As a freshman at Fontana High School, Cesar Meza ’16 was suspicious of the offer to join the Pomona College Academy for Youth Success (PAYS), a college access program that aims to increase the pool of area students prepared to enter highly selective colleges and universities.
Go to a town called “Claremont”—an unfamiliar place even though it was less than 20 miles from home—move into a Pomona College residence hall for four weeks every summer, take rigorous classes to become more competitive for college, eat in the dining hall every day—and not pay a dime? “Too good to be true,” thought Meza, who planned to bolt the first time he was asked for money.
Three years later—not having paid a single penny for his three summers in the PAYS program—Meza moved into a college dorm again. This time it was as an enrolled first-year student at Pomona.
This past summer, Meza—now a doctoral student in mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis—returned to Pomona to again teach math in the PAYS program during its 21st summer. Aiming for a career as a professor, Meza says his goal is to make math come alive in the classroom, just as PAYS professors did for him a decade ago.
“Some students start out saying, ‘I’m not a math person,’” he says. “Or they say, ‘I didn’t think I’d be able to do these types of problems when the course started but by the end, I feel comfortable enough to try harder things next time.’ That’s one of the things that brings me joy.
“I have an opportunity to teach at PAYS and to give back to the program and help other students realize what an opportunity it is,” Meza says. And he knows from personal experience: “This is a life-changing thing.”
The PAYS program, founded in 2003, is highly selective. This year, there were 214 applicants for 30 available spots in the incoming cohort. Participants come from low-income or underrepresented groups in a five-county area of Southern California. The goal is to help them prepare for enrollment and success in college. Selected students commit to a three-year program that begins after their first year in high school and includes an annual four-week residential summer program, plus connections with Pomona College faculty and staff during each school year.
The summer program is challenging—nearly three hours of intensive math or critical inquiry reading in the morning, with elective classes and study sessions in the afternoon. Rising seniors conduct hands-on research with faculty—a group of 2022 PAYS students undertook a project using the revolutionary CRISPR gene-editing technology, a method co-discovered by 2020 Nobel Prize laureate Jennifer Doudna ’85.
At the annual closing ceremony on the Pomona campus, PAYS alumni who have just graduated from high school return to announce where they will be attending college. Six hundred students have completed the program since its inception, and every one of them has been accepted to a four-year college or university. Some have chosen Pomona or other members of The Claremont Colleges, while others selected UCs, CSUs or Stanford. Others have gone to Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, Princeton or Yale.
Being part of a cohort for three years helps the students form a sense of community. As one PAYS scholar says, there is “academic rigor, but we are together.”