Math Major Laura Ramirez Turns Challenge into Achievement

Some people just love a good challenge. But how about one that started in kindergarten and continued on through high school and college?

That’s exactly what Laura Ramirez has taken on. The junior majoring in mathematics at California State University, Dominguez Hills has struggled with math her entire academic life; and the difficulty it presents to her is precisely what she loves about it.

Encounter to Excellent“I struggled a lot in math, but I like that,” said Ramirez, who hopes to teach algebra in a high school located in an underserved community, such as the South Los Angeles neighborhood she grew up in. “It makes me feel like if I struggle, then I can help students when I teach, to see how they struggle, because I went through that, too. So then, I’m not that perfect teacher who knows everything.”

She’ll undoubtedly also be empathetic about the challenges that getting a good start in college can pose.

Although achieving a 3.5 GPA and high honors at Animo South Los Angeles Charter High School—ranking 11 out of 108 of her peers—Ramirez scored below CSU Dominguez Hills’ admissions standards for the English placement (EPT) test and received a score on the entry-level mathematics (ELM) test that placed her in a conditional status for math remediation at the university. She had to figure out a solution to secure her spot in college.

“I googled CSUDH remedial courses for the summer. The first thing that came up was the Encounter to Excellence web page,” she said. “It’s really cool …all these opportunities if offers.”

Paz Oliverez, the student success coordinator of the Title V Encounter to Excellence (ETE) program pointed out that Ramirez is among the program’s target group of students who need up to two levels of remediation in both math and English—in Ramirez’ case, two levels for English and one level for math. Oliverez added that most ETE students complete one level of remediation in the summer and more than 90 percent successfully complete their second level of remedial math and English courses by the end of their first semester at CSU Dominguez Hills.

Prior to beginning her freshman year, Ramirez, a recipient of Cal and Pell Grants, completed one level of remedial English through the university’s Summer Bridge Academy (SBA)—a six-week preparatory component of ETE. It was a successful endeavor. In her freshman year, she went on to earn a B+ in the second level of remedial English, Developmental Reading (ENG 88), exceeding the minimum requirement to remain enrolled at the university.

“Going through the remedial English courses … I learned how to write well,” Ramirez exclaimed, while beaming a broad smile.

Rapt with the challenge of math, she had a better edge in the subject. Coming in with an A grade from her high school calculus course, she was exempt from level-one remedial math, but still needed to take a hybrid remedial and college-level statistics course during her first fall at the university.

“I got an A, so I was really happy,” she recalled.

Ramirez hopes every incoming freshman who needs remediation can experience such positive outcomes.

“They have the option to join us in the [ETE] program. If they don’t want to, they can be a regular student, but they won’t have the support of peer mentors and advisers,” she noted.

ETE Peer Mentor Laura Ramirez (standing) provides tutoring in math to ETE students.

ETE Peer Mentor Laura Ramirez (standing) provides tutoring in math to ETE students.

The support continues through and even beyond remediation as the students—who are cohorted in the program—progress through their first and second years of college. For example, students are required to meet twice a week with ETE peer mentors and supplemental instructors (SI) for tutoring.

“My SIs were there in my math class and my English class, and they would listen to everything the professor would say,” said Ramirez, who is a member of the 2011 ETE cohort.

She went on to say that SIs often understand lecture material differently than students do and are able to help explain it during one-on-one and small group sessions.

The academic support is already proving to be effective. Since the ETE program began in 2010, the SBA group has persisted in academic progress at a rate of about 15 to 20 percent higher than their non-SBA peers, many of whom entered the university better prepared academically, according to Oliverez.

The reach of the program is also significant. ETE serves approximately 775 students across three cohorts, with the first expected to graduate in spring 2014. This year brought a sharp increase in ETE students—500 compared to 85 in the 2010 inaugural cohort—because newly appointed University President Willie J. Hagan endorsed and provided additional support for an initiative to extend the Summer Bridge Academy to all incoming freshman who needed remediation, not just to those who are part of the Educational Opportunity Program, a program for low-income students, which this year brought in 200 freshmen apart from ETE.

ETE is also a comprehensive program, assisting students in their transition from high school to the university in ways that extend beyond the classroom. In addition to providing academic advisement and information on topics from adding and dropping classes to financial aid as well as hosting workshops that help students register for the proper classes, it also offers College Knowledge workshops focused on general skills including time management, budgeting, and buying books.

“Simple things, but they were so useful to us,” Ramirez recalled. “At the moment, …it was like who cares about time management? Later I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, they were right, I should use my time wisely. I should study after my class.’”

Such habits help students successfully complete their general education requirements—usually by the time they reach their junior year. They are then referred to an academic adviser in the department of their major, however ETE remains available for any continued support the students may need.

“We have an ETE registration hold for all the students in the program. Even for the ones from the 2010 cohort. They still have a hold; that way they don’t go crazy and start adding all these unnecessary classes,” Ramirez explained.

To provide opportunities for personal development as well as encourage on-campus involvement, the program requires its students to complete 10 volunteer leadership hours per academic year. Ramirez well exceeded that on her own volition, serving as the president of E.M.P.O.W.E.R. (Educating Mature Powerful Outstanding Women in Effective Relationships), as assistant editor and a poetry contributor for ETE and EOP’s Toro 411 newsletter, and as a past member of E.N.G.A.G.E (Enhanced Networking and Group Activities for Gains in Education).

ETE students who have completed at least one year in the program have an opportunity for further personal development by transitioning into the role of ETE peer mentor. Doing so added up for Ramirez. This year, she is one of two second-year peer mentors along with 15 first-year peer mentors.

“We selected Laura to be a peer mentor for ETE because she really made the most of her participation in the program during her first year by going to tutoring, and always coming in to see her adviser and her own peer mentor, but we also saw potential in her and wanted to see her grow,” Oliverez remarked. “Laura is a great example of the heights a CSUDH student can reach when they take their education seriously and truly understand the value of making the most of their college experience. Laura is one student who never wastes a moment or an opportunity.”

Pointing out some of the benefits of being a peer mentor, Ramirez said, “It shows that I have communication, leadership, and organizational skills.”

As part of the equation for her success, Ramirez is looking out for those coming up behind her.

“One of my mentees told me, ‘I want to be an ETE peer mentor. What does it take?’ … I just met with her once and she’s already fascinated. That made me really happy. I want to make room for other students that way I can pursue other things, maybe an SI, or tutor in a school,” Ramirez commented.

The program has not only helped Ramirez to feel confident about her goals, which include earning a teaching credential, masters, and possibly a Ph.D. in education one day, it has helped to improve her overall self-confidence.

“ETE helped me with my educational life and my social life,” the once shy student attested. “I could say a million things about the program. It’s amazing.”

For more information on the Encounter to Excellence program, visit www3.csudh.edu/student-affairs/title-v.

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