For 13 years, high-school freshmen have enjoyed the opportunity to earn college credits while they are still working to receive a high school diploma. Courtesy photo.

Thanks to a collaboration between Santa Monica College and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, high-school freshmen have enjoyed the opportunity to earn college credits while they are still working to receive a high school diploma.

Known as the Young Collegians program, students also receive a number of additional supports, such as workshops and college visits, which seek to provide students with whatever they need to become successful college students, according to Rosa Serratore, who has overseen the program with Maral Hyeler for nearly 13 years.

On Thursday, the program’s eleventh and twelfth cohort will graduate at 6 p.m. during a Zoom celebration. And while this year’s crop of graduates has endured an experience unlike any others before them, Serratore said the program has still found ways to ensure students are properly prepared for the ventures ahead of them.

“Young Collegians is a program we’ve done for 13 years,” but Cohort 13 was still in the process of being recruited when Covid-19 forced SMC to pivot online so program leaders thought it was best to hold off on bringing a new group of freshmen into virtual college courses, Serratore said. “So we put a pause on that for now but, usually, we have three cohorts of students at SMC each summer.”

Both Hyeler and Serratore coordinate the program and support the kids during their summer classes, “and then during the school year we meet up with them to help them still feel like a cohort of students who have a common goal and are trying to make it a reality,” Serratore said. “We’ve been at it from day one and we’ve been the consistent force. We’ve had different superintendents, different assistant superintendents and the like, but they’ve all loved the end product, which is kids ending with 14 transferable college credits.”

Often times, kids will say they’re going to go to college but as they get to their junior and senior years, they haven’t taken any steps to actually do so, Serratore said, explaining how most of the program participants are first-generation college students themselves so they have to learn to navigate a system that is often unfamiliar to them and their families.

“They truly get an experience of learning how to navigate and be a college student, because they take class two classes every summer that are for the most part transferable to other four year colleges,” Serratore said. Students are referred to the program usually by the second semester of their ninth-grade year and usually spend the first summer in classes with other freshmen. In the second and third summers, the cohorts are mixed in with college students, “so the experience becomes even more authentic.”

All in all, students will learn time management and important interpersonal skills while they enjoy college tours, speaker panels and other supports that are encompassed in the program, according to Serratore.

“I’ll tell you the first summer is a little rough because they’re not really sure what they got themselves into. But they really, really blossom by the end and it’s pretty neat when we have our June celebration because we have a lovely program where the kids give their testimonies — and it’s pretty heartwarming to see,” Serratore said. But it’s even more heartwarming to see how the program puts students on track with other students who have access to private tutors and are able to take A.P. classes.