Students prepare for college opportunities at Camp Catanese - AZEdNews
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Students prepare for college opportunities at Camp Catanese

Students Graduating From Camp Catanese Surround Founder Teacher Jason Catanese. Photo Courtesy Camp Catanese Foundation

A group of high school juniors and seniors at Camp Catanese at Arizona State University West worked in groups adjusting their marble run made of paper ramps attached to cardboard.

“As you test, you’re going to find what works best,” said a camp counselor and mentor to the campers.

“What are we thinking?” asked one student.

“Guys, look at this,” said another student.

Camp Catanese is a one-week, college access summer camp at Arizona State University West where students learn about college, STEAM careers, and also discover the best versions of themselves and the people they want to be, said Jason Catanese, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Pueblo Del Sol Elementary School in Isaac Elementary School District and chairman and executive director of Camp Catanese Foundation.

AZEdNews video: Students prepare for college at Camp Catanese

Video edited by Tabitha Bland/ AZEdNews & shot by Mary Irish/ AZEdNews

“Essentially, in 2016 a few of my students who I was tutoring at a Starbucks were concerned about a test they had never heard of and asked me if I had heard of the ACT.  They were going to walk into the test blind, with no preparation two days later,” said Catanese, a 2022 Arizona Educational Foundation Ambassador of Excellence and Director of Camp Catanese.

“After discussing with them some other obstacles they were facing to get to college, it became clear that depending on where our students went to high school drastically determined their trajectory,” Catanese said.

Catanese and his friends created Camp Catanese in 2016 to change that.

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Camp Catanese students work together as a team to develop a marble run during a morning session on Monday, June 13, 2022. Photo by Lisa Irish/ AZEdNews

“We were very lucky that we had the support of Arizona State University who allowed us to have our very first summer camp on their ASU West campus, where we brought 120 kids here to not only learn about college, but to visualize themselves in college,” Catanese said.

“This began with the idea that no matter what obstacles you have in life, you deserve the same opportunities, and we are the people that will be there to support you,” Catanese said.

What Camp Catanese is like

Students at Camp Catanese stay in ASU West campus dormitories for a week and take part in a comprehensive college-preparation program for first-generation Phoenix high school students that includes science, math, and other college prep activities led by teachers and college student mentors.

“The thing I enjoy most about Camp Cat is that it’s a week for me and all these other campers to not necessarily to run away, but to take a break from all of our problems and what we’re going through in life. This camp is a safe haven for every single one of us,” said Julian Torres Cariño, a student attending Camp Catanese.

“The memories we create here and the times we have – it’s not just a camp, it’s family. It helps us look upon all that we have and remember how much we’re loved here,” Torres Cariño said.

The mentorship the counselors “give each and every one of us, it’s a super special thing, because they’re each like brothers and sisters to each and every one of us,” Torres Cariño said.

“I say this with all my heart, they changed my life so much. I don’t think I’d be in this place in my life here without them,” Torres Cariño said. “We’re all striving for great futures.”

Video: Creating Camp Catanese video by RayJ Banna

Over time, the one-week Camp Catanese has become a year-round comprehensive college-access wrap-around program with mentorship, help with college applications, weekend retreats held throughout the year, free ACT prep tutoring sessions on Saturdays, and educational field trips for 1,500 high schoolers from around the Maryvale area of Phoenix, helping them become the first people in their families to go to college, said Hillary Arnold, director of development, strategy and partnerships for Camp Catanese Foundation, a 501(c)3 non profit organization.

“The counselors, who attend college across the country, stay in touch with the students at Camp Catanese and help them with questions they have,” Arnold said, noting that several counselors are students who attended Camp Catanese.

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A Camp Catanese counselor works with students designing a marble run and answers their questions at ASU West. Photo by Lisa Irish/ AZEdNews

“When I heard about Camp Catanese, I just knew I had to be here,” said Elizabeth Waters, a counselor at Camp Catanese who teaches high school English in Los Angeles.

Many campers will be the first in their families to go to college, Waters said.

“This place is just really special because it’s really based in relationships so it’s more than just college knowledge,” Waters said.

It’s about building relationships between the campers and mentors who are in college or who have graduated who “can tell them about what college is like and connect with them about the obstacles they might be facing to help them have hope and have strength and the courage to persevere through the challenges they face and work to achieve that goal of going to college or whatever future they want for themselves,” Waters said.

“I think something that’s just really amazing about Camp Catanese is how focused it is on love and service,” Waters said.

How Camp Catanese helps students

About 200 students attended Camp Catanese this summer, and there are plans to increase that next year, Arnold said. More than 3,000 students have taken part in Camp Catanese over the years, including virtual camps during the COVID-19 quarantine.

“In Maryvale today, 37% of kids are going to college.  Our Camp Catanese alumni are changing that with over 90% of them going to college,” Catanese said.

Maria Benitez, a student attending Camp Catanese, said she appreciates how inclusive everyone is at the camp.

“When I first arrived and walked out that door, my counselors ran up to me and really made me feel special and everyone was cheering and everyone was clapping,” said Benitez, who recently graduated from high school and plans to go to ASU to become a therapist.

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Camp Catanese students prepare for their afternoon sports and crafts activities on ASU West’s campus. Photo by Lisa Irish/ AZEdNews

“Yesterday, all the graduates got together. We were talking about each other, and I got to meet so many people,” Benitez said. “I honestly want to continue to talk these people. They are amazing people, and they really show you that they care about you. I haven’t had so much fun in such a long time.”

“I feel like every time we’re eating, I always want to get up and start dancing now. I was so shy before this, and now I feel like I can express myself freely here and I feel like everyone cares about me and will always be there,” Benitez said.

“I really recommend coming to camp. It is an amazing experience. You meet so many new people. I became so close to my roommate. We call ourselves sisters, and we’ve known each other for less than a week now,” Benitez said.

“Our counselors they’re amazing. They do everything with us. They help us in every way possible. I really like how everyone can guide you and there’s an example for everyone no matter what career you’re in, there’s always an example here and someone to help,” Benitez said.

Career exploration and financial aid discussions

Students in the computer lab discussed career options after looking up information on the computer about what lawyers do, the education and training they need and what they might earn.

In another classroom, a teacher led a discussion on pathways to higher education.

“Do you want to go to a community college first?” a teacher asked a student.

“No,” he said.

“Do you want to go to college at all?” the teacher asked. “Do you want to work? Do you want to go into the military?”

As students responded, the teacher said, “It all depends on what your interests are.”

“You may sign up for college and you may change your major, people do it all the time. It doesn’t stop you from graduating, it just means you’ll be taking some different classes,” the teacher said.

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A Camp Catanese counselor works with students in the computer lab looking up information about careers, training and salaries. Photo by Lisa Irish/ AZEdNews

The teacher also told the students there are other ways to get your degree such as part-time college and full-time work, and that they have to determine what will work the best for them, and take everything into consideration.

“When you’re a part-time student, you get less financial aid, and because you’re part-time you pay per credit hour,” the teacher said. “Any questions?”

A student asked how where you go to college and when you go can impact your financial aid.

“There are some scholarships and grants that you can get only if you go straight to college after high school,” the teacher said. “Just make sure you research all of that before you make a decision.”

“What’s most important about what Camp Catanese does is it shows these students all of the options they have,” said Issa Kaddissi, a photographer and lead media team members at Camp Catanese.

“I think so often that we take for granted, ‘Oh, all of these things are available.’ We know that college is accessible. We know that scholarships are available,” Kaddissi said. “Some people just don’t know that opportunities are out there. Some students don’t think that certain opportunities are available to them.“

“I think what Camp Catanese does is it first makes these student comfortable with asking themselves those questions, and then gives them the information to make those decisions a reality,” Kaddissi said.

Camp Catanese ends with a graduation celebration

At the end of the program, students take part in a graduation night that highlights students, their goals and their accomplishments, Arnold said.

“We are just so, so grateful to Arizona State University, we are grateful for all of our community partners, all of our supporters, our donors who believe in this work, because without them this doesn’t exist,” Catanese said.

“Our students are coming to this camp and so many of them could not afford this financially. Whenever we have the support of all these different people believing in our students that’s when real change can happen,” Catanese said. “We are incredibly grateful.”

“I think outside of the whole college access aspect of Camp Catanese, what I love about it and why I continue to serve is that this place is just a camp of love,” Kaddissi said. “You feel so wanted and loved here, and it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. At least, not that I’ve seen.”

“This environment, this energy, we bring it home with us and it makes us better people for it. I think Camp Catanese is a great place for growth, a great place to become the person we all want to be,” Kaddissi said.

“Most of the students here are first generation college students, so they’re the first ones trying to figure out everything,” Catanese said. “It is very daunting whenever you are the first to do something.”

“If you are met with obstacles – you’re met with No’s, you’re met with people who don’t have the answers, you sometimes give up on yourself, you sometimes give up on your dreams.”

“I really think that in a lot of ways Camp Catanese for our students is hope incarnate where their dreams become realities, it’s where they can visualize themselves and really see a dream that they’ve had and find the necessary steps to accomplish that dream all while having hundreds of supporters who will always be there for them no matter what, and people that will believe in them and love them for who they are and see them for who they are,” Catanese said.

“That’s the most beautiful thing about this place, it’s not just the kids and their dreams, it’s about giving hope to so many people.,” Catanese said. “It’s about seeing our students as future educators, as politicians, as game changers, as change makers, as whatever it is that they want to believe in and we’re going to be there to support them.”

“They’re amazing kids, and they deserve all the opportunities in the world,” Catanese said.

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Students graduating from Camp Catanese surround founder teacher Jason Catanese. Photo courtesy Camp Catanese Foundation