By Silvia Canales

I have worked in college and career counseling at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol in Harlem since 2001; during the past five years I have formalized the program and spent most of my time on it. In this article, I reflect on lessons learned and make recommendations to those either working in or developing college and career advisement programs so as to ensure the broadest college access and greatest post-secondary success for low-income students of color.

The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (brotherhood-sistersol.org) provides comprehensive, long-term holistic supportive services to youth ages eight to twenty-two.  Our college and career advisement aims to prepare members for post-secondary success. For some, it means entering the workforce or pursuing vocational training; for most, however, it entails  college readiness. We prepare students for college admissions and successful transitions by creating a college-focused culture.

Most Bro/Sis members are first-generation college-bound students who come from working class and/or low-income households. Too often, young people do not begin to think about college until senior year in high school. Many of our members attend overcrowded, underperforming schools and are ill-prepared to navigate the college process. To bridge this gap, we begin working with children at eight years of age through our after school elementary program. Through our Rites of Passage Program, members create chapters of The Brotherhood or Sister Sol in 6th or 7th grade and remain part of the chapter through high school; their two chapter leaders support college awareness and preparation throughout. Our After School Teen Enrichment Program serves teens 13-18 with art-based programming and curricula, including college awareness.  As soon as students enter Bro/Sis, they are exposed to a college-oriented culture. We post banners of the colleges and universities our alumni attend. On every floor, members have access to technology; there is wifi throughout the building, and there are computers on every floor.

Beginning in the sixth grade, members attend workshop series on college and career options. We encourage members to think about “what do I want to be when I grow up?” and “is college for me?” The series, which are a minimum of 4 weeks and have been as long as 11 weeks, include college tours to local CUNY and private colleges.

As the college and career adviser, I meet with seventh  and eighth graders at least once a year, and members are welcome to come talk with me as they wish. High school freshmen and sophomores meet with me at least twice a year, juniors at least four times, and seniors at least eight times, starting with a 2-week “bootcamp” prior to the start of the school year.

Until ninth grade, and even then, college doesn’t feel real to many students. We encourage ninth graders to focus on what it takes to get into colleges they might want to attend, and to map out preliminary plans.This avoids students looking seriously at their transcripts for the first time at the end of junior year, seeing low scores, and going to the equally unhelpful extremes of  “I won’t apply anywhere,” or “I’ll do really well in my senior year,” by which time, of course, it’s too late.

It is vital for me to make a long-term commitment to knowing each young person well in order to provide the most helpful advice. In their junior year, students complete a self-inventory, which I share with their chapter leaders. Members are sometimes reticent to tell me about their activities or unaware of the significance of their accomplishments. For example, one member kept telling me that there was little he could say about himself; by chance, I discovered that he had taught himself both piano and guitar. When necessary, I have in-depth conversations with  chapter leaders to learn more about members. Before coming to bootcamp, students often know only the names of colleges, sometimes because of sports teams or because these colleges recruit intensively at their high school. During and after bootcamp, the seniors research schools, and meet college reps and counselors. Students look up the academics, majors and variety of courses, resources available to students, extra-curricular activities, and, of course, how far it is, how long will it take to get home?

The application essay is, critically, the students’ opportunity to tell their stories. Getting started is frequently the most difficult part. During a summer workshop, one of the guest facilitators talks about the student’s opportunity to create a “literary masterpiece.” The transcript is one picture of the student; the essay is where students can share what is unique about them. During and after bootcamp, students read and discuss past essays, including some written by Bro/Sis alumni, and others shared by college admissions officers. We discuss and volunteer editors work with members on their own essays.

We run into lots of roadblocks in the college prep process; we’re not always successful.  Some students skip bootcamp. Some get frustrated or bored with SAT prep and don’t understand the importance of test scores to colleges that require them. One girl who had straight A’s and strong extra-curricular activities had a 1060 out of 1600 on the SAT. I encouraged her to take it again because her score would take her out of the running at several of the schools to which she was applying. She chose not to retake the exam.  It wasn’t until the spring that she realized the impact of that decision.

I help students to be realistic about where they are likely to be accepted while  encouraging them to strive to meet the requirements of schools they want to attend.  I explain to those students who are likely to be accepted only at community colleges that this can be a first step toward a four year college of their choice if they dedicate themselves to their coursework.

One of the most useful exercises is a junior year mock admissions committee. A chapter of 15 members will break into 3 groups of 5 or 5 groups of 3 to review a cross-range of simulated applications. They have to reach a consensus on admit, wait list, or deny. Each group gets the same candidates, but groups frequently reach different conclusions.

I spend a lot of time talking with students and families about finances. Often parents and students don’t focus on the cost of college as early as they should. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) now becomes available in October of the senior year. Although we hold workshops for seniors’ parents, one-on-one conversations are often more productive. However, financial aid forms are very time sensitive and time intensive. I explain the importance of the FAFSA because colleges operate on the principle that “the main financial responsibility is the parent’s.” I urge students to take advantage of scholarship opportunities. This conversation is a continuing one as it may raise issues in some households. It can be difficult for many parents to discuss questions of income, marriage legality, guardianship, and citizenship with their children.

I make sure parents and students know that if parents are undocumented and their child is a US citizen, the child is eligible for federal student aid.  Parents without social security numbers might have to indicate 000-00-0000 as their social security number. This information is confidential. Although undocumented students are not eligible for federal aid, there are state and private scholarship funds earmarked for undocumented students. CUNY/SUNY provides in-state tuition rates for New York high school graduates, including those who are undocumented. That said, families need to start saving as early as possible.

We discuss issues of race, ethnicity and culture.  Many students want to attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). They may not have thought about the advantages and disadvantages of going to predominantly white or racially mixed schools in terms of their personal goals. When they do visit largely white campuses, students may feel more or less comfortable than they expected and they respond in a variety of ways: “I can count the number of black people.” “I don’t want to be here.” “I’ll start a Black Student Union.”

We bring in alumni to talk about their experiences on majority white (and other) campuses. When we go on college visits, we connect with the Black Student Union and Latinx  student groups. On one college visit, we learned of a recent campus racial incident. Although some of our students were inclined to eliminate the school from their lists, I explained that how the college and its students had responded to the incident was as indicative  of the campus culture as the incident itself.

I coordinate with guidance counselors at our members’ high schools whenever possible. Most are very overburdened. Often, only the students with the highest GPAs interact in a meaningful way with the counselors. Students with low grades either don’t have as much access or don’t take the initiative  to meet with their counselors.

We collaborate with outside agencies to provide members with additional resources and opportunities. Some of the programs to which I introduce members such as “Let’s Get Ready” and “Next Level Learning,” assist with SAT Prep, while others, such as the Posse Foundation and Questbridge, provide members with opportunities to acquire full tuition scholarships.  Each year I nominate eligible members to each of these programs and support them throughout the selection process.If they are selected, I assist to remind students of details.

We recognize that getting into college is just the first step.  Our goal is not only to get members into college but to support them to ensure they graduate and are able to pursue careers of their choice.  For many of the members we serve, deciding on a career choice involves access. Can they see themselves doing a certain job? Do they know anyone in a related field?  In order to help our members see college as a possibility and their career choice as plausible, twice a year I coordinate organization-wide career days to expose members to a number of various professionals who look like them and/or share similar upbringings.  These professionals share their personal stories of triumph, successes and setbacks, giving members invaluable knowledge on what is possible. In addition, to remind students how their future is connected to the classrooms today, I attempt to show members a connect between higher education and income prospects.

To help alumni succeed in college, I have formalized how we continue to support members while they are on campus. Quarterly check-ins with alumni have been incorporated to Chapter Leaders’ calendars.  In addition to inquiring about how a member is acclimating to college and how his or her grades are this semester, I have developed a list of critical issues to address when contacting alumni such as: “Are you registered for next semester?” “Did you complete your financial aid application?”–a form that must be completed every year yet many forget. “Are there any financial gaps in aid this year?”

We want to ensure our alumni have productive summers, so in January we ask, “What are your summer plans?”   Throughout the year, I contact alumni about possible internship opportunities and gauge if there are workshops they could benefit from such as financial literacy and resume development.

I also engage our alumni to support current high school members.  Our annual college fair incorporates alumni participation. I invite alumni to represent their college to current members during their college breaks and to share their experiences during boot camp and through college transition workshops for our college-bound seniors.  

In sum, I believe that intensive and personalized college advising and continued support for first-generation college students are essential for enabling students to live up to their potential. The work can be frustrating and exhilarating, but it is incredibly important and rewarding.

Silvia A. Canales is a first- generation Afro-Latina of Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage.   She holds the position of College and Career Coordinator at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol and posesses nearly 20 years of experience in youth development. Silvia holds a Masters in Applied Psychology with a focus in Bilingual School-Counseling and Guidance from New York University, Steinhardt School of Education, Culture & Human Development.