From Zoom Room to Residence Hall at Pomona College

Thomas Aguilar and Ricardo Camacho seated at restaurant

When Thomas Aguilar ’27 and Ricardo Camacho ’27 moved into Mudd-Blaisdell Hall last August, they were coming to a place that already felt like home. As alumni of the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS) program, they had spent four weeks living and learning on campus as rising high school seniors in the summer of 2022. Now they were back as first-year Pomona students and roommates.

“I think it was easier for us to connect with the college because we were kind of already familiar with the buildings on campus,” says Camacho. “When we were taking our Intro to Psych class, we saw that it was in Lincoln Hall and we were like, ‘Hey, we’ve been to Lincoln before.’”

That familiarity, with the campus and with each other as friends, gave Aguilar and Camacho freedom to start exploring academic possibilities right away. Both are considering double majors—Aguilar in psychological science and art, Camacho in economics and politics.

“Taking advantage of this opportunity to double major is so important to me because coming here, I was scared that I would have to choose one,” says Aguilar. He wants to “explore both passions.”

Camacho agrees. “I definitely want to double major because I want to take advantage of the liberal arts curriculum,” he explains. “And as somebody who has so many different interests, I really can’t find myself limited to just one major.”

Getting the call

Aguilar, who is from West Covina, remembers that he was doing laundry when he got the call in the spring of 2020 telling him he was one of 30 students accepted into that year’s PAYS cohort. Camacho, meanwhile, was just waking up at his home in Rancho Cucamonga when his call came on a Saturday morning. It was the spring of their freshman year in high school, and they were committing themselves to three summers of intensive preparation for college in the highly selective program.

For both, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

PAYS is offered completely free of charge and is open to rising high school sophomores, juniors and seniors in five Southern California counties. Students who are accepted into the program are high achievers who come from backgrounds that are low income or underrepresented in college. They live on campus at Pomona College and take classes in math and critical thinking along with electives during each year’s four-week summer session. During the school year they receive help preparing for admission to four-year colleges. This year’s PAYS application deadline is Feb. 26, with invitations to 30 new students to be extended on April 19.

Online beginnings

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the first two summers Aguilar and Camacho were in the PAYS program. Instead of sharing classes, meals and social activities on campus, they spent 12 hours a day learning, getting to know professors and making friends on Zoom. When the program went fully in-person in the summer of 2022, there was a pent-up explosion of joy. “It was so fun,” Aguilar says, “seeing people more than just the shoulders up.”

The roommates don’t recall having a conversation that summer about applying together to Pomona. Both though were accepted to Pomona through the QuestBridge National College Match program that connects high-achieving, low-income students with many of the nation’s top colleges. “I guess it was kind of an accident,” says Camacho. But, he adds, “we had fallen in love with [Pomona] through PAYS.”

Having a compatible roommate can make the college experience a lot easier. Though they have very different majors, Aguilar and Camacho say they “really clicked” because they have similar personalities. “We have intellectual conversations, but then we can also have simple funny discussions,” says Aguilar, adding that such a dynamic is important at a place like Pomona “where it’s just so easy to be serious all the time.”

Trying new things

Already, Aguilar and Camacho are diving into campus life at Pomona and encouraging each other to try new things. Fall semester, Aguilar—who says he “was a theater kid in high school”—took on a role in a student-directed murder mystery play and made new friends in the process. Aguilar’s experience inspired Camacho to enroll in an acting class spring semester, along with his classes in microeconomics and economics statistics. It’s “probably my most challenging class,” Camacho says of the acting course. “I’m still building on my theatrics, being able to be dramatic or express myself in that capacity.”

Camacho has already gotten a job in the Pomona admissions office as a tour guide and can be seen when he’s not in class walking backwards across campus sharing the Sagehen life with prospective students. “PAYS really helped me realize what I wanted in a college,” he says. “That was definitely a place that was small, where I can make personal connections with my professors, and a place that was really peer-oriented. And, of course, all of that is the hallmark of Pomona.”

Looking ahead, Camacho hopes to do summer research or perhaps an internship in Washington, D.C. Aguilar, on the other hand, would like to reconnect with PAYS at some point, perhaps as a TA. “My experience of my TAs was just so memorable,” he says. “It was so great to have mentors who were also college students to give insight into what college is like.”

The confidence to move through college and into their life’s ambitions is one of the lasting benefits of PAYS for alumni like Aguilar and Camacho. “My career prospects and looking into the future caused me a lot of anxiety and fear, before PAYS and college,” Aguilar says. “All these culminating experiences here at Pomona have helped me find this drive for the future, which I’m totally grateful for.”