Early College Awareness Preparation Starts Now
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 new school year
As the school year gets into gear, my Facebook friends proudly display their kids’ first day of school pics. Johnny’s kid just started pre-K. Julie’s is a high school freshman and she can’t believe it. NJ’s daughter is a beautiful college freshman at her own alma mater of all places. Mine is in first grade. I can’t believe any of it! I can still remember when I was in first grade.
The college pictures particularly thrust me time-warp-like into the future. What keeps me up at night is that, one day, just like my friends, I will be posting a picture of my little Logan in his freshman dorm room. I just blew my own mind by even writing that down—Ouch!
I am sure that between now and then Logan will develop a lot more—he is just five years old. Still, I am not sure how this little man who can’t even tie his own shoes yet, who can’t see the value of his homework, who took his favorite monkey to the first day of first grade, will acquire all of the competencies that will help him get to and succeed in college.
The competencies students need
In one of our training days, we have an activity where participants think about the competencies students need to have in order to get into and succeed in college. Each participant takes three green post-its, three yellow post-its, and three blue post-its. On the green post-its, they list the skills students must have. On the yellow post-its, they list the things they need to know. And on the blue post-its, they list the attitudes or things they must believe. Once they’re done, they post everything on the wall.
If you can imagine, with a group of 60 participants, the wall has over 500 post-its. There are all sorts of things on the wall. Some things are very concrete. For example, students must know about financial aid. They must know how to write a college essay. They must believe that college is possible. Some things are softer. For example, students must know how to advocate for themselves. They must feel that they are worth the effort. Somehow students must learn these competencies too.
As a trainer, I lead the participants through a few debrief questions, where we get to the idea that, as advisers, we cannot possibly help our students develop all of these competencies. As an adviser, I can lean on school staff, partnerships with other organizations, college folks, parents, etc. It truly takes a village.
College adviser and parent collide
When I think about Logan’s path to college, as a parent who’s a college adviser, I still feel lost. In this specific case, I will be counseling a child for college for much longer than usual. Essentially, by the time he gets to college (and he will!), I will have been college counseling my son for 18 years. Now that Logan’s in school, I think a lot about those post-it competencies and how exactly my son’s going to pick them up.
Recently, I’ve worked on a number of projects helping other programs design a college access curriculum for middle schoolers and early high schoolers. Of course, most of my training participants work with students starting in the ninth grade. So, while I don’t counsel younger students, I do think about how it might work. In Logan’s case, though, I have a personal stake so I worry about it for free a lot more. The question is: How do you start to prepare younger kids for college?
Last year, when he was going to graduate from kindergarten, my son announced that he had graduated from kindergarten and that he no longer had to go to school. When I asked him why, he said that he was going to get his diploma, which is what you get when you finish school. I asked about college. He said he didn’t need to go anymore.
Let us pause for a status check. When my five year old announced that he didn’t need to go to college, I had two types of reactions, the second of which was not proportional to the situation. On the outside, I kept my mommy cool. My internal dialogue, on the other hand was going crazy!
First, I wondered what Bill Cosby would do. I pictured myself in that first episode of The Cosby Show, where he has a pretty similar conversation with a teenaged Theo. If I was Bill Cosby and if my son was a teenager and not just five, I might have pulled out some Monopoly money and talked through a scenario about what adult life would be like without college. That wouldn’t work here. Logan is just too young.
Second, I pictured myself as the college adviser whose kid didn’t go to college.
What do I talk about when I talk about college?
Quite frankly, I don’t think my son even knows what college is. We’ve talked about it some but to sit down and have a conversation with him about college feels a little over the top. I think this will be the case for a few more years. He has little context for it.
What he does know about is what he wants to be when he grows up. In Pre-K, he wanted to be a cop. In kindergarten, he wanted to be a teacher. This spring, when he decided he was going to drop out of elementary school, he wanted to be a daddy. Last week at CVS, he really liked the girl who helped us at the self-checkout so he wanted to be a person that gives people information at a store.
I think this is how I’ll sneak in those conversations about college. Jobs are real to him because he can see a cop, a teacher, a daddy, and the CVS girl. We can talk about how to become all of these things. Better yet, we can ask the CVS girl how she got that job. So when he decided to be an elementary school dropout, I told him he couldn't be a teacher without college. He came back with another brilliant idea all Theo-like, but at least I planted the seed. (In case you want to know, his retort was "I'll just be a daddy. You don't need college for that!")
He’s also ripe for picking up some good habits, some meta-cognitive skills like time management and self-advocacy and the positive beliefs and attitudes. These are going to be trickier. At the same time, it’s what parents have been working on for years. It’s what we do. Every night, we look through his bag to keep it tidy and make sure to respond to all of his teacher’s requests promptly. He’s also writing his homework assignments in an agenda. I don't even keep an agenda. Don't tell him that!
I’ve also been thinking a lot about growth mindset. Growth mindset basically posits that you can stretch your abilities. Success doesn’t just come because nature made you so smart but because you challenged yourself and worked hard at it. (Read more about growth mindset, personal behaviors, and related instructional expectations for the DOE here: http://schools.nyc.gov/Academics/CommonCoreLibrary/CommonCoreClassroom/) Along those lines, I’ve been trying to give feedback on hard work and effort. To be honest, it’s kind of hot right now and will hopefully help.
And, as I tell my trainees, I have to remember that it takes a village! I’ll keep communicating with his teachers and finding supports wherever I can get them. Together, we’ll get my little Logan to college!
How do you talk to younger students about college? What techniques have you found most effective, in preparing younger students to apply to and succeed in college?