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Growing Through Giving Back

I grew up in central Appalachia along the border between West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. While not exactly rural, my hometown was small and insulated. My mother, raising two kids on her own, struggled to provide stability and security. It was clear to me from an early age that education was the best possible path to somewhere different, but even that path presented plenty of obstacles, both seen and unseen. Seeking post-secondary education, especially in a faraway city, seemed like an irresponsibly unrealistic dream. By the time I had started my senior year of high school, I was still unsure as to how I would get into a good university or afford the education I desperately needed.

It was only thanks to the care of kind staff and faculty at my high school that I was able to complete the application for Questbridge, an organization that matches high performing students from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds with top schools. Questbridge allows students to write additional essays, lets them receive the benefits of Early Action admission, and continues to offer support throughout the application process. Finally, Questbridge partner institutions have all committed to meeting the full financial need of any student they accept. It was because of this generous assistance and commitment to educational equity that I was able to attend the University of Chicago at no cost to my family.

My experiences with Questbridge illustrated the impact that college access organizations can have with students who lack nothing but privilege. After graduating from UChicago, I decided to join the newly-formed UChicago College Advising Corps. CAC advisers work directly in public schools to guide students and families through the college and financial aid processes. While Questbridge provides exceptional support to academically excellent students, I became responsible for supporting every student at Percy L Julian High School regardless of their GPA, standardized testing, or personal goals.

The incredible young people I worked with had a desire to succeed despite the many obstacles in their path. Like most activities in modern society, post-secondary engagement has become increasingly reliant on technology. Unfortunately, Julian High School is one of many institutions that has been been unable to prioritize reliable computers and other electronics for its students. Julian and its surrounding community has also had to deal with violence and gang activity.

Perhaps most significantly, South Side residents as a whole have been on the receiving end of racial injustice and unfair stereotyping. This didn’t stop seniors from planning to become doctors, engineers, teachers, mechanics, writers, or any number of other valuable societal roles. Many of these paths didn’t require college, but they all reflected the determination held by students.

Leveraging my own personal experiences to connect with my students turned out to be my greatest chance for personal growth. At first, I was skeptical of my ability to seem understanding or relatable to the students at Julian High School. While I might have come from a first generation and low-income background in the same manner as many of them, the realities of growing up in Chicago seemed very different from my hometown. I assumed that this difference would be a significant detriment to my advising ability. How could I possibly relate to the Black experience in my own city? Where would I even begin when talking to a student about their emotions concerning gun violence? I am a white male that graduated from an elite university that now employs me. I was concerned that I would appear out of touch or uninvested in student struggles.

There were initial difficulties integrating with the community at the school, but I learned that my mindset about how I would be perceived was largely incorrect. Even if the details of our upbringings were different, my students and I had been in similar places emotionally. Appalachia is often seen as low-class, bereft of respectable culture, and a representation of outdated lifestyles and poor education. I could relate to being unfairly judged based on my origins. My area is also one of the big epicenters for the opioid epidemic, with overdose deaths and ruined lives being a common reality of the crisis. Similarly to gun violence, this phenomenon taught me the sensation of watching one’s community suffer from a force that everyone has an opinion about, but no one seems able to address. As I worked with students, I came to feel that my contributions were valuable and that I shouldn’t undersell my ability to connect through empathy.

To me, being a College Adviser is about having a job that makes a positive difference in our society. My life would be much worse if I had not received a great deal of outside help. I know what it is like to hope for a better life but feel lost when it comes time to pursue that goal. The students I work with on a regular basis have many different aspirations and plans, so I am proud to use my skills and past experiences to help them achieve their dreams. This often requires me to challenge myself due to the wide range of personalities and backgrounds that exist within a single school. However, the growth I have seen in myself and students has been well worth the effort.

The most important lesson I have learned from my work is that validating a person’s goals and life experience through simple listening is often the greatest gift I can offer them. Figuring out life after high school is extremely frustrating. Students are pressured by their parents, their school community, and their peers to make certain decisions. These influences often conflict and make it feel almost impossible to choose a direction. While my role as a College Adviser necessitates that I sometimes add to this pressure, I find that my most valuable exchanges with students come from focusing on what they want or why college is important to them. In a lot of cases, a senior doesn’t know what they want. In still more interactions, they might question if post-secondary education matters at all. Regardless of the specifics, I have come to appreciate the power of treating students like adults with valid reasons for their opinions. Even if I disagree with a decision, providing an environment where they feel respected but challenged is a highlight of my job. If my listening and feedback helps even one student lead a better life than they would have otherwise, I can feel proud of what I’ve accomplished as an advisor.