“I felt like I was completely alone in the college process when I was in high school,” recalls Elyse Bennett ’10. “My school had K-12 all in one building, and so the guidance counselors didn’t really have time to help much with college. As a first-generation college student growing up in a rural area, it was just hard…. When I graduated, I wanted to help kids who were in the same situation.”
Bennett is one of nine Gettysburg alums who have worked in the Pennsylvania College Advising Corps (PCAC), a program that recruits recent college graduates to serve as near-peer mentors for underserved, first-generation students seeking to attend college. As part of the nationally-recognized College Advising Corps, PCAC Advisers guide students through all stages of the college search and application process—from SAT registration, to campus visits, to financial aid paperwork. Their mission is driven by a national student-to-counselor ratio of 450:1, as well as data indicating that only 1 in 10 low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25 (compared to 50 percent of students from high-income families).
While college access has been part of the national dialogue in urban areas for some time, only recently has this conversation expanded to rural America. Since its inception, PCAC has focused its efforts on rural, low-income schools with low college-going rates, and it currently has 13 advisers placed in 14 high schools in 6 Pennsylvania counties. The Advisers’ presence in these schools is not only helping to change perceptions about higher education in these rural communities, it’s also changing the way Advisers, themselves, think about their work.
“PCAC has changed my entire outlook about higher education,” said Unique Patterson ’10, who served as an Adviser after graduating and now works as an admissions counselor at Lebanon Valley College. “Coming from inner-city Philadelphia, I understood the difficulties of college access and availability for urban students, but working for PCAC made me aware of a population that I had little to no experience working with: our students in rural areas. The more I think about how confusing and frustrating the college search process is, the more I realize that all students should be supported and informed about postsecondary options.”
Briana Stetler Legerlotz ’13 had a similar reaction. Having had her parents’ informed support during her own college search process, she has—as she says—“caught the college access bug” during her work in the Corps.
“Getting into and through college is challenging for everyone,” she said, “but the experience and thought process can be so different—so much more overwhelming and seemingly unachievable—to students who are the first in their families to go to college, who come from a town where most of the adults didn't go to college, or who think that they will never be able to afford college. Working as a College Adviser has created a paradigm shift in my thinking, and has inspired me along a career path I hadn't even known existed previously.”
Gettysburg has been a partner in the program since 2009, and joins Dickinson College, Franklin & Marshall College, and Millersville University in supporting PCAC’s work. Gettysburg’s long-standing relationship with PCAC has had a positive impact on the College, as well—and has enhanced collaboration between Gettysburg’s Admissions Office, the Center for Career Development, and public schools in the region.
“The Advisers’ work is invaluable to the schools and students that they serve—and vice versa,” said Associate Director of Admissions Mary Wilkes Smith ’00. “PCAC has allowed us to have stronger connections to the schools within our local area and in locations where we traditionally might not see applicants.”
This fall, the College will welcome two new students who found Gettysburg through the program: Emily Nguyen ’18 and Shelby Trail ’18—both of whom are the first in their families to attend college. Nguyen’s and Trail’s stories resonate a common theme heard by college access counselors across the country.
“I’m the first child out of my family to go to college, so my parents were not really sure where to start,” said Trail, recalling her first visit to campus as part of a trip led by her College Adviser. “I knew as soon as the bus pulled in that Gettysburg was my first choice…. My Adviser encouraged me to apply Early Decision, helped me stay on top of loans and deadlines, and explained the large sum of paperwork I was given. Without her I would have been seriously lost in the whole process.”
“My adviser informed me about scholarships, grants, and the FAFSA—three things I didn't even know existed,” said Nguyen. “If I didn't meet with Ms. Wright, college would have simply been a dream.”
Posted: Thu, 31 Jul 2014