COLUMBIA, Mo. – When Sandra Trejo unpacked her bags and said goodbye to her parents last week, she was saying hello to the possibility of college.

Trejo joined 80 other aspiring college students from high schools throughout Missouri. Thanks to the 4-H Youth Futures: College Within Reach program, students who might not otherwise go to college learn that they can achieve their dreams.

“Youth don’t always see college as a goal they can achieve, but this program helps them understand that it doesn’t necessarily matter if you come from a background with no money or no one in your family has gone to college,” said Donna Garcia, a University of Missouri Extension urban 4-H youth development specialist. “This is where they learn that there are people to help them get there and help them stay in school and that, yes, they can be successful.”

Research shows that only 15 percent of students drop out of college because of academic failure, and most who leave do so due to personal financial or social problems. First-generation students are also two times as likely as students of a parent with a college degree to drop out of college before their second year. This leads programs like Youth Futures to focus on nontraditional students to give them the tools to overcome obstacles that hinder goals of college.

Students spent the week living in MU dorms, learning how they should prepare to make it into college. Classes start preparing students for college entrance exams and expose them to what college life is like.

Justin Johnson, a St. Louis County 4-H member, said these workshops helped introduce a mindset where he recognizes the importance of study habits.

“Time management really didn’t occur to me until I got to this point, so telling us now and preparing us for college is a really big push,” he said. “It helps to have someone tell you to do it, but you really have to work on it and have the drive to want to make it.”

Conference attendees are selected through an application process that gives weight to criteria such as financial need and if a student will be the first generation in his or her family to attend college.

Trejo, a Jackson County 4-H member, understands how support can help foster the dream of college. She is determined to attend college while balancing being a teenage mother.

”This helps you get out of your comfort zone, but you know you’re not alone because there are a whole bunch of kids here going through the same thing,” she said. “I’m ready for college life even if I don’t stay on campus, and it’s just exciting to know that I’m going to get a higher education.”

The benefit of Youth Futures doesn’t stop after the week is over. Participants continue to work with mentors to prepare for college, make plans for financial aid and determine what course of study they will choose.

Garcia hopes every student takes the excitement they get from the conference and keeps it alive throughout the school year.

“We’re taking youth, oftentimes off the streets, giving them a safe place to go and giving them hope,” Garcia said. “When we’re hearing all those horrible things on the news about what youth are doing, we want people to know it’s not all of them, because we’re making a difference here today.”

Find more about the program at