The promises we make: Does college really lead to mobility?
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.
Last spring, I realized the high school class of 2014 was born the same year I graduated from high school. I have officially turned twice as old as most of my students! I’m not normally age-obsessed but this threw me for a loop.
When I introduce myself at Options Institute trainings, I review my experience so that participants understand how long I’ve been in the field. I always say that Options was my first job out of college and that I’ve worked in college access for almost 15 years. Then I joke that they probably couldn’t tell I’d been working for that long because of my youthful good looks. The truth is I’m finally looking adult-ish; I haven’t been mistaken for a student in a long time; and I’m officially a ma’am everywhere I go. When did this happen?
Before you play me the world's smallest violin, please know that I am aware that aging is part of life. But these moments of complete lucidity are killers. Most of the time I am happily immersed in work and mommy-hood and don’t notice that time is really passing by. I might conversationally comment on how quickly time is passing but really that just means I don’t have enough time to watch my shows or finish a project. Time is truly much crueler than I realize on a daily basis.
Where does the road to college go after enrollment?
Time passes for our students too. For many of them, college is a short stint into which they cram many life-changing experiences. It’s a period of intense change that they enter as children and exit as adults. Hopefully, after college, the changes aren’t just on a personal or academic level. College is a promise of mobility. How many of us sell college to our students as a way to earn more money? We use pretty charts to convince many of our hold-outs, knowing that there are all sorts of caveats to the stats that say that college grads earn $60,000 a year. To tell you the truth, as long as I’ve been out of college, I still don’t earn that much. But, still, I use that chart with my students!
Let’s turn to my latest freak-out moment: I recently met with a former student, Angel. She finally graduated from a CUNY four-year college. I spent the first few minutes swelling with pride, as counselors sometimes do when hearing a success story. As we talked over the next three quarters of an hour, I experienced many other feelings. It had taken Angel over ten years to graduate. Many things had happened since she first enrolled which had caused her to start and stop. She had a child. Her partner had had several strokes.
Over those years, there were also some consequences of the reality we live in. She had abandoned her dream of being an artist, although she taught art four hours a week at an afterschool program. That, combined with her job as a home health aide, barely makes ends meet. Her Pell and TAP had both been depleted. Angel didn’t make enough to pay the $4000 she owed her alma mater so she hadn’t really graduated although she had the credits.
During our conversation, Angel’s positivity never waned. She still believes she can make it. We talked about the possibility of continued education, and we looked at a few jobs. At one point, she spoke of her own moment of realization. She said she’d been thinking that she had to get her life together because she was thirty, after all.
Her verbalization of that moment of realization triggered one for me too. First, I realized that some of my students have become adults and are out in the world doing what adults do—being parents and working and potentially making a million dollars more than non-college grads (I hope!). My students are not perpetual teenagers.
More importantly, at least one of my students, Angel, had done everything I had asked of her. It had taken her a bit longer than most, but she had pushed through and did it based on the promises we had all made. She had “finished” college and she was right back where she started or maybe worse off. She lived with her mom, received food stamps, was applying for more government benefits, owed $4000, and had no permanent job. Was she better off?
Striving for Success
Just as I encourage my students and my son to do, I turned this moment of realization into a moment of action. After a bit of self care and debriefing with some colleagues, I reached out to some contacts at the Department of Education for help with getting Angel some workshops she needs in order to get her foot in the door. I assigned her a few certificate programs to look at.
In a bigger way, this situation makes me really happy that Options has a Success program now. We support our students as they go through college and help them overcome some of their obstacles. As I help Angel retroactively deal with the bumps she encountered, our success counselors are helping other students proactively deal with theirs.
It also reminds me how important it is to connect our students with New York State Opportunity Programs and other support programs like CUNY ASAP. These programs help our students when we are not nearby, through counseling and tutoring.
In the end, the realization I hold on to is that my journey with Angel is not over. We’ll continue to work together until she reaches some of the milestones I promised her. I need to do my best to help my students achieve the success I’ve promised even if it means sticking it out for the long haul.
What kinds of services do you offer your alumni?