When Abram Diaz was talking with his college-bound younger brother about the joys and pitfalls of the college experience, he found that the conversation kept coming back to what he wished his own college experience had been during his freshman year at University of California, Santa Cruz.

“I realized, when I was taking to him, I was giving him a lot of advice and tips,” Diaz said.

He and two of his former Tracy High classmates, Melissa Boutsy and Morgan Jong, all from the class of 2011, got together and talked about how their experiences could help college-bound high school students learn how to navigate the world of higher education.

“We connected with Mrs. (Rachel) Hermann, the (International Baccalaureate) department counselor, about it, and she said we could make this a bit of a broader thing for IB students, science students, AVID students, everyone else who wanted to come.

On Wednesday, the three gathered as a panel at Tracy High to discuss the challenges new college students face. With an audience of 16 students — most of them seniors, but also a couple of freshmen and sophomores — they got into a range of topics.

Boutsy talked about her transition from San Joaquin Delta College to California State University, Sacramento and how studying at Delta allowed her to complete CSU general education requirements, and even some classes related to her major of psychology, and transfer those credits to her CSU transcript.

They also talked about the availability of financial aid throughout college, ways to connect with professors outside of the lecture halls and see them as mentors, and the opportunity college offers to explore a range of subject matter.

“If I could do something differently, I would not have gone in with a declared major,” Diaz said. “I was dead set that I was going to be a bio major and be a doctor and everything, and just found that it wasn’t a fit for me.

“Something I did right was taking a little bit of time freshman year in introductory classes in different subjects, so I could figure out not only what I was good at, but what did I enjoy?

“Take some new classes, try some new things. It’s a new environment. A new life that you’re undergoing. Take the time to explore your options.”

Jong said she did her best to plan ahead. Even then, she had to make adjustments along the way as she attended UC San Diego. She learned how to avoid the burden of excessive college debt but would have liked to have known more up front.

“I let students know that I applied for scholarships before I went to college, but there’s a lot you can apply for during college,” she said. “You can apply for a ton more scholarships than I applied to. That can make it so you don’t have any student debt by the end of your four years.”

She also urged students to be flexible as they pursued their educational plans.

“I actually started college as a visual arts major, and then I ended up changing to a communications major because I started taking an interest in journalism, and by my fourth year, I actually discovered that I had a strong interest in social justice and philanthropy, which is what motivated me to pursue the master’s program in public policy,” she said.

Both she and Diaz recently graduated with their master’s degrees in public policy from University of Southern California.

“I’d definitely say your idea of what your future might look like can evolve over time,” Jong said. “That doesn’t mean you’re indecisive about what you started with. Maybe it just means that you were exposed to things that you didn’t know you had a passion for.”

The group also urged high school students to be prepared for a profound change in culture if they planned to move from Tracy to a big college town.

“Tracy’s a super interesting town in a lot of ways, but if you go to a big school like UCLA or UC Berkeley, you’re going to see a whole different side of California,” Diaz said.

Boutsy said that her early experience in college helped her develop self-confidence to pursue a career in marriage and family therapy. As a high school student, she hadn’t envisioned herself in a master’s program at University of San Francisco, where she is completing her postgraduate studies.

“I wish I had someone telling me during those moments of negativity that I can do it and kind of helping me find the positive in what I was doing in high school,” she said. “I feel like teachers do support you in that way, but there should be a deeper level of that, which is why I specifically want to come back as a counselor and create things like that.”

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com or 830-4227.

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