Once-Skeptical Student Becomes Teacher in Pomona College Academy for Youth Success

PAYS group photo in evening in front of Bridges Auditorium

Cesar Meza ’16, then a freshman at Fontana High School, was suspicious of the offer to join the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS). Come to a town called “Claremont”—an unfamiliar place even though it was less than 20 miles away—move into a Pomona College residence hall for four weeks every summer, take classes to get competitive for college, eat every day in the dining hall—and not pay a dime? “Too good to be true,” he thought, and planned to bolt the first time he was asked for money.

Three years later—not having paid a single penny for his three summers in the PAYS program—Meza moved into a college dorm again. This time it was as an enrolled first-year student at Pomona, one of the nation’s premier colleges.

This month, Meza—now a doctoral student in mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis—returns to Pomona to teach math in the PAYS program. Aiming for a career as a professor, he notes that “I have an opportunity to teach at PAYS and to give back to the program and help other students realize what an opportunity it is.” He knows from personal experience: “This is a life-changing thing.”

Two Decades of Successful Outcomes

For 20 years, PAYS has been helping students in Greater Los Angeles get ready for college. And not just any college, though participants can follow whatever path they choose after completing the program. Many are accepted to the nation’s most selective colleges and universities. David Luviano of Rialto, for example, completed the PAYS program in 2022. He’s heading to the Ivy League this fall to enroll at Brown University.

Luviano credits the PAYS program for “the confidence they gave me to reach for whatever I want to accomplish,” he says. “They really encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone.” As he looks ahead to this fall, he says, “I feel very, very much more comfortable going into college, because I know that I’ll be able to face anything that comes my way, any challenge or any obstacles.” And PAYS has an additional benefit beyond high school. “I know that I’ll still be able to reach individuals from the PAYS program and they’ll be there to talk me through any challenge or struggle that I may have within my college.”

PAYS participants come from low-income or under-represented groups in a five-county area of Southern California. The goal is to help them prepare for enrollment and success in college. They make a three-year commitment to the program after their first year of high school. It involves a four-week annual residential summer program plus connection with Pomona College faculty and staff during each school year. Being part of a multi-year cohort helps the young students form a sense of community. As one PAYS scholar says, there is “academic rigor, but we are together.”

The program is challenging—nearly three hours of intensive math or critical inquiry reading in the morning; elective classes and study sessions in the afternoon. Rising seniors conduct hands-on research with faculty—a group of 2022 PAYS students undertook a project using the revolutionary CRISPR gene-editing technology, a method co-discovered by 2020 Nobel Prize laureate Jennifer Doudna ’85, a Pomona College alumna.

It’s not all academics, though. Students have field trips on Fridays, and daily activities like a sports tournament, karaoke, art and talent shows and a scavenger hunt provide recreation and help build community, says Andres “Fluffy” Aguilar, the program’s director—himself a PAYS alumnus.

Sharing the Good News

Aguilar and other staff personally call newly accepted PAYS scholars, as participants are known, to share the news that they’ve been selected for the program. They hear reactions like: “No way! Are you serious?” accompanied by audible screams from students and parents, and

“Thank you so, so, so much!”

“Students are filled with shock, joy, amusement and disbelief,” says Aguilar. “They understand that their lives are about to change and while they do not know exactly how, they realize that this is the first step towards their college dreams.”

The program is highly selective. This year, there were 214 applicants for the 30 available spots. Move-in day is June 25.

The Big Reveal

During the closing ceremony on the final Friday of the program—July 21 this year—PAYS alumni who have just graduated from high school come back for the “big reveal”—declaring where they will be attending college in the fall. “Stanford!” “NYU!” “Berkeley!” “Pomona!” were some of the 2022 choices.

Wherever the PAYS scholars choose to go post-high school, they have a giant head start “Without PAYS, I don’t think I would have gotten into college to begin with,” says Meza, the future math professor. Meza attended high school during an economic downturn. His senior year, he says, “all the librarians and guidance counselors were asked to go on leave. Besides PAYS, there was no way of getting information about how to apply for colleges and where to apply.”

But PAYS made possible a solution. “I was able to leverage my PAYS network to get a group of 60 students from The Claremont Colleges to come to my high school and mentor other graduating seniors to help them apply to colleges,” Meza recounts. “And through that, we were able to get at least 60 students accepted to four-year colleges.” Eleven years later, Meza says some are still living in Fontana, while others have moved on to other cities, “but I think they all have successful lives.”

That’s the opportunity the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success offers to 90 high school students again this summer. Meza will be doing his part to ensure he makes math come alive in the classroom, just as PAYS professors did for him a decade ago. Some students start out saying “I’m not a math person,” says Meza. “Or they say, ‘I didn’t think I’d be able to do these types of problems when the course started but by the end, I feel comfortable enough to try harder things next time.’ That’s one of the things that brings me joy.”