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Merritt College professor Claudio Duran, right, speaks to students and faculty members during a meeting of Club Altazor on Monday, May, 6, 2013 in Oakland, Calif. Duran started the club to help his community college students figure out how to transfer to top universities. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- The club's mascot is an animated Spanglish-speaking Chihuahua that says, "Yo quiero transfer."

He got his wish, and then some. University acceptance letters have rained down on a group of students at Oakland's Merritt College who have guided one another -- with the inspiration of a dedicated professor -- through the frustrating and complicated process of transferring from community college to a four-year school.

At a college with a transfer rate typically below 20 percent, all but one of the 18 club members who applied are headed to universities. Fourteen are going to a selective UC campus.

"We all want the same thing, but why is it so difficult?" said Alba Lopez, one of eight members who will start at UC Berkeley in the fall.

Guidance is in short supply at California's community colleges, where funding for advising, tutoring and other student support services was chopped in half during the economic downturn. But Professor Claudio Duran and his students found a low-cost solution to help aspiring transfers find their way: a support group.

"I think doing it alone is the hardest thing," said Eduardo Chaidez, who was also accepted to UC Berkeley. "You're just completely lost."

Duran, who teaches U.S. history, English and Latin American studies at Merritt College, started the club two years ago because students had been flooding him with questions about transferring. The Chilean-born composer and documentary filmmaker said he knew what was possible, because he attended community college in Oakland before transferring to UC Berkeley and earning an advanced degree at Stanford University.

He named the club Altazor, a word invented by a poet from his native country to describe illuminating a path to knowledge. Soon, the group grew to about 30 students.

"The counselors do as much as they can," Duran said, "but obviously it's not enough."

Each year, more than 100,000 students flock to California's community colleges with the hope of transferring to four-year institutions. Only about a quarter of them make the leap within four years. The reasons behind that statistic are many, from a lack of academic preparation to the formidable balancing act that some students manage with work, study and family. But the notoriously complex transfer process hasn't helped. With its countless deadlines and a different set of requirements for each university campus and major, the path to a bachelor's degree is often hard to see.

Change is underway to make the move clearer, smoother and faster. The Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act, which took effect in 2011, requires California's community colleges to develop transfer degrees that correspond with the most popular state university majors. Students who complete them will be guaranteed admission as a junior on a Cal State campus -- without any extra course requirements on either end.

The development is a hopeful one along a road fraught with obstacles. In recent years, students faced a moving target as colleges froze spring transfer admissions or stiffened requirements to ration slots -- all while community colleges cut back on classes and academic counseling.

But the state had low transfer rates long before the economy went south, said Colleen Moore, a researcher at Sacramento State's Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy.

"You're essentially taking a group of students that is probably the least informed and the most likely to be the first in their families to go to college, and you're putting them in institutions that have made this super complex for students to follow," Moore said.

That's where student outreach comes in. The PUENTE Project -- started by faculty at Hayward's Chabot College and now at dozens of high schools and community colleges in the Bay Area -- helps beginning college students make the transition. And Merritt College's transfer club takes its students a step further.

Each Monday, the group meets in a brightly painted room with a mural of Frida Kahlo and inspirational quotes from Frederick Douglass, Dolores Huerta and Cornel West. Over pizza, Duran tells the students about transfer guarantee programs with UC and Cal State, and he makes sure they are on top of their deadlines. He encourages them to study as much and work as little as possible, and to apply to top universities.

Together, they come up with strategies to set their applications apart, joining honor societies and editing one another's personal statements -- a dozen times, if necessary. Duran urges them to appeal if they aren't accepted the first time.

Some members of the group, with Duran's encouragement, took courses at UC Berkeley while still at Merritt and were inspired by their success.

After doing well in an art history course and a Latin American studies course, Chaidez said, "I was like, 'I can make it here.'"

Chaidez isn't exactly new to UC Berkeley. Before dropping out of his chaotic Oakland high school, he would sometimes cut class with his friends and hang out on the college campus, soaking in all "the hustle and bustle" and pretending he was a student himself.

"I felt,'' he said, "like I never would get in."

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.

NAVIGATING THE transfer PROCESS
California's new Associate Degrees for Transfer make the process of transferring to a Cal State school faster and simpler. Learn more about how it works at http://adegreewithaguarantee.com.
Seven UC campuses have a transfer guarantee program: http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/transfer/guarantee.
Learn more about the Altazor transfer club at Oakland's Merritt College here: http://www.clubaltazor.com.

ALTAZOR's success
Here's where students from Claudio Duran's transfer club at Merritt College are headed:
UC Berkeley: Eight students
UC Santa Cruz: Three students
UCLA
UC Davis
UC Irvine
San Francisco State
Sonoma State
Humboldt State
Mills College
Source: Altazor Club