Mission Driven

Dean of Admission Eva Blanco Masias on preparing for the college application process.

Navigating the admission process is hard enough, but can be even harder for first-generation college students. Santa Clara University’s Dean of Admissions, Eva Blanco Masias, should know—she’s a first generation student herself.

Recently she spoke with Damian Trujillo on Comunidad Del Valle about her experience and offered advice to students. Following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Trujillo: How did you go from being a first-generation college student to becoming the dean of admission at a major college in this country?

Blanco Masias: Big dreams. I started by watching my parents work really hard. I think that's a common story of a lot of our youth—you see your parents work hard and you want to do something great that helps other people. That's been my life goal.

What was the impetus for you to apply to college? What made you or your parents say, “This is your track here”?

I grew up in Los Angeles and there were things surrounding me that I didn’t want to be a part of. That was my motivation to try to make my community better, and so I worked hard.

I had teachers who really motivated me and challenged me, and I liked the challenge. For me, it was really trying to be better, to do the best I could to make the world a better place. My parents were big role models and even though they didn't have an education, they had a good sense that education was the key to having options. That's really what I think we're talking about—creating options for youth.

How do you motivate and inspire students in your capacity as the dean of admission?

I have a great staff that all want to inspire youth. They go into the classroom, they share their stories, and they show the steps necessary in order to apply to Santa Clara or to other universities. I think in a country where you have so many options, it's important to learn about them with enough time to plan and prepare for them.

By the way, bring your family along for the journey. Parents like mine weren't so well aware of what it took to go to college. So bringing them along in that quest for information is really helpful because it's a journey that the family needs to take together. So sharing our stories and giving answers and providing more reason to do research is how we try to inspire youth to go for it.

So one aspect of being dean of admission is certainly going out, recruiting, and telling students what opportunities exist at Santa Clara. It's also giving them everything from dates and deadlines to explaining the processes and the forms that they need to fill out for the application or for financial aid. Once the applications are received, it’s going through and reading the applications completely and giving notifications to the students.

It's a hard task because there's always more students we want to accept than we possibly can, and we sometimes have to make tough choices. But at the same time, it's really rewarding to see students put a lot of time and energy in their preparation and ultimately go to college. That is the reward for all of us in admissions.

What should students start doing to prepare for the application process?

There are a lot of things that can go into preparation. In school, counselors can help guide students about courses and preparation.

It's no longer okay to aim just to graduate. You really want to start taking courses that are challenging, not just the basics. The rigor of course selection is important as students progress through high school so that they are challenged and developing discipline. And they need to do well aiming for the As. Certainly Bs are good, but aim for the As.

Aside from that, it's important to think about what else is going to enrich your experience, not just getting the résumé ready. I think it's important for students to start to think about, "What really excites me? What am I good at? What can I try?" They can use summer or afterschool programs to explore that, to look for those different opportunities.

That often leads to the love of a new activity, and sometimes when you connect that to school life, things can really take off. What you really want to instill is a commitment to learning—a real love for it—so when you're driven and gaining and achieving something, it propels you on to the next step. It's really important to have students connect with that value and have it be part of their lives.

When should you start thinking about what your academic history is? Should you start worrying at the freshman level or in seventh and eighth grade?

From the college standpoint, we start looking at coursework as early as ninth grade, but it shouldn't start there. Your building blocks start before the ninth grade. My husband is also a teacher and we often talk about how preparation really begins as early as childhood. You really want to instill both a commitment to learning as well as the discipline to do the work when they are small children.

But when we review coursework, we're not just calculating a GPA. What we look for are the trends. We look for how students have done from ninth grade to senior year.

Sometimes there will be little dips along the way—it happens. Life isn't the same for everybody. When we're reading an application, however, we want to understand why that has happened. So it is important for students to explain that to us. In the end, a trajectory that is continuously challenging is something we look for because that points to both a student’s determination and abilities.

What separates comparable applications? If students have similar grades, what makes one standout over another?

At Santa Clara, it's important to note that we do holistic reviews. So we're not just looking at transcripts. We're not just calculating GPAs and looking at scores. For us, we're a mission-driven university, so we want to make sure that students who come to Santa Clara connect with the idea that they're also getting an education that helps make the world a better place.

To identify that students connect with that mission, we look at everything else that they have done in addition to their coursework. We look at things they have done outside of the classroom. What kind of clubs and organizations are they part of? Have they volunteered? Maybe they have a job because they have to help their families. What are those motivators? What are those drivers? What have been their experiences? At the end of the day, part of the learning experience at Santa Clara isn't just about taking in what the professor is teaching you. It's about having conversations with people like you and not like you so that those experiences becomes part of the learning process.

Sure, we want students who are academically prepared to take on the rigor at Santa Clara, but other things should have enriched their lives, things that have added both to their challenges and the complexities and the triumphs. All these qualities and experiences students bring to campus and it becomes part of the educational fabric at Santa Clara.

We see standout applications like that all the time. In fact, I actually have a file of students who have inspired me because of the challenges and things that they have faced. For them to then come to the point where they have submitted an application and then attended SCU, it really is miraculous sometimes. That's the reward for me.

It's really important that students share their stories that make them individuals. If they do that genuinely and to the best of their abilities, that combination will help them stand out.