1. How did you first become interested in working in the field of education?
Like many of my students, I was the first in my family to graduate from college, and my family didn't have the financial resources to help, so I worked as a nanny throughout undergraduate school to help pay the bills. I loved working with young children and really thought I could have been a preschool teacher for the rest of my life and been happy. When I decided to pursue a master's degree, my first experience with graduate teaching was with college freshmen. I was surprised by how much I loved it! I never thought I would enjoy working with older students, but I did. After I graduated, I landed a job teaching in a local high school. It seemed like a natural progression to me. Over the years my role changed, and I moved into counseling. I loved helping students prepare for life after high school, and I really enjoyed the creative aspects of teaching and developing curriculum, but I knew I wanted to have an impact outside the walls of my classroom. That's why I decided to return to graduate school and study education research.
2. Would you tell us a little more about your work in postsecondary counseling?
My first experience working as a postsecondary counselor was with The Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago. I was a college counselor and college seminar teacher: meaning, I did both one-on-one counseling with the students, and I taught a college readiness course to seniors. It was an incredible learning experience for me. Similar to my own experience, my students were predominantly first-generation college students from low-income families. However, unlike me, my students had the additional hurdles of growing up in urban, sometimes violent neighborhoods. They also were predominantly students of color. The lessons I learned from my students not only helped me become a better teacher and counselor; they helped me become a better person.
As a college counselor, it was always my goal to help my student get into the college that would give them the best chances of graduating. Choosing a college is a careful balance between graduation rate, cost, and environment. I am a big fan of small liberal arts colleges. If I had to pick between a large public university and a liberal arts college, about 70-80 percent of the time I would lean towards the liberal arts college. The support services and sense of community is just so much stronger at a smaller school. When I send a student off to a liberal arts college, I know they aren't going to get lost in the shuffle: if they need help, I can be pretty sure someone is going to notice and reach out.
3. What are some of the documents you've created and shared via Scribd, and how can these help students and their families?
Navigating the college application process can be overwhelming. Things have changed a lot in the last ten years, and college admissions have become very technical and very competitive. Finding the right college takes planning and follow-through. That's why I am sharing the documents I created and used as a college seminar teacher. I am constantly uploading documents as time permits, but eventually parents and teachers will be able to access support documents for everything from building a college application list to building a class schedule. The "Matriculation Check-list" is one of the most important documents I share. It helps ensure that a student completes all the steps necessary to actually show up on campus in the fall, something many students take for granted after they have been accepted.
4. For families who currently have a student in high school who would be a first-generation college student, what are some resources that you might recommend?
There are a lot of resources out there when it comes to planning for college. The problem I found was that they were either too broad or required too much time to navigate. Most parents don't have time to read an entire book about applying to college. I also found that for first-generation college students, these resources often avoided giving parents the unspoken truths that those of us who have already been to college know first-hand. For instance, not all colleges are created equal. Yes, there are actually lemon colleges, just like there are lemon cars. I also talk about the importance of environment and recommend families put long-term goals first when deciding if living at home or going away to school is going to provide students with the best chance of graduating. I have a series of PowerPoints on Slideshare that do a great job of helping parents get a crash course in college admissions and financial aid.
5. What are some ideas you've seen prove helpful for students when it comes to avoiding student loan debt?
Telling students to avoid student loan debt is like telling them to avoid buying a car. If you live in a major city with great public transportation or have enough money to take a cab every time you need to go to the grocery store, then sure, you can avoid buying a car. But, for most of us, buying a car is an important step in moving towards financial independence, even if it requires taking out a car loan. That car loan is seen as an investment if it gets you to work every day, right? We don't tell our kids to not buy cars; what we tell them is to buy a reliable and dependable car that will get them to work every day, and do it within a sensible budget. The same goes for student loans.
This conversation is really about long-term goals. It might sound like a lot to ask of a high school student, but really what I am talking about are those kids who already have their mind set on something. If a student is pretty sure they want to become a doctor and has the academic record to support those aspirations, then student loans will most likely be unavoidable (unless their family has the money to foot the bill outright). Getting into med school is an incredibly competitive process, so picking an undergraduate program with a strong reputation is important. For students who know they want to pursue a technical field, consider two-year colleges, and absolutely do not take out student loans. No student should ever take out student loans to attend a community college. For everyone else who is pretty sure they want to graduate from a four-year college but maybe not 100 percent sure of what the future holds, choose a college with the best graduation rate and reputation that you can get for an affordable price. I usually tell kids not to exceed the standard $5,500 student loan unless the school is top-notch. For low-income students who receive PELL and state grants, this is usually possible. For middle-income families, state schools are not always the best deal. Look to the small, private or faith-based colleges who have more liberal financial aid parameters.
What I would avoid doing at all costs is taking out personal loans for undergraduate study, and absolutely do not attend a for-profit college. All loans at the undergraduate level should be federal student loans to accredited not-for-profit colleges. I also recommend that parents do not take on PLUS loans unless they are financially savvy, understand that these loans will need to be taken out every year, and understand that these loans are not forgivable (even if the student doesn't graduate). There are loan forgiveness programs out there, but they are usually for specific fields, and most require that you work in a certain industry for a given time after graduation.
My last bit of advice is to start where you plan to graduate from, meaning that you start somewhere that offers a degree you can live with in case you aren't able to transfer. Transferring is a very risky plan, unless the student has strong family support and parents or guardians who can be involved to ensure the student actually gets (and passes) the classes they need to transfer and maintains the grades necessary to be admitted later. Life happens, and transferring is banking on the fact that the future will happen as you have planned. Rarely in life does anything happen as planned.