SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Parents are constantly looking for an edge to get their kids into college. But for the last 25 years, a growing movement using the sport of squash has been one of the most successful programs.
Here in San Diego, it's called Access Youth Academy and it has a 100% graduation rate, even helping some students get scholarships to Ivy League schools.
Just a few years ago, Djulia Sekariyongo Koita knew nothing about the sport of squash.
"I never heard of it. To be honest, I didn't even know what squash was in the first place. Even like the fruit itself, I didn't know what it was," said Djulia.
Now Djulia, or D.J. as she's known at Access Youth Academy, helps coach young student-athletes in a program that could one day lead them to college, just like she did.
"It doesn't matter if you're tall or short, big or small, it's all about here. All in the mind," said Renato Paiva, Access Youth Academy executive director.
Paiva brought the urban squash movement here to San Diego 15 years ago. The idea is to help under-served students in low-income communities create a path to college through the sport of squash.
It begins with an after-school program of academics and squash from 7th through the 12th grade. Students visit colleges, prep for the SAT and ACT, get help with college applications, and of course, play in squash tournaments. This team has won 13 national titles.
"We love to go to college, but we love to win squash as well," Paiva said.
Does it work? You bet it does.
Access Youth Academy has a 100% graduation rate with an average GPA of 3.9 percent and their student-athletes have received $8.6 million dollars in scholarships to college.
"This year one of our kids is going to Princeton. We've had kids going to Columbia, Penn, Cornell, and many others. We're very proud," said Paiva.
But it doesn't end there. In all, it's a 12-year program. Access youth provides support for their student-athletes through all four years of college, and then two years after graduation to help them find jobs or get into graduate school.
"This is like the golden ticket for a student. I agree. It's going to become more popular as we get bigger," added Paiva.
And getting bigger is exactly what Access Youth Academy is doing. The program just moved into a $12 million facility in the heart of southeastern San Diego to serve even more student-athletes. The result of 15 years of hard work by Paiva and his team.
D.J. is a shining example of the life-changing power of Access Youth Academy. She's now a junior at Cal Berkeley and captain of the college squash team.
She came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo at 6 years old but by the age of 9, she was in the foster care system. At her graduation, she said Access Youth gave her a home and a voice.
"I'll carry Access with me everywhere. And that voice, a lot of it comes from the confidence I've gained through these walls.," said Djulia.
"We're here to serve. And we're going to find new ways to serve too," added Paiva.
That new $12 million dollar facility will not only serve the student-athletes of Access Youth Academy but will also benefit the entire southeastern San Diego community. In fact, it's already being used as a partner program with San Diego Unified's "Level Up" for recreation and academics.