Pomona College Academy for Youth Success Puts Local High Schoolers on Path to Top Colleges

Rising seniors who completed the PAYS program stand in front of Bridges Auditorium holding certificates.



“Pomona College!”

To the applause and cheers of their families and fellow PAYS scholars, 22 recent high school graduates came forward during the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS) closing ceremony, held July 22 on Marston Quad. One by one they shared their “big reveal”—where they will be attending college this fall.

Each of them represents a success of the PAYS program, which gives rising 10th through 12th graders from groups underrepresented in higher education a full-immersion experience at Pomona College. The program includes three summers and support during the school year, fully free of charge. The goal is to prepare them for enrollment and success in college, and to show them that it’s possible for them to be admitted to—and afford to attend—the nation’s best schools. PAYS graduates have gone on to enroll at Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Georgetown, and other top universities as well as Pomona and other colleges in the Claremont consortium.

The PAYS scholars, who commit to the program after their first year in high school, were in residence on campus from June 26 to July 22. For rising 12th graders, it was the first time they had been able to fully savor campus life, the program having been online-only during the pandemic closures of 2020 and 2021. “Way better!” was the enthusiastic assessment of being in-person on campus. “You get the full experience of what college is like.”

The days were jam-packed for the 95 students—classes in critical thinking, writing, math and electives, plus workshops on leadership and college admissions, field trips, sports and study halls. Rising high school seniors also chose one of six faculty-mentored research projects for hands-on experience. 

For a number of the PAYS scholars, the research opportunity opens new options for their college major and career. An all-female research group worked with Professor Charlotte Chang '10 on measuring biodiversity in the Claremont area. One of the students forms a heart with her hands. “My research with Professor Chang really changed my life,” she says. “I found I really like conservation science.”

The six students in Professor Sara Olson’s CRISPR group carried out hands-on research using the revolutionary technology for which Pomona alumna Jennifer Doudna '85, co-won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. They used CRISPR technology to gene-edit roundworms to study eggshell formation. “It’s incredible!” exclaimed one student, while another said, “I love it! After research we talk about it all the time.” The enthusiasm was on full display during the research presentations on July 20 as the students did a specially created “CRISPR dance” as they entered and left the stage.

Several PAYS staff are themselves alumni of the program, including the director, Andres Aguilar, who is also assistant director of educational outreach at the College’s Draper Center for Community Partnerships. Teaching assistant Danny Ta ’22, a mathematics major from Ontario, is a PAYS alumnus. “It was the reason I chose Pomona,” he says. Another PAYS alumnus and TA, Alejandro Tovar ’22 from Fontana, majored in biology at Pomona and was first in his family to attend college. He credits his parents with teaching him “hard work, dedication and grit.”

As they neared the conclusion of the program, rising 12th graders reflected on their PAYS experience “In my school there are not a lot of people who focused on academic aspirations—they are living in the moment,” said a PAYS scholar from Ontario. Another student across the table in Frary Dining Hall said that “Before this, I had no idea about what college was like,” and a third student added, “It’s like dipping our toes in the water.”

Linh Le found an unexpected outcome from her time as a PAYS scholar. It was “such an eye-opening experience,” she said. “I fell in love with public speaking. I can use my voice.”

David Luviano of Rialto summed up the journey as “academically rigorous, but so many opportunities to build community.”

Glenford Vega of Diamond Bar found PAYS to be “a spectacular program. I’m lucky to have found out about it.”

And Alberto Torres, standing with his mother who had come to hear his research presentation, said of his PAYS experience, “I loved it. It will change my whole life.”

The week after the summer program concluded, the rising seniors took off on R2C—“Road to College,” a five-day PAYS-sponsored road trip to visit public and private colleges and universities across California. Perhaps from the inspiration will come next year’s college choice reveals at the closing ceremony as the high school Class of 2023 takes the next step toward a bright future.