Graduate from college. Check.
Become engineers. Check.
Help your parents’ buy their first home. Check.
Erick ’14 and Yensi Deras have accomplished much in the three short years since the siblings earned their college degrees. But they credit a Pomona College program they participated in years earlier, when they were young teens, for putting them on that path to success.
Erick, a graduate of Pomona College, and Yensi, a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona, are both alumni of the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS). PAYS brings promising local high-school students from underrepresented backgrounds to live and take classes on Pomona’s campus for three consecutive summers to prepare for college. The program, “changed our lives,” says Erick, who today is a software development engineer at the Rubicon Project leading a team of five.
Yensi, a chemical process engineer at TechnipFMC, agrees. She recalls that because they came to this country as young children from El Salvador, they had to catch up and pick up English in the classroom but it helped that they excelled at and had a knack for math even then. They soon mastered the new language and Yensi began to excel in her studies until she was top of her class in middle school.
At her Serrano Middle School promotion, Yensi, who is older by one year, took home the most awards that year. For Erick, seeing his parents, immigrants from El Salvador, glow with pride every time Yensi picked up yet another award fueled his drive to do better in school. It paid off, he says, because he took home one more award than his sister at his promotion ceremony the following year.
Erick is quick to point out that a few months ago, Yensi evened the score when she received a certificate from the state of California for her participation in a local program called Bright Prospect.
Yensi adds, “It was always a friendly competition. We always shared a room growing up and when I would stay up studying he would too and we’d be up at night at 12 or 1 a.m. in the kitchen making sandwiches, and that made school a little more enjoyable, because we had each other.”
In high school, both Yensi and Erick were star students but as most first-generation students, they needed a bit more support to help them get to college.
“My mom would stay up to 3 or 4 a.m. to keep us company while we did homework,” says Erick. He explains that their proud and hard-working parents helped them along the way but in high school, that help could no longer extend to the academics and in a way, the Deras siblings were on their own.
That’s where PAYS came in. PAYS gave the Deras a “trial run” of college academics and life, but most importantly, shifted their mentality: they both became determined to succeed beyond high school. That’s what PAYS does: as a four-week intensive summer program, it brings 90 local high school students from underrepresented communities to support them in preparing for admission to selective and highly selective colleges and universities. Every year, the program graduates 30 high school seniors headed to college.
Yensi says PAYS did a great job of helping them deal with the culture shock of college before college even started.
“PAYS was more than just academics,” she says. “It also helped with other aspects of life, like getting to know people, build networks and relationships.”
From its inception, the PAYS program has targeted high-achieving underrepresent students from local high school, like Yensi and Erick, who came from nearby Montclair High School. “A lot of PAYS alums have continued on to STEM because the math component of the program has been very successful,” explains Mathematics Professor Shahriar Shahriari, who has been part of PAYS since its start and is just one of Erick’s mentors at Pomona. “At PAYS, the key thing we did was change the narrative from an ‘you versus math’ to a community thing where students work together on hard problems and share ideas to become problem solvers.”
“When I think of Erick, I think of someone who is really resilient, and someone who has his eye on the ball. He works very hard and doesn’t fear anything – but what has also allowed him to do this is this community: his family, PAYS and the Pomona math department which provided that context for him to succeed.”
When Erick graduated from Pomona in May of 2014 and just a month later, Yensi walked the stage at Cal Poly Pomona, the soon-to-be engineers already had jobs in hand.
Just a few short years after graduation, Yensi and Erick were presented with the opportunity to make their parents’ long-time dream come true.
“Our parents always had that dream to own a house but it was not in their capacity to do it,” says Yensi, who remembers the long hours both mom and dad put into their low-wage jobs.
With the opportunity to buy a house but with little knowledge about the process, the Deras siblings did what they do best: they teamed up and studied what they had to do to make it happen.
“We stayed up until 1 a.m., doing research,” says Erick, who remembers having to look up the word “escrow” to fully understand every step of the home-buying process. “We researched everything that comes with buying a house, which is not unique to us, but no one in our family had done this before.”
This past August, the Deras celebrated one year of living in their new house, a duplex they share with their aunt and uncle, and their young cousins who are also their goddaughters.
The purchase of their own duplex allowed Erick the opportunity to make another dream come true: getting a puppy.
Yensi says, "I can’t remember all the times growing up of him wanting a puppy—but living in apartments, he couldn’t get one… but now that we have the house, we got a German Shepherd puppy.”
More recently, Yensi has married and moved out of the home, having purchased a new home with her husband. Meanwhile, Erick works on improving the duplex.
Most importantly, says Erick, “our parents continue to work, but now they have the luxury of not needing to work on weekends.”