In the beginning, I led a parallel life. For 20 years, I was an observer. This year, I’m finally a participant.

The Ivy League Project ( selects high-achieving sophomores and juniors, teaches them networking skills, and takes them on an East Coast college tour during spring break. The nonprofit group is based in Parlier, CA, a Central Valley farm town where the high school is 99% Latino, more than 30% of people live below the poverty level, and only 5% of adults have a four-year degree. This is not some fancy French-sounding Par-lee-EH; this is blue-collar Par-LEER.

In 1992, teacher Martín Mares started the group with six Parlier High students under the name Harvard Tomorrow (which did not go over well at most campuses). He faced constant resistance in a town where few believed students could go farther than Fresno State 25 miles away. But Mr. Mares and his students raised the money to go to the East Coast. Two years later, three of those six Parlier students were accepted to Ivy League schools, including one who would become my classmate at Yale and best friend.

These first Parlier students and I graduated from high school the same year, but I had been unaware of the Ivy League Project. Yet in college, I learned how this program had changed my friend’s life and I’ve been envious ever since. The group expanded to more Central Valley high schools, making annual trips to the East Coast and building a vast network of college admissions officers, undergrads, and alumni. Years later in Fresno, CA, I started recruiting and interviewing students for my alma mater and gave presentations to the Ivy League Project. New crops of students attended Ivy League Project meetings for several months, went to the East Coast over spring break, then applied and got accepted to the nation’s most selective colleges. And they had started out as the isolated over-achiever at their rural high school in Parlier. Or Avenal. Or Tulare. Or any other farm town that isn’t as fancy or French as it looks on paper. More than 100 of these students have been accepted to East Coast colleges since Cohort #1.

Now, I guess I’m part of Cohort #22, having attended meetings and mentored students since August. On Saturday, I’ll be a chaperone joining about 30 students to visit 13 colleges in 8 days from Maine to D.C. I foresee two big lessons from this trip. First, planning a college tour for others is much tougher than planning one for yourself. I’m not the one setting our itinerary, but I realize how tight it is and that the list of scheduled colleges is never guaranteed. We all must expect and accept the unexpected.

Second, because I’ve seen many of these colleges before, I expect to learn more by observing the students, not the colleges. I’m reacquainting myself with the challenges that first-generation college students face in physically going to college. Many of our students have never been on a plane or in an on-campus information session. Obviously, I can’t pack their bags for them or hold their hands during the campus tours. I have to have faith that they will learn from their experience in order to make their next trip, as a college freshman, a much smoother one. These students ask questions that I asked myself when I was a first-gen student. Back then, few people around me could have given me answers. Now, I’m one of those people who can give answers. And by doing so, I’ll go from observer to participant.

More information on the Ivy League Project:

Tentative list of colleges on the tour: American, Bates, Bowdoin, Brown, Colby, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, NYU, Penn, Princeton, Wellesley, Yale

By Tony Losongco