College Bound

How one nonprofit group is helping public school kids make the leap to college.


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Andrew Aoki describes how he landed at one of the nation's top universities in a disarmingly humble manner. The soft-spoken co-founder of College Connections in Kaimukï says getting into Stanford was certainly no cinch, but it wasn't a gut-wrenching process, either.

"The culture at 'Iolani was that you were going to go to college," Aoki says. "I was just riding that, not really thinking about it much. It's what you do at 'Iolani. So I just looked at U.S. News and World Report and it said Stanford was a good school, so I thought I would apply there."

Aoki, 36, studied political science at Stanford, where he met Wren Wescoatt, a local boy from Moloka'i, who attended Kamehameha School. The two shared a similar conviction-that attending a competitive university wasn't simply a matter of solid test scores, but that the "culture" of a private institution contributes a significant foundation for success.

Photo: Jimmy Forrest

"The private schools we went to added so much to our own educational expectations," says Wescoatt, also 36, who received his bachelor's in communications from Stanford. "Not because of the academic rigor of the curriculum. More so because of the culture of academic expectation."

Basically, it was cool to study and work hard. But growing up, they both encountered many who didn't have access to test prep classes or the culture that rewarded academic excellence. Six years ago, they formed College Connections to help give Hawai'i's youth the opportunity to get into good colleges, regardless of academic culture or income. The nonprofit organization offers tutoring and college planning on a sliding scale.

"You can have two equally smart, good people who have such different academic experiences," says Aoki, who received a 2002 Ho'okele award for nonprofit leadership for his work at College Connections. "Opportunities lost because they didn't even register for the SAT, or they didn't know about financial aid. Some of the reasons for the disparity are not very good. Kids who have access to an SAT test prep class [will increase scores by] 50 to 100 points, just by virtue of knowing the instructions and having practiced it at least once."

The company has a free, local, online financial aid search, in addition to college advising, test preparation, "college knowledge" and tutoring services. The company also invites competitive national universities (such as Brown, Princeton)-which sometimes don't make it to the Islands-to attend its annual college fair.

College Connections is under contract with the state to provide "strategic" tutoring services for students in need as a result of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that requires schools to show "adequate yearly progress" of state learning standards. These services account for about 50 percent of their clients and, as a result, 90 percent of their clients receive some sort of financial aid from government grants.

When it began in 1999, College Connections was an all-volunteer affair. This year, it will employ more than 100 tutors and will reach 2,000 students. It has plans to expand service to the Neighbor Islands with live, online tutoring sessions.

Both Aoki and Wescoatt work at the nonprofit part time and run other for-profit businesses. Aoki is founder and president of 3Point Consulting, a public-interest research firm, and Wescoatt runs an online retail store that sells GPS systems.

They both believe that education creates opportunities and between them they have enough letters to make an alphabet soup. In addition to his bachelor's from Stanford, Aoki has his law degree from the University of Michigan and his master's in public policy from Harvard University. Wescoatt, in addition to his bachelor's from Stanford, received his master's in education from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

"Yeah, when we started this, the one thing we said was 'we know how to apply to school,'" Aoki says.

Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai'i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai'i's people. For information: www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org

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