For a high school graduate, the prospect of attending college in the fall may seem daunting. Among these rising first years’ worries are being able to make new friends, maintaining stellar grades and involving themselves in as many extracurricular activities as possible. Coming from all over the world to many different universities, they yearn for the abstract idea of the grand undergraduate experience that their older friends have told them about, but upon their arrival, they still do not know what to expect from the four years ahead. Though each of them has grown up in a different background and has received a different education, they are all united by an important achievement: overcoming the college application process.
Strive for College Collaborative is a national foundation that is committed to guiding students at low-income, urban public high schools through the college search and application process. With chapters at 17 universities across the country, including Washington University in St. Louis and Georgetown, Strive individually pairs all high school students with undergraduates who devote a full year (starting in the spring) to not only mentoring them through their SAT prep, applications and enrollment but also motivating them, bolstering their confidence and helping them find their potential. Having just gone through the experience themselves, these college students have an updated understanding of the process and can effectively communicate that knowledge to their mentees.
“That’s the whole premise of the Strive model: [It’s] that the people who are best suited to work with these kids are literally the people who just went through it,” said Allie Liotta (COL ’15), the Georgetown chapter’s director of internal relations.
Because private and public schools offer different college counseling services, Strive seeks to help and inform those high schoolers who would not normally have access to the resources they would need to begin applications or to find out which schools best fit their personal interests and financial needs.
“[These public schools have] two guidance counselors for 300 kids in a grade,” said the president of Georgetown Strive, Eric Vorchheimer (MSB ’14). “That’s not enough, so we act as sort of a surrogate guidance counselor or function in the role of a guidance counselor. Not to say that they aren’t professionals, they do their job and they do it well, but it can be tough for two people to deal with 300 kids.”
Added Liotta, “My mentee is my sister’s age, [and] my sister is applying to college, and then I think that speaks to the whole struggle that they’re seeing: that my sister has a lot of support and my mentee does not.”
After learning about her sister’s involvement with the organization at Duke, Ricki Eshman (COL ’14) decided to found a chapter of Strive at Georgetown last year. Having registered with the Center for Social Justice and its Advisory Board for Student Organizations, Eshman established a partnership with Strive’s national chapter and began recruitment and searching for potential public high schools to collaborate with in the fall of 2011.
“Bell High School, which is in Columbia Heights, was by far the most cooperative,” said Vorchheimer, a former SAT tutor who served as the Georgetown chapter’s director of curriculum at the time. “You really need collaboration from the guidance department if this is going to work.”
Georgetown Strive started to work with Bell High School that spring, and its inaugural class just graduated at the end of last semester. They have added another high school to their roster this semester and are looking for committed and friendly students to join their organization.
Offering a full-year curriculum for second-semester high school juniors and a condensed curriculum for those who started in the fall, Strive aims to develop trust and friendships between the college mentors and their mentees by pairing them in one-on-one partnerships based on mutual or similar interests.
“For example, there are some kids who are interested in business, and they’re paired with mentors who are in the business school,” Liotta explained. “You definitely form a very personal relationship with your mentee, which is important. We really like to emphasize texting your mentee [and] checking up on them. It’s a good working relationship, and it’s like a friendship relationship, too.”
Vorchheimer added, “We refuse to not do one on one just because it’s not the same. It’s the best way to really get the most out of your kid, and it’s the best way for the mentors to get the most out of their experience.”
By giving the students such individualized attention, each Strive mentor reassures his or her mentee that he or she is committed solely to his or her own mentee’s success. In addition, because the mentors carry over from their students’ junior spring to senior fall semesters, the high schoolers do not have to worry about readjusting to the teaching style of another college mentor.
The undergraduates meet with their mentees once a week and work on material supplied by the national chapter with them for one hour. Though this curriculum is mostly standardized, the mentors have to tailor it to fit the pace and needs of their students as due dates approach.
“We start off with a pretty standard curriculum, like ‘get to know you’ time, getting to select the schools [and] selecting the right schools because the whole point of Strive is to enable the kids to find their ‘best-fit’ schools,” saidVorchheimer. “Then, we move into familiarizing with the SATs, how to get a recommendation letter — all the basic steps of the application process that might not be familiar to the students.”
Lack of fluency in the steps of the application process is not the only challenge that some of these high school students face. Due to other extracurricular commitments, some of these students have trouble fully involving themselves in their Strive partnerships, and others find it hard to visualize what the college experience actually is.
For this reason, Strive’s Georgetown chapter implemented Strive Day last semester. The event included bringing the Bell High School students to Georgetown, giving them a full campus tour and treating them to a meal at Leo’s and a home football game.
Several Georgetown mentors work with undocumented students, which presents another serious issue in that these students cannot apply to cheaper state schools and certain financial aid programs.
“You can’t fill out the FAFSA, obviously, because it’s federal aid, so you definitely focus on private schools,” said Liotta. “There are some private schools that are known for being more friendly to undocumented students, and you also want to look for schools that are on the list that the CSS profile puts out — that’s the alternate financial aid.”
Though there are no guarantees of their acceptance, undocumented students can apply to those colleges without having to worry about providing their citizenship because the CSS profile does not require that its users provide social security numbers. However, other documents necessary for admissions offices’ consideration do require such information.
“[There are] barriers in the application itself, like there’s a part on the Common App where it asks you what your citizenship status is,” Liotta explained. “What you do is you select ‘Others,’ which is then going to alert the schools that you are undocumented.”
The problem that this requirement presents relates to the fact that many universities are resistant to accepting students without documentation because of the legal risks and liabilities. Though looking at CSS profile can narrow down undocumented students’ college lists to those where they could get in, their chances of acceptance remain up in the air. Neither the mentors nor the mentees can know for sure if a specific university will offer them a spot in the next year’s first-year class, so all they can do is submit an application that showcases their talents and abilities and hope that their dream schools will accept them despite their undocumented citizenship.
Liotta, who also participates in D.C. Reads, has noticed that the two organizations create different kinds of relationships between undergraduates and pre-college students. While D.C. Reads requires their college volunteers to serve in a more authoritative role in elementary school classrooms, Strive emphasizes the creation of a support system between two peers.
“The relationship [between the mentors and mentees] is so unique because it is not like I’m 80 years old and I’m advising a 15-year-old,” said Vorchheimer. “I’m 21, they’re 18, so it’s very close in age and that really enables the trust factor to be present.”
Vorchheimer and Liotta both expressed that this small age difference in addition to the one-on-one partnerships make not only the high school students more engaged and invested in the process but also the mentors.
“When your mentee says to you that they got into college, it makes you happy because it’s like you got into college, too,” Vorchheimer said.
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