#NACACreads Author: Access and Success for Low-Income Students Starts with Understanding

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hold_fast_to_dreams_pb_350It takes more than generous financial aid packages to get first-generation students to and through college.

Make no mistake: Monetary support is crucial. But college counselors on both sides of the desk also need to understand the structural inequalities that define the lives of many low-income teens.

That was the message author and public school counselor Joshua Steckel shared with participants during Wednesday’s online #NACACreads chat. His book, Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, follows 10 young people from New York City as they apply to colleges and go on to pursue higher education.

Early on in the discussion, Steckel (who co-wrote Hold Fast to Dreams with Beth Zasloff) named some of the challenges his students faced during the college admission process.

Housing insecurity, a lack of access to technology, responsibility for family members, and limited resources — “even for the littlest things” — topped his list.

“Too many students (are) living life uphill,” he noted. “…Moving forward always takes extraordinary effort.” As a result, he said, too many students believe college isn’t a choice for them.

During the remaining portion of the hour-long Twitter chat, college counselors and admission professionals from around the globe shared strategies to help underrepresented students navigate the application process, and eventually, find success on a college campus.

Advice included:
• “Be proactive with students. They may not know the questions to ask. Remind of deadlines, touch base often. Be there.” — Jillian Hiscock, national partnerships manager, College Possible (MN)
• “Colleges can offer trips to campus focused on first generation students explaining their resources and what to expect.” — Mia Bradford, college access professional (TX)
• “If counselors had a similar experience in college, it’s important to share your story. The real connection is critical.” — Yolanda Norman, founder, FirstGenCollege Consulting (TX)
• “Be honest about the options. If a school is too expensive/not a good fit, help guide students to a better fit. Don’t trap them.” — Steve Jenks, admission counselor, Ithaca College (NY)

As an added bonus, two of the students featured in the book — Mike Forbes and Abigail Benavente — joined the chat. Forbes now works at Skidmore College (NY), his alma mater, and is pursuing a graduate degree at SUNY Polytechnic Institute (NY). Benavente is a recent graduate of Hunter College (NY).

Both were the first in their families to earn a college degree. Forbes struggled with homelessness as a teen, and health concerns created barriers for Benavente.

Despite those challenges, both Forbes and Benavente said the support they received from caring adults like Steckel kept them on track.

Being the first in your family to graduate from college is a huge undertaking, Benavente told #NACACreads participants.

But, she added: “It’s a sacrifice you are willing to take when the people you count on show you how far you can get.”

Read the full chat transcript.

Admitted writer/editor Mary Stegmeir welcomes additional comments and story ideas at mstegmeir@nacacnet.org.

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