First Person

Losing My Fear Of Having To Handle College Alone

This piece is the third in a series by students and counselors from Bottom Line, a nonprofit that aims to bridge the college-readiness gap by supporting high school students as they transition into college.

“No one will be there for you. At college you are on your own.”

This was a line that was continuously repeated to me in high school. I first heard it freshman year and only appeared more frequently as I got to my senior year. Soon, it became my biggest fear for attending college. “What if no one is truly there for me? What if I’m really a number amongst hundreds of thousands of smarter and more talented numbers?” I thought to myself, “How am I going to make it all on my own?”

But after the first week of being a freshman at the University at Albany this fear went straight down the drain. I met more than enough people willing to lend a helping hand and a shoulder to lean on. After spending just a month on campus I’ve met faculty and friends who I feel like I’ve known for my whole life. My Bottom Line counselor has visited me on campus a few times and being friendly and practicing positive body language truly does take you a long way. I’ve noticed that the students who are outgoing and maintain higher spirits are the ones who receive the most support in college, rather than the students who maintain a pessimistic vibe.

Unlike high school, college provides a lot of freedom. However, with that freedom comes even more responsibility. In college I am in control of every decision I make. I can do whatever I want but with every choice there is a consequence. I can choose to party all night long, have sleepovers every night with my friends, or even play manhunt until 7 a.m. — but if I choose to do these things then that means I am choosing to accept whatever consequences come with it. In high school, my parents and teachers were always around hounding me to make sure things got done, but in college there is no one to take on that role. In college if I choose not to attend class or do my homework, the only person who will notice is me. In college you get out what you put in and if you slack off and don’t care it will definitely show in the future when you look at your report card or try to get an internship. It also probably isn’t the smartest choice to slack off when you are paying thousands of dollars for an education.

Don’t get me wrong though, college isn’t only about the academics. There are many ways to get involved both on and off campus and attending a couple of parties isn’t a bad idea.

The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last two months is that you have to learn to balance your time. I have had a lot of help learning to do that by attending many sessions about time management and how to be a successful freshman both with my Bottom Line counselor and with my freshman study skills group. For me, the previous techniques that I learned in high school no longer worked with my new life at school. I had to learn new ways to keep track of assignments, prepare for tests, and maintain a healthy schedule. I tried a few techniques shown to me by Bottom Line, like creating to-do lists and leaving little post-it reminders around my room and in my notebooks. I keep a calendar of the semester filled with all my syllabi information, due dates, and test dates. Therefore when there is an upcoming test I can study ahead of time. Those are some methods that worked for me, but learning how to manage academic excellence with a social life is something that each student has to use discretion about and figure out what works for him or her.

Adjusting to college can be overwhelming but I have learned that is not a process that I have to take head on by myself. There are numerous people that work on campus and other organizations that I can reach out to for help. When it comes to asking for help, I am reminded of a quote I once heard: There is nothing such as a dumb question — it’s only dumb to refrain from asking a question.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.