When Juan Magana applied to University of California, Berkeley, at his sister's urging, he didn't know much about the school. On his first trip to visit the campus, the Salinas, Calif., native settled in for a long nap and was surprised to be awoken a short time later. "I thought we were going to Oregon," he says.

Once he'd enrolled, there were other surprises. Magana, whose parents are Mexican immigrants, is part of the first generation in his family to go to college. He had taken a few college-prep science classes, but his SAT scores were far below Berkeley's average, and teacher shortages at his high school had left him unprepared in some subjects. He found himself surrounded by students from top-notch private high schools who had spent years preparing for their university studies. "Everyone around me was saying, 'Oh my god, I've been wanting to go to Berkeley my...

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