Last night, I volunteered at 826DC to help teens with their college essays. It turned out that the essays were the least of their issues. The student I was helping turned to me at one point and said, “I’m so overwhelmed. I know I need to do this and I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t have anyone to help me.” She’s the first person in her family to go to college, she doesn’t have a guidance counselor who cares, and she feels a lot of pressure from her family to make this happen.
This interaction brought back all those feelings for me. I was incredibly fortunate to have a guidance counselor, Mr. Weary, who did so much to help me. I knew he was in my corner and he was rooting for me every step of the way. (When I didn’t get into Princeton, my first choice school, he called their admissions office and gave them a piece of his mind. That’s how invested he was!) He was a gift and I knew it.
Not everyone has a Mr. Weary so in that moment at 826DC, I decided that I needed to play that role for this student. We each took a deep breath, and we went through the online application step by step. It wasn’t difficult to explain the parts of the application; this student just needed someone, anyone, to be in this with her.
Then we got to the financial section and she got really nervous. She doesn’t want to take loans. To her, debt is a frightening prospect. And I get that, too. I started working at 14 to help my family, and then I put myself through college and grad school thanks to financial aid of every conceivable kind and a lot of part-time jobs in college. I know debt is scary though when it comes to college, it seems to be a part o every solution in which parents aren’t paying outright for college. I don’t know if I convinced her to reconsider this idea, but at least I could offer myself as an example of someone who was in her shoes and worked hard to get into and through school.
As I walked home, I thought about what I could do to help more students and parents, particularly ones who feel overwhelmed by all of it. And then I got myself caught in the train of thought that senior year is too late. Student need to have their eyes on the prize of college in late middle school and early high school. They need to learn about how to get in, how to stay in, how to graduate, and how to pay for all of it while keeping themselves healthy and sane during an insanely stressful time in their lives. Education, writing, yoga and meditation, finance, technology, and healthcare. I have all that professional experience, and I’ve been where those students are. And I know what it’s like to climb the mountain and then enjoy the view you never even dreamed was possible.
If you have ideas of how I could do more for students like the one I helped at 826DC, I’d love to hear them.