Lessons from Alumni
Shaquinah Taylor Wright is the Mid-Atlantic Director of College Access at Let's Get Ready, an education nonprofit that provides low-income high school students with free SAT preparation, admissions counseling and other support services needed to gain admission to and graduate from college. Shaquinah served as the founding College Counselor at a charter school in the Bronx where she designed and implemented a 9-12 college counseling program. Prior to that, Shaquinah was an Education Pioneers Graduate Fellow where she partnered with an education organization to design a project to help increase college matriculation for disconnected learners. She also worked for two years as a college advisor with the MGI/Gear Up program at an Early College high school.
Shaquinah received her BA from Cornell University with a major in Sociology and Inequality Studies and her Master's in Counseling Psychology from Teachers College. As a first-generation college graduate, Shaquinah has a passion for creating sustainable action to address issues of opportunity and access for students.
“I wish you guys would have just let me fail.”
Um, what? I was not prepared for that statement to come out of Jennifer’s mouth. Especially in response to my “how’s college?” question. I thought she was going to talk about an interesting class she was taking. Or how she was adjusting to living outside of the city for the first time. Or tell me one of those eyebrow-raising stories I try not to cringe too much about since they’re (technically) adults. But I was definitely not expecting to engage in a conversation about how she felt our school had failed her by essentially not failing her. It had all the makings of an existential crisis.
So much to learn, so little time (left)
As college advisors, our main goal is of course to help our students with college admissions process – a process that signals the end of their high school career. We’re focused on helping them figure out that next step and the best ways to get there. Most of us meet with students (if we have a small enough caseload to meet with students individually) in their junior year, which means that a lot of the decision-making that lays their academic foundation is already done.
So what do you do when a student comes to you wanting to study computer science, but hasn’t advanced past Geometry? Or another who is interested in journalism, but struggles with a two-page writing assignment?
Simply looking at a student’s GPA doesn’t paint us as neat a picture as we would like. A lot of us have worked for schools where they give students extra credit and time on assignments. It might be nice that my student’s English teacher accepted (and graded) that paper that was two-weeks late, but I am pretty sure his college professor won’t. This adds extra pressure on advisors to really express to students the academic rigor of college. Even then, it sort of gets lost in the midst of their dreams of independence and college parties.
When it comes to working with students, I usually like to start with the end in mind. I don’t want my students to get into college, I want them to get out. I spend a lot of time talking to former students and thinking about ways to incorporate their real experiences into more effective programming at the high school level.
“There’s so much writing!”
I ran into one of my students who spent 30 minutes complaining to me about all of the essays he had to write. And it wasn’t just the expected Freshman Writing Seminar papers. It was a research paper for his technology class. Two lab reports. A group response paper. The list went on. His biggest complaint was that in high school, writing seemed to be something “only English teachers cared about”. So when it came to the ability to write across disciplines and in different styles, he felt completely underprepared.
A student’s ability to express themselves on paper is one of the most important college-ready skills. As someone who has read hundreds of personal statements, it’s always a challenge when I have an amazingly charismatic, engaging student who cannot write an essay. Or an email. As Joe mentioned in his blog post, professional communication is so important in college (and life!).
Sure, I love helping students complete multiple drafts of their college essays, but I know that the process of writing the college essay does not reflect the reality of writing essays in college. They won’t have a team of people eager to help them with organization, spelling, and grammar. They won’t be able to submit drafts of every single paper they write for in-depth proofreading and feedback. It will be up to them to proactively seek out that assistance.
“No one tells me what to do.”
That independence that most of our students crave looks great in theory. But despite how much complaining they might have done about their schedules (“Ms! I need some free periods!”) there is something really comforting about having it all planned out for you. You look at a piece of paper that tells you where you need to be and when. Teachers notice when you’re not there. They check up on you. They hold you accountable for material you missed. It’s different when you suddenly have to juggle classes and work-study, and regular study, and the all-important social life.
Why do people go to college? When I ask that question of students, I am usually given an answer involving money and jobs and better opportunities. But a lot of my students have gone to college (particularly residential colleges) as a way to escape their lives, their communities, and their families.
College becomes this ideal that signals the beginning of adulthood, but the reality is so much more nuanced. Which brings me to the most frequent feedback.
“Teacher’s babied us - a lot”
Yes, I posted the flyer. And sent you an email. And a reminder email. And then grabbed you from lunch and made you fill out the application with me because I promised [insert CACNY friend] that I would send ten students to his leadership program.
But beyond the significant amount of hand-holding that happens in the college application process, there is a lot of pressure on high schools to graduate students and get them out the door. When students I have worked with were in danger of not graduating on time, the entire school rallied behind them. Teachers gave up prep periods to offer additional tutoring. Students’ schedules were rearranged to help them focus on core classes. They were given the opportunity to do extra-credit assignments. Everything you can think of, the school did all with the goal of helping students feel supported and of course, earn their high school diploma.
But thinking back to my conversation with Jennifer, I couldn’t help but wonder that in our quest to provide students with as much help as possible, are we actually hindering their success long-term? As educators, where do we draw the line between giving support and encouraging self-sufficiency? After all, if someone is constantly giving you extensions on a paper, how are you expected to learn the importance of deadlines? If teachers rush to help you when they notice you’re struggling, how do you learn to ask for it when you’re in a class of 300 students?
What is some feedback you’ve gotten from former students regarding their preparation for college?