‘If not us, then who?’


Editor’s note: A version of this column was first published on Holistic College Mentor in April 2016. The author’s sister is currently in her senior year at Utica College (NY) and is on track to earn a master’s degree in health and physical education next year.

Never did I think that it would be somewhat difficult to usher my sister through the college application process. Her life had been far more complicated than mine, but she was determined to succeed. I was the first in our family to graduate from high school and college. She was inspired by that. Most of the same folks who were against my decision to go away for college supported her choice.

It was tough for her to share her story in sophomore year. She didn’t want her past to define her just as I was determined mine would not when I was her age. When she started to dig into the process, I offered very little feedback on her college list. She was always independent. I trusted her to take full charge. When I would check in with her, she would talk about how passionate she was about her list.

When February of her senior year rolled around, she wasn’t getting much feedback from colleges. I was hesitant to step in because I knew some of these folks and I wanted her to move forward without my influence. She ended up calling the schools on her own, and I’m glad she did. She almost wasn’t considered for the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at some of her favorite schools, but those phone calls secured her interviews that were happening within two weeks. One school gave her its last interview slot.

I stood in amazement at the effort she put forth. But soon, she hit a major roadblock when trying to qualify for HEOP. The schools were asking for documents she couldn’t provide because of an error our father made. But she had an entrée. When she filled out the FAFSA, she filed as an independent student because she was in foster care at one point.

Yet, for some reason, the colleges considering her for HEOP overlooked that detail. As time ticked by, I knew seats for the program were filling up. My sister was stuck. It seemed unlikely she’d be able to go away to college that fall.

I decided to reach out to someone I knew at her first choice — Utica College (NY) — to ask for advice on moving forward. Following their guidance, I proceeded to write a letter addressing my sister’s situation and provided documentation. It worked: She was accepted to HEOP at Utica. Two days later, I went with her to the school and paid her deposit.

The experience caused me to pause and reflect on my work as a college counselor. Helping students negotiate financial aid packages and acting as a bridge for those seeking admission to HEOP or other similar programs is a common occurrence. Why shouldn’t I help my own sister navigate the process?

It was my duty, I realized, not only as her brother, but as a college access professional to bridge the gap — and I shouldn’t have had reservations about it. The saying “if not me, then who?” rang even more clearly when working for my sister. Her complicated situation made me think about those students who are caught in a grey area as they transition to higher education. I thought about the ones who weren’t as lucky to have an engaged adviser.

What will their next chapter be? Will it be blank? Will it be written at a slow pace? Will it be written then rewritten? It’s up to folks like us to help students write their next chapter because if not us, then who?

NACAC member Danny Tejada is the director of college counseling at Villa Duchesne and Oak Hill School (MO). He is entering his eighth year in college access, with most of those years spent working with community-based organizations in New York City. He is the co-author of Different Families, Still Brothers. You can read more from him at his blog Holistic College Mentor. Learn more about him on LinkedIn.

7 thoughts on “‘If not us, then who?’”

  1. Danny,

    Thank you so much for sharing this and feel you on the “not wanting to step in too much” piece. I felt that way with my cousins went through this process and am grappling with it now as my oldest navigates her college search as a junior. Like you,
    I will play a bigger role because if not me, then who?!

    Great job with this and we miss you up north!

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