O-Higher Education nonprofit helps prepare students for higher education

web Nordhoff seniors in O Higher Ed program

Photo by Kara Hooper 

Nordhoff O-Higher Education students during a college workshop to wrap up their UC and Cal State applications. From left to right:
Rene Churchill, Vanessa Ramirez, Dylan Davis, Jennifer Donohue, Ella Giuliani, Kirra Nevarez (kneeling), Ashley Johnson, Noelani Henson, Alessandra Lucchesi, Nina Forester, Emily Ehrlich, and Sofia Moreno.


Grant Phillips, Ojai Valley News reporter

When former Thacher college counselor and Ojai resident Kara Hooper launched her nonprofit O-Higher Education in 2019, she had no idea just how helpful the program would be for students struggling through school in the midst of a pandemic. 

The program’s mission is to help Ojai students in grades 6 through 12 access higher education, with a focus on those who are the first in their family to attend college. The nonprofit provides experiences, programs, educational tools, and support for students.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding,” said Hooper. “I work really hard to make this as easy as possible to join and access the program because I’m trying to break down barriers here.” 

After serving as a college coach through Breakthrough Collaborative, Hooper design her own program to engage students with free services. 

She found success through Ojai Unified School District and started mentoring students at Matilija Middle School in a program titled Get Ready! 

“The program at the middle-school level is meant to help kids develop their soft skills,” said Hooper, who noted the importance of public speaking and interacting with various age groups. 

“Kara tells us about new opportunities we might want to take to help us,” said Vanessa Ponce, who is currently enrolled in the Matilija Middle School Program. “Get Ready! has helped me learn about colleges and jobs that I might want to do in the future.” 

Every Wednesday, 10 to 15 students meet on campus to discuss plans and share tools to help one another succeed.

“The beauty of our town is that these kids all grow up together,” said Hooper. “At the end of the day, they just want to see one another succeed.”

The course carried on from Matilija to Nordhoff High School as several students continued on their path to higher education. 

“Every counselor can give you a list of schools that are ‘achievable,’ but not everyone can hear your story and search for places and programs that fit you and your personality,” said graduate of the Nordhoff program Raquel Duenas, who— at Union College in New York— is the first in her family to attend university. “That’s exactly what O-Higher Ed did for me.”

“I’ve had incredible community support,” said Hooper. “Ojai is a really giving and loving place and I’ve seen that firsthand in the way this program has been nurtured and supported.”

OUSD has been an integral to the success of the program. 

“I want to give huge credit to [Nordhoff] Principal Dave Monson and College and Career counselor Briana Beebe,” said Hooper. “Ojai Unified School District has been an amazing partner and I feel very lucky to have that support on multiple campuses.” 

Last year, Hooper helped 15 Nordhoff seniors apply for college, and this year, she is assisting 16 more. Her students have been accepted into more than 65 colleges and have gone on to attend 17 different universities throughout the country. 

“For over a year, the kids showed up on Zoom, which was incredible,” said Hooper. “Superintendent Tiffany Morse made a decision for all the students at Matilija to have one-on-one devices in October of 2019 and I can’t believe how prescient her decision to do that was.”

Distance learning resulted in Critics Club, a program where students were gifted graphic novels from Bart’s Books to learn about different people and cultures to enhance their knowledge of art and storytelling.

“I initially started Critics Club with a plan to get them through the end of the school year, but they didn’t want to stop,” said Hooper. Throughout the year, students read 17 different graphic novels. “At a time when it was difficult to travel, it was pretty incredible to read these books that were set all over the world.” 

Now that the students are back in class, Hooper has field trips planned for students to visit five different college campuses throughout the area, highlighting the options when it comes to higher education. 

“I want to take the students, their families, and anyone in my program who wants to go, to visit the five schools that are within easy driving distance,” said Hooper. “By the end of that, they will have seen a small liberal arts college, a large Cal State school, a large UC school and these two amazing junior colleges.” 

Guest speakers provide a way for the community to support the program. Matilija students take part in the Spotlight Speaker series, where community members share their personal experiences being the first in their families to attend college.

Guests of the program have included former Matilija Middle School Principal Javier Martinez, who graduated from Matilija Junior High School and went on to become a Division 1 runner at Cal State Northridge. 

“The kids love the Spotlight Speaker series,” said Hooper, whose guests also include siblings of students enrolled in the program. “They always have great questions and it’s been really illuminating for them to see how many ways there are to get to college and how many ways there are to get through it.”

Students interested in participating in the program, and parents who would like to participate or donate, are encouraged to visit

“We’ve had a lot of educational dislocation in our country in the last two years,” said Hooper. “Supporting our young people to achieve their dreams and goals beyond high school is a community lift, and I encourage everyone in our community to find a way to contribute. Whether it’s stopping by the office at your local elementary school to ask what teachers need, to volunteering at an after-school program to share your talents, we all need to pitch in to help the young people in this valley move forward after a lot of upheaval.”


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