Growing up in Africa, Barwako Osman and her family knew a better life existed beyond their homeland of Somalia, which had been ravaged by a decades-long civil war, and the confines of the Kenyan refugee camp where they had since moved. 

College, the teen later learned, was the ticket to that better life. 

“If I don’t have an education, I’ll never make my goals come true,” said Osman, a South Division High School junior. 

“If I don’t have an education, I’ll never make my goals come true.” 

Yet as neither of her parents had ever attended, she didn’t know how to bridge the gap between where she was and where she wanted to be. 

College Possible does and is making sure Osman gets there. The nonprofit helps low-income juniors and seniors with admissions tests, college applications, scholarships and financial aid. It began in 2000 in the Twin Cities and launched a second site in 2008 in Milwaukee, thanks to a $150,000 grant from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation. College Possible now serves more than 400 students in 10 Milwaukee high schools. The program also operates in Omaha and Portland.

Overcoming a lack of confidence can be as challenging for students as completing the ACT. Program coaches, who are AmeriCorps members and spend 320 hours after school with students, serve as cheerleaders and counselors to help overcome barriers, access resources and stay on track. Once in college, coaches help students access campus resources, renew financial aid and answer any questions.  

The coach is the magic variable, program staff says. They just aren’t going to let anything slip through the cracks. Zach Montez fills that role for Osman and 28 other juniors. Likened to a brother as well as a mentor, Osman said whenever she needs him, he is there.

Getting into college is half the battle for students like Osman. Picking the right school and staying there are as important. The program sets up college visits and helps students complete multiple college applications so they increase their chances of success. Osman, who wants to become a pediatrician, has already identified Cardinal Stritch University, Alverno College and Mount Mary College as top choices.

Filling the gap between those who earn their degree and those who do not won’t happen overnight, but College Possible is making inroads. In 2011-2012 program year, the average ACT score of participating juniors increased by 18 percent and 95 percent of its graduating seniors were admitted to college. 

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