I found “home” as an undergraduate with my school’s outdoors club, Wooster’s most extreme outdoors club: WOODS. I graduated from the College of Wooster in the Spring of 2015, and spent the summer working for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota (CCM). This was my second summer working as a crew leader for CCM because I was inspired to share the sense of community, which I had found with WOODS in college, with other young people. CCM’s summer program is a youth development work opportunity that hires high school students from all backgrounds to do conservation projects across Minnesota and neighboring states. Listening to these youth share about their lives challenged me to realize how much our society struggles to foster community in our education system; however, several of my youth inspired me with their stories of an organization that provided a network of support for them.
As high school students, these youth felt encouraged to pursue college in part because of a mentoring program called College Possible. Their stories motivated me to learn more about this nonprofit, and as luck would have it, I am now serving as an AmeriCorps member for College Possible (CP) – specifically as a college coach at Augsburg College. After learning about the Teacher’s Guild collaboration on College Pathways, I called to interview three of the students I’d previously worked with through CCM, who are all now freshmen working through their second semester of college. Here are pieces of their stories:
When you were in high school, how did you initially feel about entering college?
In 9th grade, I felt like if I didn’t say “yes, I want to go to college” then I was the bum of the class. A straight bum. It felt more like a duty than a right, not like my own desire to go to college. But by 11th grade I was taking more challenging classes and knew that my love of learning would take me a long way, but if I wanted to have a good life and make sure my parents would have a good retirement, well at that point it felt like college was calling for me.
I didn’t really know what to expect, I didn’t have anyone to talk to because I am first generation.
I was super excited, college is what I had been working toward for the last five or six years. Getting into [my dream college] was the biggest accomplishment for me; I was getting to where I’ve always wanted to be.
What made you excited to apply to be a part of the College Possible program?
I heard my friends often talk about CP. I thought it was a baloney thing, like college is hard to get into, no way would someone be nice enough to help in that process. But I went to a presentation and I was like wow these people mean it, I don’t know anything about college, and they’re going to help me get into college.
My counselor told me about it and she put me in it. I like that it provided a small, engaging community and we did a lot of [interactive learning], like when we played games during ACT prep.
The first time I heard about it was in my 10th grade history class, and I immediately thought this is where I need to be. I had been in college prep programs before - I was in Discover U in elementary and middle school, and then AVID in high school – I thought [College Possible] was the next step.
What was one of the most difficult aspects of the college application process?
The hardest part about the college application was the FAFSA. There’s a language barrier between me and my parents, so trying to tell them why I needed to look at their taxes and send it to someone was hard. It was fun though – you know, the minute after it [was finished] at least.
Probably writing the letter of circumstance; it was difficult to put into words why I wanted to go. It was difficult to talk about my life, and then you have to wait to hear back to know if you got in.
The hardest part for me was the financial part: FAFSA, financial aid, all the stuff that requires paperwork that my family had lost. I usually depend on myself but when I had to depend on my family for those documents, well we didn’t know how to do it. Applications felt easier because of College Possible practice essays, but the financial part was definitely hard.
Where, or to whom, did you turn to for support in the admissions process?
My college possible coach. He was there for every turn; he sometime had to carry me on his back. I was like what does this word on the FAFSA mean? When I was with my mom looking at taxes, [I was also] talking to him on the phone about if a term meant I should put this specific number in.
My high school coach! She was with me through it all – my applications, my acceptances, my non-acceptances, she helped consider which ones provided the best financial aid. I still talk to her when I need to make decisions, even though I have a college coach.
My College Possible coach! They were the first person I would go to because I didn’t know how to do anything and I couldn’t go to my family. It was nice to have the support in high school, even things like scanning a W2 form and uploading it online. Having someone help me create an action plan was so wonderful.
Is there a space on campus that now feels like “home” to you?
I’d have to say like the desk in my dorm. Because like at home, I’ve decorated it with little ornaments to look at that spark memories of past events - friends and family, things that have significant value.
On campus, not really. Sometimes I go to my aunt’s house and there I can just relax.
First semester was so hard for me because I felt so out of place on campus, I feel like I didn’t have somewhere to go to find people with similar experiences to me. I think what finally helped me was really making my dorm a place that is happy for me, that makes me feel at home. Making your own space is so important. But also now, being in an art class I was like “wow this is so awesome. This is me.” I think it feels that way because I love art and I find people who are interested in the same things as me – those strange, weird people who might not fit in just like me!
Have you ever felt like “maybe college isn’t for me?” If so, what prompted that feeling?
Alright so like, it was around halfish way or two-thirds of the way into the first semester. My science classes were absolutely destroying me. I’d go to academic advising and spend all evening there, and then go home and study my notes. But then the tests came and I was at it with a pick ax. Still I barely passed so I thought, “Either I’m not cut out for college or I’m not cut out for college.” I thought, “I can either roll over and cry, or I can crawl.” So I asked myself, “What was the original plan for college?” and then I was like, “What are the perks of college?” I know now that carbon is life and I can kick a soccer ball really far because of physics. So what [I’m] telling [myself] is that college is helping [me] understand life. Planning a career as an engineer, you’re not only working to ensure a happy retirement for your parents but also for yourself. That’s an intriguing proposition.
The middle of first semester. In the beginning everything was so much fun, and you lose track of what you’re doing and then you get to the end of the semester and realize all the stuff you don’t know. Everyone’s first semester is hardest because you’re transitioning to a new environment.
Definitely, I was stunned when I felt like that because for so long college was this place I was trying to get to. When I started getting my applications back, I got waitlisted at all my first choices and I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I really wanted to go to St. Olaf, but I got waitlisted and then I wasn’t sure if I was going to get enough money, so I didn’t know if I would go to college in the Fall.
How do you think having a College Possible coach has impacted your experience?
[In college,] now I just gotta talk to [myself]. When I was in high school, my coach asked me a lot of questions about money and how I was gonna be [at college], which really helped me make a decision. Giving myself options to think about really lightens my mood.
It’s hard to go to a new CP coach. I catch her when I can. I miss the group sessions [from the high school program]. Then if we’re struggling, [all the students] were there to help each other out. I like that you had a group who understood what you were going through. You’re there ultimately for the same goals. In college, you don’t know who else is in College Possible. [Group sessions] can be more useful than one-on-one, because in a group one person’s question can spark another one.
[When I was waitlisted,] I went to my high school coach and we made a plan and I did more interviews with St. Olaf, then I got in! It’s different now that I’m in college because I don’t have a coach on campus. I still go to my high school CP coach because she knows what I’ve been through and we have a good relationship even though she’s not a coach anymore. I can fb message my new coach about the FAFSA and stuff, but I do miss always having the College Possible community around me. It’s kind of an independent thing where you learn that if you want something you have to go out and do it on your own. Before it was what some people would call “having your hand held,” but I don’t think having your hand held is a bad thing.
What is something you wish you had known before entering college?
I wish I would’ve known that when people said it was hard, they weren’t lying. In high school I took tough courses but it was enough to just really try, and I thought it would be the same or a little bit harder in college. But when the real thing comes, it hits you like a truck. So when you hear [that it is tough] you have your standard, you have your own definition of hard, but you need to raise up that level of hard…which I guess you can’t really do until you’re experiencing it.
I wish I had known like e-mail and mechanisms for online homework forums; I wish I had known how that was. Tests aren’t like they were in high school, they’re online and there isn’t a time you start, you just have to take them before class. Most tests are online, unless it’s the midterm or final.
I said before how at the beginning of college, I was really excited to reinvent myself and maybe audition for a play or join new clubs. I was really focused on being someone different, but I think I would have done better to focus on myself because I lost focus on why I had come here and how I work best. It would have been more beneficial if I didn’t try to do everything at once! Taking things slow and taking care of yourself!
If you could re-design anything to make the to-and-through college journey better for students in your shoes, what would that thing be?
A redesign would be helping students get in the habit of making habits. Destroy the procrastination habit early! In college possible [in high school], we did a time management exercise but we just read it on a piece of paper. It’d be nice if there was an activity, for example, where you translated an hour into a minute and let a student try to go through it [to mimic] what a college student would experience [in a day].
I probably would make the college visits more engaging. Instead of just a campus tour, [have] a weekend or something more than four hours [where you can] sit in on an actual class. Information about who gets in and average class size is good, but actually seeing classrooms [would be helpful]. [Otherwise] everything [about the college environment] when you’re touring is up to your imagination. Cafeterias currently weigh in to too many students’ decisions. We walk around, talk for a bit, and then get lunch. If the lunch isn’t good, then people aren’t going to want to go there.
Nearing the last couple months of high school, it would be good to write a letter to yourself [that would be sent] to you during your freshmen year, to remind yourself of all the work that you’ve done to get to where you are and all those good things. Reading things from my high school CP program always makes me feel better, so I think a letter would help students reorient themselves to what their goal was [initially] for college.
So how does this influence me, Teresa Butel, as a current CP college coach?
1) I am thrilled to hear that unanimously these students felt positively impacted by their high school CP coaches, and I believe their stories speak volumes to the power of a near-peer mentoring model that connects students to a recent college graduate and helps them gain social and cultural capital.
2) I am reminded of how college access programs are and should be ever-evolving, in a continued effort to consider how to best convey the college experience to high school students. (See students’ re-design ideas for time management activities and more immersive college weekend visits).
3) I am curious about a common thread in their stories that suggests a sense of anomie hits students around the middle of first semester, freshmen year. Each student speaks to being overwhelmed by a new environment – either due to a desire to over-commit to organizations, to strenuous classes, or to a struggle to find spaces where first generation students can gather and share their experiences. This stress point in the year may be a time when programs need to increase intentional outreach efforts. (See students’ re-design ideas about receiving a letter from their high-school selves at that time in the year).
4) I am motivated to address how difficult it is to transition from a high school coach, whom students have spent so much time building rapport with, to a college coach. The college environment creates many new demands and new freedoms for students and though college access programs may help students gain confidence in being their own self-advocates, having on-campus groups to support students in that transition allows for greater engagement. One of my personal goals for growing as a coach is considering how to effectively organize group gatherings for CP students to network with one another on my college campus!
5) Ultimately, I am brought back again to a question of how do we create a sense of “home” for first generation students on college campuses that have historically not been tailored to account for these students’ lived experiences, when recognizing that sense of belonging is incredibly important for persistence to college graduation.