Ceilings Into Sky

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The College Advising Corps connects high school students to higher education options across the nation and bridges the enrollment gap for underrepresented students.

Jalen Singleton a 17-year-old varsity basketball player known for his constant smile and ability to make a joke even when the chips are down, didn’t even think about college applications until the start of his senior year of high school.

“I was just kind of going with the flow until Mama hit me, and told me, ‘You gotta do this!’” he says. “Now I try to help my junior friends: ‘Y’all need to get on this. Don’t wait.’”

Singleton felt unprepared at the beginning of his own search, partly because he was. His GPA was low and his anxiety was high as he confronted the blank slate of what higher education might look like for him. There were lots of moving parts, and the clock was ticking. He’d like to save his younger buddies unnecessary stress, so he tells them, “Start earlier!”

The catalyst for Singleton’s conversion from going with the flow to being a college-search dynamo was his college adviser Thomas Hall ’16. Hall is one of Davidson’s College Advising Corps staff who fan out every year to rural high schools across the state. They are self-described “agents of change and messengers of hope,” charged with raising aspirations and college enrollment rates for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented high school students.

Advisers from the Corps served 646 high schools in 14 states this school year, and the program just got a $20 million boost from former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie. The donation kicks off a fundraising campaign to expand the reach of the Corps nationwide.

The Davidson Corps, which launched four years ago with nine advisers, deployed 17 this year.

Hall was assigned to R-S Central High School, a predominantly white and rural school in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, that draws students down the mountain road from as far away as Lake Lure and Chimney Rock. One hundred percent of the student body qualifies for free-and-reduced-price lunch.

It is a world away from Hall’s privileged prep school experience. Yet there is a common thread, one that his own college adviser showed him by example.

“He’s someone who really got to know me beyond what’s on my transcripts and my GPA,” Hall says. “He cared about finding the best place for me, and that helped me have confidence in the schools he suggested.”

That kind of personal approach with any high school student takes time and lots of energy. Weekly and sometimes daily conversations can loop widely before circling around toward the goal of matching and fitting students with schools.

Hall homed in on Singleton’s passion for sports.

“We talked about finding something he loves that would allow him to keep sports as a big part of his life and also have a career,” Hall says. Physical therapy and kinesiology emerged as strong career contenders for Singleton. From there, they started looking at schools, programs and scholarships.

Advising Corps Thomas Hall with R-S Central students

CAC Adviser Thomas Hall with R-S Central students

Near-Peer Advice

Students come in a steady stream all day long to Hall’s office halfway down a long hallway of office doors. Inside, stacks of The Real ACT Prep Guide pile up on a side table underneath a Davidson banner affixed to the painted cinderblock wall. Posters, pennants and decals from all kinds of schools around the state, region and beyond point to a world of opportunities.

“Most of the time it’s just me being encouraging and believing in them and telling them they can do it,” says Hall, a fraternity president at Davidson who spent a summer as a research assistant at Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa. His face brightens when he talks about his R-S Central “Hilltopper” students and he points to their list of acceptances like a championship scoreboard.

Instilling confidence is surely the heart of the matter. Just as surely, navigating college admissions in 2018 requires more. In a high school setting where “FRL,” for free-and-reduced lunch, is the most familiar acronym, it’s easy for ”I think I can” to turn back into “I think I can’t.”

Not on Hall’s watch.

“Mr. Hall really helped me get an idea of what I want to do and where I want to go,” says Singleton.

“Mr. Hall even sent me a reminder about my deadlines,” says Will Scofield, 18.

But first, Hall serves as a tour guide for his “near-peer” charges, through the thickets of admission-speak and acronyms.

What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT? What is a family’s EFC on the CSS financial aid forms? What the heck is a FAFSA?

If a student’s own parents didn’t go to college, all of this uncharted territory puzzles the whole family.

What’s the difference between an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s? What, exactly, is financial aid, and how does it work? How do I compare in-state and out-of-state tuitions? How much is the application fee? Can I get a waiver?

“We’ll get you a waiver,” Hall says. “They’ll get your money someday, but not today.”

Hall has to convince one mom to give up her tax returns, which her kid needs to file for financial aid. A dad with a decent job and no college degree doesn’t see the need for college at all, much less a FAFSA. (Free Application for Federal Student Aid.)

Finally, this moment of truth: Wait, what? Call some stranger in an admissions office at a faraway school that I’ve only seen on the internet? On the phone? And say what?

And along the way, the students and their families wonder just a little bit about taking advice from some college kid just off the graduation stage at Davidson.

“(Some students) don’t want to leave home. Parents are scared that their kids will never come back, and students are uncomfortable with people from outside of their own community, which is predominantly white and conservative,” says Darby Williams, a Davidson Corps adviser who works at Hiwassee Dam High School in Murphy, North Carolina.

“As a first-generation college student and a member of a low-income family, the reality of having to put myself through college initially intimidated me,” says Jennifer Griffin, a first-year student at Davidson who graduated from Polk County High in the Western North Carolina mountains. Her college adviser was a member of the Corps operating out of UNC Chapel Hill.

“I assumed that more selective schools would be too expensive,” she says. “My adviser suggested Davidson. The school’s promise to meet 100 percent of calculated financial need was a promise that reopened a door I had begun to believe was closed.”

Davidson Corps advisers are careful not to push alma mater more than any other school, unless it is truly a potential best fit.

“As an adviser, you have to see and express value in all educational options — scholarships at elite institutions, pursuing a four-year degree at a public in-state school, or committing to community college or trade school,” says Alec Rotunda ’16, a Kuykendall Scholar and Watson Fellowship winner who is serving as CAC college adviser at Mooresville High School, just up the road from Davidson.

One Starfish at a Time

Advisers work closely with their high school’s leadership, especially the harried guidance counselors. The national ratio of students to counselors is 457:1.

“I was nuts and I was never home, but I Iove my kids and they’re why I keep coming back in here every day,” says Vanessa Robbins, the guidance counselor at R-S Central. Dividing the workload with Hall helps her breathe easier, and students, too. “Thomas can take the college advising and I can take the personal counseling. We are reaching more kids in areas they need to be reached.”

Mary Alice Katon is program director for Davidson’s College Advising Corps.

“We’re not there to replace,” she says. “We’re there to enhance.”

Katon loves her “kids,” too, leading the way as each cohort of new advisers goes through summer training on campus, against a backdrop of pizza parties, Netflix marathons and midnight trips to WalMart. They bond.

And they focus on the quest for “starfish” moments in their work.

A starfish moment is the happy punchline of a parable they all know well, about a boy on a beach surrounded by starfish beyond numbering, washed up on sand that’s quickly drying under a withering sun. Intently, deliberately, he flings one at a time back over the churning surf into the life-giving water. A passerby asks him how he can possibly think he is making a difference, with so many starfish.

The boy, holding a starfish aloft, says, “It makes a difference to this one.”

Davidson’s CAC advisers are AmeriCorps members and college employees for their two-year stints. They receive salary, health benefits and an educational award each year to go toward existing student loans or further education.

Alyssa Glover with Northwest Cabarrus student

Alyssa Glover with Northwest Cabarrus student

Strength in Numbers

Northwest Cabarrus High School, home of the Trojans and in the former textile hub of Kannapolis, is half white, 35 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic/Latino.

Alyssa Glover ’17 offers an open-door policy to her students, many “on the cusp of at-risk,” she says. She focuses on building a community, for example, as a guiding force in launching the school’s first Multicultural Student Union. That esprit de corps pays off at the individual level.

“When I see that they are starting to feel more empowered to do things that will help their future because they start to believe in themselves,” she says. “I am really, really happy for them.”

Trust builds one interaction at a time.

“Coming into a community that we are not a part of and trying to help that community grow without trying to change it—finding that balance is difficult,” Glover says. “I just want to help them get there.”

It was in conversation with Glover that senior Ladeja Odum found the power to talk to college admissions officers over the phone and in person. Iyahna Wilson gleaned time management skills from her office hours with Glover. Tyrese Caldwell is pursuing dancing.

“She gave me options,” he says.

Back at R-S Central, options are up, too. Singleton has landed seven college acceptances. It’s a long way from just going with the flow in high school.

“I just want to go to college,” Singleton says, “so I can get on with the rest of my life.”

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John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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