Carolina Advising Corps continues to help high school students find right path to college

When Destiny Planter was a senior at West Charlotte High School a few years ago, she thought her college options were limited. Though her grades were solid, she said she didn’t know the difference between attending a two-year or four-year college, or how she might pay for it.

But Planter was fortunate to have an adviser from the Carolina Advising Corps named Portia Newman, who helped Planter examine all of her options for post-secondary education.

“The Carolina Advising Corps changed my life,” Planter said. “It changed everything for the better. I received the Gates Millennium Scholarship during my senior year of high school, and I didn’t even know what that was. Ms. Newman helped me apply for the scholarship.”

Thanks to that application, as well as advice Newman gave Planter about the application process, the SATs and other subjects, Planter was accepted into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she graduated in 2016 with a degree in political science and English. She hopes to attend law school in the future.

Now, it’s Planter’s turn to advise 315 seniors at Ben L. Smith High School in Greensboro about their college options as a member of the advising corps. She also encourages underclassmen to start taking the SAT and PSAT seriously and to start thinking about their college options early. She speaks to seniors and their parents on a one-on-one basis to help them explore their options.

“The reason I’m able to be so patient with them is because I’ve been in their position,” Planter said.

Helping students find their way

Since 2007, the Carolina Advising Corps has helped thousands of North Carolina students and their parents across 64 partner schools throughout the state with the college application process – how to find scholarships, how to apply for financial aid, how to find which college experience best matches with the students’ goals. The program is a part of AmeriCorps, is a part of the national College Advising Corps, which was formerly located in Chapel Hill.

Though all of the Corps members are recent UNC-Chapel Hill graduates, they help the seniors look at what college choices might suit them best, be it a four-year public or private university, a trade or technical school, or a junior or community college. They look at the various options to pay for school, as well as what a student will need to do academically to get into a school of their choice. They will even take students on tours of nearby college campuses.

According to Yolanda Keith, the program director for the Carolina Advising Corps, 68 percent of last year’s seniors among the 64 partner schools submitted at least one application to a technical school, two-year, or four-year college or university. They submitted more than 27,500 applications, and received nearly $132 million in scholarship dollars.

“Our focus is first-generation, low-income, under-represented students,” Keith said. “However, we basically partner with the school and work with the counselors and the administrations to help assist students as they navigate the path to college – help them with their applications, with their financial aid applications, with their scholarship applications, talk with their parents, engage with their teachers and faculty members – all with the goal of empowering the students to feel comfortable about the college application process.”

The UNC-Chapel Hill graduates sign up for a one-year commitment, though some of the Corps, like Ashlyn Vinson, have signed on for a second year. Working for the Corps gives the graduates valuable real-world experience and a chance to give back to their communities. After each year of service, Corps members receive an education award, which can be applied to graduate school or help pay off student loans.

“It’s a public service initiative,” Keith said. “The graduates are very much in tune with what kind of issues that are happening in our schools. They are charged with going in and learning more about those issues while helping students and supporting the schools that they serve.”

Supplementing school staff

Brian Saunders, the principal of Asheboro High School, shares his Corps member, Rachel Gentry, with neighboring Eastern Randolph High School. But even with Gentry at the school for two-and-a-half days a week, she still makes a major impact with the students, Saunders said.

“She works with us in a number of different capacities,” Saunders said. “She works with our students to let them know the deadlines for applications and for scholarships, and keeps track of where the students are in the process to complete those. This is my first year at Asheboro High School, and I asked her to help us keep track of not merely just identifying those dates, but also how the students were doing with it.”

Saunders said Gentry helps the school’s counselors, who already have a lot on their plate with other duties. He said Gentry helped the school organize a financial aid night for the parents, with laptops set up to help parents complete those forms.

Gentry helps in other areas as well.

“I asked her to put up college posters in the cafeteria that had minimum GPAs and average SAT scores,” Saunders said. “She’s got teachers decorating their doors with the colleges they attended.”

In addition, she also led seniors on tours of the campuses at UNC Greensboro and North Carolina A&T State University, and will also lead tours at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.

Saunders said the school has about 300 seniors and hopes that at least two-thirds of the class complete an application for a technical school or a two- or four-year college.

“We know that some of them will join the work force, and others will go into the military,” he said. “But two-thirds of the class continuing their education, that would be a goal of ours that we’d like to get accomplished,” he said.

College Application Week

Many colleges in North Carolina are waiving their application fees during the week of Nov. 14 as part of College Application Week, including five UNC campuses – Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central University and Winston-Salem State University.

Keith said it’s an optimal time for high school students to apply for college, because there’s no cost attached.

“College Application Week, within our organization, is almost like a holiday,” Keith said. “It’s a very important tool at our schools, and we use it as an opportunity to encourage that college-going culture and awareness. We want students to apply as early as possible and to hit those deadlines. There are students who haven’t yet applied to a school they want to attend who can take advantage of that fee waiver. ”

Saunders said his school is setting aside space in its media center for College Application Week, and will have staff and faculty at computer stations to help students during the application process.

Keith said once College Application Week is over, she and her staff will take a look at the data, such as how many students applied, which students didn’t apply, and where students applied. For the students that didn’t apply, Keith said advisers want to make sure they feel comfortable about their trajectory after high school.

For Corps members like Vinson, the experience as an adviser allows her to give back the same way an adviser helped her when she was a senior at Hertford County High School. Vinson is in the midst of her second year in the program, working with 189 seniors at Nash Central High School after she graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2015 with a degree in psychology.

As a first-generation college attendee, Vinson said money was a key consideration about where she might go to school, and her adviser helped her navigate the issue.

“It really weighed heavy on our minds, because nobody in our family had ever gone to college before,” she said. “It really was intimidating. My family saw college as something we couldn’t afford to do. But my college adviser was really helpful in saying loans were to be expected and when you think about the return on their investment, it was really affordable when you think about what you were going to get out of a college degree.”

Vinson said that while she dreamed about going to UNC-Chapel Hill, she wasn’t sure her grades would be good enough. But her adviser encouraged her.

“My adviser gave me the confidence to apply,” she said.

Planter said advisers like she and Vinson are passionate about their work.

“It’s a very good program, because I think Ms. Keith does a good job of recruiting people who are really passionate about the position,” she said. “We don’t get paid much, but we are people who actually care about the relationships we make with our students.”