February 2019

College Awareness, Dreaming and Starting Early

By Stella Maez
I am an elementary school counselor in a small district in southern Colorado. There are not many businesses and even though I love living in this rural area, those driving by might miss the town if they blink. Many of our students come from low-income families and our small town does not offer many opportunities for our students. Five years ago, I was the middle school counselor in the same district, with about 150 students in our school. After talking with my principal about the benefits of taking middle school students to visit colleges, she gave me permission. I was ecstatic about the experience our students would be able to have at this age. The norm was that high school seniors and maybe juniors were the only ones allowed to go on college group tours.
 
The following year, I was doing ICAP actives with students and getting them prepared to go on a college tour. An eighth grader approached me and said, “I don’t think I want to go on this trip with the class.” When I asked him why not, he said, “Why do I need to go to college or get a job?” I asked him, “Well, how are you going to buy cool things like cool clothes, a car and your own house?” I still remember the look on his face when he proceeded to tell me, “My parents don’t work and we are doing fine. I can be like them.” I was speechless; I had no response to his comment. I reminded him that he was still able to go with us on the tour.
 
Later, I sat in my office thinking about what he had told me. I feared he would fall into the trap his parents laid for him; their willingness to settle for less for themselves and their children. His comment bothered me for quite some time and I wondered how I could help him change his prospects. That’s when I decided to do an activity with the students where they created a dream board, a collage of things they dreamed and hoped for their future. I also realized that even though I could not change the living situation of this student, I could educate him about higher learning and how to seek it.
 
I was excited when this student decided to go on the trip with us. During the college tour the students saw the campus and what life consisted of as a college student. The guides provided a plethora of information to the students. At one point in day, I sat next to the student to ask what he thought of the tour. He said in an astonished voice, “I can do this? I can go to college, too?” I told him, “Yes!” I then talked a little about how financial aid could help him. The look on his face was priceless. I will never forget that student and that day when he realized that he could do more for himself; he could have his own dreams and his own future. My experience with this student gave me the motivation to continue advocating for career and college awareness in middle school.
 
I have carried my same thoughts about college awareness to my elementary school. My principal and I discussed what this would look like with elementary students. We decided to bring colleges to them. I paired up with the high school counselor to see when colleges would be visiting the seniors. I then called those colleges and asked if they would be able to come talk to our elementary students and provide them with a shorter, age-appropriate presentation. All of the colleges agreed and even said they would bring items to give to the students.
 
I am a firm believer that students are not too young to be thinking about their future. We as school counselors and educators need to provide these students with as many opportunities as possible to see what life can be like after high school. What are you doing in your school to provide education about college awareness? Are the seniors in your district the only ones attending college tours? How young is too young to think about post-secondary education?