Years of hard work have come to this. It’s decision time for 76 local high school seniors on where they plan to go to college.

All have applied and, in many cases been accepted, to multiple schools. They are “fellows” with the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition, an 11-year-old nonprofit that finds students with promise whose families have limited incomes. BRYC then works to get them into and through college, emerging with as little debt as possible. About a quarter of BRYC fellows each year apply to the nation’s most selective colleges.

Josephine Adeola has been accepted to Southern University where she plans to join Army ROTC. Tarralyn Clark is deciding among three universities: Emory, LSU and the University of Southern California. Ja’Colby Freeman has several schools he’s considering, including Lawrence University and Boston College. Zion Guerin, who plays trombone and oboe, is pursuing band scholarships at schools such as Florida A&M, Dillard and Howard universities.

Allyssa Miller has settled on Northeastern University in Boston. The private school has awarded her a prestigious scholarship, which covers almost everything.

Their happy arrival at the doorstep of college hasn’t come easily. All five teenagers have stories to tell about their struggle getting there.

Their stories stand in stark contrast to college scandal of the day, the FBI investigation into 33 affluent parents of high school students. These parents are accused of hiring a shady college admissions counselor to make bribes and engage in various kinds of fraud to get their children admitted to top colleges and universities.

Miller, who attends Port Allen High, has applied to 14 schools as well as several scholarship programs. She recalls an awful two weeks in December when she stopped returning phone calls so she could churn out essays. And that was on top of essays she’d written the year before as part of a BRYC workshop on college essay writing.

“It’s not fair if someone else is paying to get into that school while I’m working my tail off to apply there and get admitted,” Miller said.

Clark, a soft-spoken senior at Baton Rouge Magnet High, estimated that she’s written 25 college essays. Many were composed during a frenzied 10 days in October after she became a finalist with QuestBridge, a clearinghouse that identifies high-achieving, low-income students like Clark and helps them get into top colleges.

She said she was sad to see USC, one of her top schools, named in the college admissions scandal.

“It’s kinda disappointing because that could’ve taken away a spot from somebody else who actually deserved it,” Clark said.

All five students, with the exception of Clark, started with BRYC when they were in ninth grade and are among 188 students currently in the program. They needed a 3.3 GPA to get in, though BRCY makes case-by-case exceptions. And families have to have a gross family income of no more than $60,000 a year to qualify.

The application deadline for the next year’s fellows is April 14.

Lucas Spielfogel, executive director of BRYC, said the students he works with have to be “perfect” to successfully complete today’s selective college admission process. For instance, a partial scholarship may not be enough.

“They could be $10,000 away from paying for a school and that’s not a possibility for many of our families. But for many others that’s nothing,” Spielfogel said. “The margin of error for (our families) is nothing.”

Despite such challenges, BRYC has had notable success. Out of 296 students who’ve completed the program, 80 percent not only attended but graduated from four-year colleges located in 19 states. Another 8 percent graduated from a two-year or a technical college. Nationally, only about 14 percent of low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 25.

In a forthcoming essay touching on the college admissions scandal, Spielfogel recounted how he had a relatively easy time getting into prestigious Yale University.

His “ticket” was he was on the rowing team in high school, a sport “mainly offered at prohibitively expensive prep schools.” That sport, combined with good but not great grades and SAT scores, proved “just strong enough for the tailwind of privilege to push me to Yale under the illusion I was especially deserving.”

“This is the more insidious injustice you’ll find at selective colleges: the widespread belief among wealthy, white students, who have been buoyed by resources and favors at every turn, that they’ve earned everything that others could have if they had just worked harder,” Spielfogel wrote.

Freeman has long dreamed of going to Harvard University. But after joining BRYC he realized the forbidding road ahead.

“I had to challenge myself,’ Freeman said. “I had to see how hard I could push myself.”

He transferred from Glen Oaks to McKinley High in his sophomore year. There, he loaded up his schedule with honors and college-level courses, all the while holding down restaurant jobs, playing in the school band, singing in the choir, doing community service projects, serving in a youth organization, appearing in a school play and performing slam poetry. And that’s not counting twice-a-week sessions at BRYC where he was able to raise his ACT scores by four points.

“I don’t get a lot of sleep,” he admitted. “Probably per week, I get 20 hours.”

Guerin, a senior at Baker High, gets a little more sleep, but high school has often been stressful nonetheless. In addition to band and lots of work for school and BRYC, Guerin holds a job at a car wash.

“When the homework just kept piling up, I was like, ‘It’s just going to sit there and I’m not going to do it. School is too much. I can’t do this and school and scholarships and band and work,’” he recalled.

Adeola, a senior at Lee High, said BRYC and stubborness kept her going. After initially scoring a 17 on the ACT, Adeola raised her score to a 19, but couldn’t improve on that. Meanwhile, her peers at BRYC shifted to applying for colleges and scholarships. It was discouraging, since she was certain she was as smart as them.

“I kept getting like 19, 19. I was like, ‘I don’t want to take it no more,’” she said.

After shifting this year to a special online ACT prep program that BRYC provided for her, she said she was finally was able to bring her score up to a 22, high enough to expand her options.

For Miller, BRYC is an oasis. Its offices near downtown Baton Rouge have proved a safe place where she can be herself amid teenagers who also have difficult home lives.

“We all get along. It’s crazy,” she said. “I have never been in a place where they don’t have a major beef between people.”

Problems at home, however, can be hard to shake during the college hunt.

Both Freeman and Miller have absentee fathers. Yet, when it came time to complete financial aid, several colleges demanded the financial records from dad unless it was “unsafe or impossible” to do so.

After some effort, Miller set up an appointment for her father to come ti BRYC offices but he was a no-show.

“He didn’t call or say he wasn’t going to make the meeting or whatever,” he said.

Both Freeman and Miller were eventually able to get those requirements waived, but only after repeated phone calls to various colleges.

“I took a lot of work for me to get him pushed out,” Miller said.


Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.