Guiding the way
Recent grads show high-schoolers path to college
By Matt Kelly
Holston High School in Damascus, Va., traditionally sends about 50 percent of its graduates to some form of higher education. This year that figure is more than 85 percent, including one accepted at the University of Virginia.
The reason for this dramatic increase is the University of Virginia College Guide program, now completing its first year. The guides are 14 U.Va. 2005 graduates who spent the past year working in nine Virginia public school districts, bringing fresh perspectives about the college and the application process to students who might not otherwise pursue higher education.
“[Being a guide has] been an absolute blast,” said Paulin Cheatham, 23, of Surry, Va., a college guide who met with every member of the junior and senior classes at Holston. The students are “very receptive. They want to go to school, but they don’t know how. I’m close to their own age, and I come from a similar place, and they think ‘If he can do it, then I can, too.’”
Of the 63 seniors with whom Cheatham worked, 53 are continuing their education, with 33 going to community colleges (and 24 of them planning to transfer to four-year colleges), 13 enrolling directly into four-year colleges and seven enrolling in vocational or technical programs including welding, auto diesel, auto body, cosmetology and licensed practical nursing.
“There is a high interest in career tracks and technical learning, such as [becoming an] emergency medical technician, mechanic or a mason,” said college guide Tiffany Meertins, who worked with 364 seniors at Halifax County High School.
Halifax students, about 30 percent of whom go to four-year colleges, are attracted to college, Meertins said, but many of them have not done the planning or the SAT preparation.
“I’ve tried to focus on the sophomores and the freshmen, to get them thinking about what they need for college,” she said.
“The guides have served as an advocate for the students, calling schools and asking questions, taking them on college visits,” said Nicole F. Hurd, assistant dean and director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, who developed the program.
Initially funded with $623,000 from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, U.Va.’s College Guide program has become a national model. Six more guides are being added this year — one in Martinsville and two in surrounding Henry County, one in Danville with two in the surrounding Pittsylvania County. Nine of the debuting 14 guides will be returning, four in the same districts, while others are changing. The same areas will be served, though not always the same specific high schools, Hurd said.
Being a guide has changed Meertins’ life, diverting her from law school to a career in education. This fall she will attend U.Va.’s Curry School of Education.
“I had thought I was going into corporate law, but this gives me a deeper sense of purpose. I could crunch numbers and make the ‘big bucks’ but at the end of the day, I think I would feel much better about kids going to college,” she said.
While Meertins will miss her students, she is taking three of them with her. A trio of her advisees have been accepted at U.Va, so she and they will be students at the University at the same time.
A key to the guides’ success is getting to know the students with whom they are working.
“Every high school student gets about 20 minutes of guidance counseling time in his or her senior year,” Hurd said. “We are trying to help the overworked guidance counselors in the local schools.”
The guides are also role models, with their own examples of difficult circumstances, or being the first generation in their families to go to college. Meertins was raised in Daytona Beach, Fla., by a single mother who stressed education.
“You almost take on a role of being a big sister,” she said of her guide work.
“The success of the program,” Hurd said, “is in the students coming to college who would not have ordinarily.”