First Person

On Picking Up Speed After Coasting To College

This piece is the fourth 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.

In a recent post in GothamSchools’ Community section, Nikya Medford wrote of her fears of being alone when on her college campus, without the guidance and support she found at home. Nikya is a student that I visit once a month at the State University of New York at Albany, and while Nikya quickly learned that she had much more support that she originally perceived, her fear is a common one among the college students that I work with.

Though there is a great amount of social and academic support to be found on most college campuses, many students have difficulty connecting to those resources. Working with college students across three New York campuses I have noticed that regardless of whether a student lives at home or on campus, rarely are students aware of all the services available to them, or that it is considered their responsibility to access these services.

Of the 19 college students that I work with across three New York campuses, about half are living away from home. In conversations with adults about my work, many are quick to assume that those students living at home have a much easier time transitioning to college than students who live on campus. However, students living at home often have a hard time acknowledging that expectations of their work have changed from what they were in high school and no longer will their teachers grade them based on effort and potential alone. Students who were once at the top of their class but coasted there on teachers who knew them well and knew how smart they were frequently have a very difficult time acknowledging when they are doing poorly; and thus they are less likely to seek help.

A part of my job is helping students acknowledge when and why they are struggling, and then planning for how to help them. I do this in several different ways, but a large part of it is getting students to visit the academic resource centers available on campus. Often, visiting the writing center or the math tutoring center is exhausting for students, as they must not only make time for these visits, but also follow up on the extra work they are asked to do by the center staffs. However, after papers are handed in, or tests are taken, my students have always acknowledged how much this extra step helped their performance. By helping students find academic resources and schedule appointments I can help my students find the help they need; and then by sending them reminders, and checking in after they have seen their tutors, I hold my students accountable for keeping their commitments to their own academic success.

In addition to having designated resource centers, most schools encourage students to visit with their professors. But few 17- or 18-year-olds are eager to take time out of their busy lives to meet with a professor for extra help. While I make it a priority for my students to introduce themselves to their professors and visit office hours more than once a semester, it is rare that a student is easily convinced to complete this task. In high school, students saw their teachers all day – in the halls, in class, at lunch – and an appointment was rarely necessary to discuss a paper or test. When an appointment is necessary, high school teachers are more likely to take the initiative to meet with students who are demonstrating a need for extra help, rather than expect vice versa. Once students enter college, it is easy for them to presume that if a professor wants to discuss something, he or she will let them know.

So when I suggest that my students visit office hours for the first time, I frequently meet resistance, as students are unclear why they should seek out a professor that does not seem to need to speak with them. This perception — that professors will talk to you if they need to, and office hours are only for if you have a question — is an unfortunate one, and something I work to change in my students. Often I suggest having a conversation with professors so that they can get to know each other. From these meetings the student will likely learn more about the class topics from the change in presentation format and the professor will recognize, and likely appreciate, the student’s eagerness to learn more about the topics. It can only improve the student’s class experience. Last semester, as we made finals study plans, I wrote specific office hour visit days in students’ calendars. This encouraged students to meet with professors as part of their finals preparation as well as to push them to begin studying early for finals, so they could have sufficient questions to speak with their professors about.

While it is important for students to be told that they will be successful in college, it is equally important to remind them of the changing academic expectations that will be placed upon them. First-year college students do not frequently have the background knowledge of how to approach professors or seek out academic support services on campus. These skills need to be taught to students before they begin school, and their development encouraged as students progress through college. More often than not, the support services that students need to be successful are available to them — students just need to be given the encouragement and guidance to take advantage of the assistance.

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.