I almost didn’t apply to college. My school counselor changed my mind.

Here’s what he told me when the application process — and my family’s hardships — felt insurmountable.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

As a recent high school graduate, I have been reflecting on my senior year, which was particularly grueling. Due to COVID, I missed the daily excitement of seeing my friends and teachers in person. My family also faced significant challenges this past year that made me feel uncertain about my future. 

When my father — who has worked in construction almost around the clock for the past 15 years — noticed a bump on his neck last fall, we thought it was a torn muscle from his constant work, including as the superintendent for three buildings. My father told us it was extremely painful, and my mom made him a doctor’s appointment, which revealed that he had cancer. Despite his compromised immune system and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he continued to work because he is our family’s sole provider. 

My father grew up in Puebla, Mexico, attended school until the third grade and has been working ever since. Many New York City students have immigrant parents who make similar sacrifices for their children. Some 37% of New York City public schoolchildren have a parent with limited English proficiency. Their parents, like mine, want their children to have a better future and new opportunities. Opportunities like going to college. 

When I found out my father had cancer in November, I was finalizing my personal statement and completing my Common Application, which allows students to apply to multiple colleges with a single application. I began to feel hopeless, doubting that I’d be able to accomplish my goals. I began to lose interest in the college application process and wanted to focus on my dad’s health. I considered getting a job when I graduated high school to help my dad and my family.

When I told my college counselor at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School — known as WHEELS — that I didn’t feel like finishing the Common Application, he told me that it was still important to complete the process. He said that if I didn’t, I might regret it. He offered me a glimmer of hope and reminded me that I have to keep going even if it feels overwhelming. 

Once I brought in my family’s financial documents, my college counselor encouraged me to learn more about in-state colleges that I could afford through the Higher Education Opportunity Program, or HEOP, and the Educational Opportunity Program, or EOP, for state universities in New York. Both programs provide low-income college students financial and academic support. I applied to 11 colleges and their HEOP or EOP programs, knowing that these programs would alleviate my worry about going into debt to attend college. 

My college counselor and the team at Friends of WHEELS — a nonprofit that offers leadership development, and college and career access and support to WHEELS students — were there for me when I really needed them. They made sure I turned in my finished personal statement, my college application, and the federal financial aid paperwork. They advocated for me with several college admissions officers. 

This fall, I’ll be attending Fordham University at Lincoln Center through their HEOP program. I am a member of the Class of 2025. 

All schools deserve to have the resources, staff, and expertise, or partner organizations like Friends of WHEELS, to connect with all students. But that is not the case. The average New York City guidance counselor has a caseload of 333 students. National caseloads are even heavier: 424 on average. 

Counselors can play a big role in helping students achieve what might otherwise feel impossible: pursuing college and other opportunities beyond high school. But we need more of them, especially given the fallout from the COVID pandemic. The city should use this recovery period to make intensive college counseling the norm and not the exception. Expanding access to counselors  — through hiring or partnering with counseling organizations  — must be a priority for the next New York City mayor. 

Students have to navigate complex personal and family issues that schools might not notice or acknowledge. And students often hide what’s really going on in their lives. I, for one, didn’t want to show the hard parts of my personal life. (Eventually, I shared my struggles and found a sympathetic ear.) While my father is still managing cancer, I am confident that by pursuing a college degree, I will soon be able to contribute financially to my family.

When the stakes are high, students need counselors in their corners to remind them of the many opportunities that await them — the very opportunities that so many parents, especially immigrant parents, have sacrificed for them to have. 

Kevin Herrera is a member of the Fordham University Class of 2025. He plans to major in natural sciences. He has two brothers and loves playing with his dogs.