By Alison Damast

The odds were stacked against Selene Mendez when she enrolled at California State University’s Monterey Bay campus in 2010. She’d moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 7 and her father was a migrant farmworker. Her high school guidance counselor seemed to think she’d follow in the footsteps of her older sister and brother, who had dropped out of college in their freshman years. “She told me I wasn’t college material,” Mendez says. “It got me angry.”

Determined to prove the counselor wrong, Mendez participated in a program that helps freshmen stay focused on their studies. Once a week throughout her first year at Monterey, she spoke with a coach who gave her tips on managing her time as she balanced schoolwork with two part-time jobs and a long commute. “I was excited that there was someone who actually took the time to help me out and make sure I succeed,” says Mendez, 19, now a sophomore.

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