term investments in academic enrichment, holistic support, and leadership and career development can lead to college graduation and career success for underrepresented students of color.

Rafael del Castillo, executive director of Rainier Scholars, a nonprofit that offers a pathway to college and careers for underrepresented students, says it’s crucial to prioritize early intervention, high expectations and comprehensive long-term support so students can succeed. At Rainier Scholars, this means being in it for the long haul. The organization’s 12-year holistic program supports students from 5th grade through college graduation and beyond. Del Castillo describes it as a “forever journey,” as evidenced by their growing alumni network. Several Rainier Scholars alumni are participating in a new mentorship program in which they’re paired with a student who is interested in pursuing a similar career path.

Del Castillo also emphasizes the importance of academic rigor and access to opportunities. “There’s huge support, but with that comes high expectations,” he says. And there are plenty of examples that prove these students are ready and eager to take on challenges. For example, Rainier Scholars recently held an event, geared towards high school students, with local and national BIPOC elected officials about how to run for political office. “The high school kids were definitely  interested, but the middle school kids in the room, who we thought would mostly be observers, were also incredibly energized,” del Castillo says.

Ensuring these students continue to receive support once they reach college is also key. College graduation rates lag for students of color for reasons ranging from financial challenges to a lack of resources and support on campus. The academic counselors at Rainier Scholars remain in touch with their students to provide guidance and support as they make the adjustment.

When students graduate and begin their job search, del Castillo says it’s important to offer continued support when it comes to things like writing a résumé or learning how to successfully negotiate a salary.

Addressing hurdles faced by underrepresented students

Addressing inequity also requires awareness of barriers that may not be visible. Two of the biggest hurdles faced by underrepresented students are lack of cultural capital and fundamental financial resources.

“Not every underrepresented group has that capital and if historically they’re not brought to those tables, they don’t have the knowledge or know the pathways,” del Castillo explains. “Your child may be an incredibly talented student, but if you don’t know there’s a path out there for them, that’s a problem.”

When it comes to finances, it’s not just about tuition money — it’s about being able to fund the things that come with education and extracurricular activities such as playing a musical instrument, paying field trip fees and preparing college applications.

Navigating the pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools and educators across the country and world were abruptly forced to pivot from in-person classrooms to virtual learning. It was a challenge for all teachers and students, but underrepresented students faced additional barriers. “Due to the challenges of online learning, equitable access to quality education became more important than ever, as did providing strong support,” says del Castillo.

As school moved online, Rainier Scholars’ first priority was to make sure that students had access to the fundamentals such as laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots. Educators also checked in with students about their families and expanded their mental health team.

Forming community partnerships

Working to achieve a more equitable society requires a range of supports and skill sets and strong community relationships. Del Castillo stresses the importance of approaching new partners with questions rather than answers. Rainier Scholars recently launched a new partnership with the Tacoma Public Schools. After speaking with members of the Tacoma community and school leaders, Rainier Scholars adjusted their model to fit the needs of that community.

“Our model has been successful for 20 years, but it can be refined to meet the needs of any community we’re serving,” del Castillo says. He also emphasizes the importance of working alongside other community-based organizations, to tap into their expertise.

“I don’t think anyone organization has all the answers and we believe in the exponential power of partnerships,” he says. Working hand in hand with community-based organizations maximizes the impact of support for students and families.

Rainier Scholars cultivates the academic potential and leadership skills of hardworking, underrepresented students of color. Access to transformative educational and career opportunities and comprehensive support to scholars and families increases college graduation rates and empowers new generations of leaders.