There are a number of things that I think about in terms of our brand. When I talk about strategies for working with underserved students, there is something that is a priority, and that comes from experience. The majority of things that we do that are researched and tested through data analytics. But as a student of color, woman, and low-income at the time, many of the considerations that I think about when working with students are the same that I considered when I was a high school student, things that I know through experience. Some of these things are researched as well, but some of these things are pretty intuitive to students with this similar experience.
1. Token. I’ve written about this before but it’s important to mention again here. The reality of higher education for underserved students is that we are always going to be seen as a token. Depending on the school, we may be a token for as long as you claim to be an alumnus of that high school. This can mean showing up in all kinds of promotional materials including events that you didn’t even attend or being asked to represent in other ways. The thing is that you learn that your value is in your disenfranchisement, not in your resilience.
2. Cashing it in. Misunderstanding your value is one thing; other people learning that your value is in your disenfranchisement makes it even worse. For students with means to understand that you are a token usually primarily means that they understand that value has been placed on you, value that they cannot attain. And folks aren’t usually nice about that.
3. Representing. People forget that these are actual people that encounter these things every day. Not everyone can withstand these encounters constantly, especially during a time in one’s life that is critical to who they will become. This is the thing that plays in the back of my mind when I work with students in creating their college list, crafting their essays, and creating their strategy for applying to colleges.
We don’t ask them to invent stories or exploit their circumstances. That’s important for students who are considered underserved and our students who are not. I think about what it means for a student to exploit themselves, to sell out, and the impacts on their professional and personal lives for the rest of their lives. And the impact on all of our lives, especially those of us concerned with making long term improvements on our communities. Folks have to feel empowered in order to do that. And allies have to understand the difference between empowerment and exploitation.
This is also a major gripe I have with other college counselors. Most go for the low-hanging fruit by supporting students in gaining admissions to schools with a 95% admissions rate, but a 5% graduation rate. Then there are those that go fishing for pain points, either inventing or over-emphasizing race in the essays and check boxes. And then there are the counselors who don’t consider finances when matching, supporting students in attending schools that would strap them with a ton of debt.
It’s what makes us different. And I’m proud of our efforts each day.
But don’t take it from me. It is important to first note that these clients are not considered underserved but they are not wealthy donors with connections either. Her son was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s selective Management & Technology program. He listened to everything that we recommended even though we pushed him to go against the advice he was given about trying to find a sob story. His essay was about understanding his privilege and what he wanted to do about it. And this is some of what his mom said to us today about the impact we had:
Thank u to your team and u for making the application process so seamless. Between his school counselor and u, it felt like he was so very well taken care of. The work that u made him do through the summer on his essays helped tremendously. Also, your approach of making him feel like he was in control at all times worked very well with him. Right from helping him to pick his shortlist to prioritizing his time, you were there every step of the way. Thank you.
The appreciation is important, but more important for us, is the statement identifying “[our] approach of making him feel like he was in control at all times [.]” I imagine what tremendous things he is going to do as he embarks on this critical period of his life feeling in control, especially after writing something where he was his authentic self. That’s what we are all about.
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