Are college deadlines the opposite of youth development?
Sandy Jimenez has been a College Access Counselor at the Options Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center since 2000. In 2006, she helped design the first iteration of the Options Institute’s Foundation Course for College Access and Success Counselors. She has worked individually with over 500 students and trained thousands of professionals. Most recently, Sandy has joined NYC College Line as a Senior Adviser, where you can reach her through the Ask an Adviser feature.
A long-term student
As a long-time adviser at Options, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of my students over many years. One extraordinary case involves a student who I first met at my work study job in college. Let’s call her Sharon. Sharon is an amazing woman. She’s experienced a lot of trauma in her life. She’s a sexual abuse survivor. She suffers from mental illness. She’s homeless. She’s got a lot of stuff to deal with but she uses it all as a motivation to get to a better place in life. Sharon really wants to go to college.
When I first met her, Sharon was going for her GED at the campus-based community service organization where I worked. I was her counselor and her teacher. Soon after I graduated, she got her GED and took her next step towards going to college by contacting Options.
It’s not just about college
Fast forward, more than a decade (almost 15 years, actually) and I am still working with Sharon. A cool part of working outside of a school is that as life goes on and students shift their priorities, they know we’re still here and that they can come back for services when they are ready. Sharon has come and gone more times than I can count. It’s wonderful to see her as she goes through life stages and succeeds in other parts of her life. It also hurts when she fails. Sharon’s gotten married. She’s trained as a peer counselor for her mentally ill peers. She is also at a homeless shelter after not being homeless for a while.
Even the shortest relationships with students—those that last just a few months—are about much more than college. They’re about the student’s family, their future career, their current school experience, any health problems… so many things! This is all in addition to college preferences, the student’s academic profile, household finances, etc. You have to consider it all when you’re counseling the student. So Sharon and I talk about college and cover letters for jobs. In between essay drafts, she gripes about her therapist. After filing the FAFSA, we had a session where we submitted some writing to journal. When you know someone this long, it’s hard to draw the line between counselor and friend.
What about the deadlines?
We talk about all of the other stuff and we take breaks for the times when life intervenes. What keeps me up at night is that we don’t get much done college-wise. It’s been all of these many many years and Sharon’s not in school. She went briefly once but she had to leave. When she was ready to go back, she came back to me. We’ve postponed college a few times since then. Our current goal is starting in Spring 2015.
In counseling someone who’s not in school, my instinct is to recommend the City University of NY (CUNY). After all, it’s designed for access—it’s affordable, it’s got classes at all times, it’s got amazing support programs… I could go on! Every time I see Sharon, though, I’m reminded that I can’t should all over her. There’s no room for cookie cutters in college counseling. I can guide her and suggest but ultimately she’s got her own goals.
Sharon and I made a deal. We’ll apply to her dream colleges: NYU’s Mcghee Division and Columbia’s School of General Studies. Afterwards, we can do CUNY. So far, it’s taken us several months to complete these. We finished NYU last month and now we’ve moved on to Columbia. It was a huge milestone to complete the first application but we missed the deadline several times.
As someone who’s been out of school for a long time and someone that struggles with many issues including mental illness, Sharon has requested that we do most of the college application work together. We have a standing appointment once a week. It’s a big time investment on both our parts. The progress is very slow compared to many of my students.
Along the way, I’ve tried to push Sharon to join support programs that will help her prepare for college. She has followed my advice on many occasions. She’s joined a CUNY Assessment Test Prep Course. She started a computer class. She refused several others. She’s dropped almost everything because it’s become overwhelming to handle in addition to everything else.
Even one or two classes in college will be more than any prep course! So here’s where I am: How do I help this woman prepare for college? By meeting her where she is, have I set her up to fail? Will she be able to write a paper on her own and then turn it in on time? Will she be able to balance school, the supports she needs, and the obstacles in her life? I don’t know the right answer.
I hope that as her peer, in many ways, I will be able to engage her in conversation about what she anticipates in college and what she might do to overcome the potential obstacles. At the same time, I know Sharon well enough to know that she might see this conversation as lack of confidence on my part. She might think that I don’t think she’ll make it.
We’ve set the start date far enough away that I have several months to engage her in this conversation.
What do you think I can do in this case? Have you had any similar students? Please place your comments below.