Keeping Students in College: Why Alumni Champions Are Vital
As our schools’ hallways fill with new and returning faces, we still warmly think of those who now walk the halls of colleges and universities across the country. Our students are often the first in their families to attend college, and this added pressure alongside the difficulty of adjusting to the academic and social challenges of college life can be overwhelming for even the most resilient student.
Enter Green Dot’s Alumni Champions, a cohort of Green Dot teachers and counselors who provide alumni with support as they navigate their college campuses and the rigors of their first year. “If we’re serious about supporting students and transforming their lives, it’s not enough to support them for four years, cross our fingers, and hope for the best,” said Joel Snyder, Ánimo Pat Brown Charter High School social studies teacher.
Beyond Our Halls
Academic and college success are contingent upon more than just academic proficiency, but also perseverance and grit. Despite being admitted, the college preparation process can be overwhelming, especially for students who often lack experience in navigating post-secondary education systems like financial aid, pre-admissions requirements, and class registration. In a study done by the University of Wisconsin, Rob Longwell-Grice found that first generation students do not graduate at the same rate as their peers. Compared to students with college-educated parents, first-generation college students reported receiving less assistance in preparing for the post-secondary environment, feeling less supported while attending college, and lacking a sense of belonging to the institutions they attended. For example, at Stanford University, Ánimo Inglewood Charter High School alumnus Jeramiah Winston asked himself, “Do I belong here?” Despite how hard he worked to get to Stanford, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t belong. It wasn’t until he turned to his former English teacher that he began to see that he truly deserved to be at Stanford.
“As a first-generation college graduate I went through similar challenges as our students, trying to find my identity in this new place, questioning if I belonged there, and having countless questions about college and life in general,” said Iris Aragon, Ánimo Ralph Bunche Charter High School Counselor and Alumni Champion. “Similar to those we serve, my family didn’t know what college life was about or the issues I’d encounter on this path.”
In her first year as an Alumni Champion one educator learned firsthand how crucial the role is. One of her alumni at the University of California San Diego reached out to her two weeks after school started. The student said, “'I need to talk to you, I've packed up my stuff and will be driving home.” The student had quit her on campus job, rescinded her housing, and withdrew from the university, leaving her Alumni Champion shocked. Unfortunately, the student’s Cal Grant had not been processed and she hadn’t thoroughly probed potential solutions in her talks with the financial aid office. The Alumni Champion met with the student the next day and assisted the student with calling UC San Diego’s financial aid office and getting everything back into place. Fortunately, UC San Diego had not processed any of her withdrawal paperwork yet so she was able to go back the next day! Today she is in her third year and on track to graduate.
Support, Not Hand-Holding
Alumni Champions support students in their academic achievement and socioemotional development. Each Alumni Champion has a caseload of 25 alumni, they offer networking to build peer-support groups and college-readiness workshops on subjects such as class enrollment and financial planning, and regularly touch base with alumni. “Through emails, text messages, and in-person meetings, I try to keep encouraging and motivating our alumni to keep growing and working hard,” said William Heuisler, Ánimo South Los Angeles history teacher and Alumni Champion. “I want our alumni to feel supported beyond high school; and for them to know that the same people who worked so hard and cared about them while they were at school are still here and still care.” Just like Heuisler, Aragon meets with student constantly, sending them scholarship and internship opportunities they may benefit from, and sharing words of encouragement throughout the semester. Alumni Champions serve as a reminder to our students that while they have to do the work themselves, they are not alone on this journey.