How One Nonprofit is Helping Grads Launch Their Careers Through Helping Others

The New York Times featured an intriguing story on May 22, “Some College Advice from a Peer,” about a nonprofit organization, College Advising Corps (CAC), that places recent graduates in public high schools as full-time advisers.

The need is certainly there – state and local budget cuts have decimated the ranks of college counselors. The CAC’s goal is to “break down the social, economic and psychological barriers that keep low-income rural students from having a shot at the elite range” of American universities.

According to the article, by Anemona Hartocollis, most low-income kids rely on their parents for college advice, even though many of those parents don’t have a lot of experience themselves. As a result, lots of bright kids end up in “colleges that are less rigorous than they can handle.”

Frankly, college is hard enough – working your way through the myriad forms for scholarships, medical releases, high transcripts, dual-credit approvals, admissions – that getting no advice is sometimes better than bad or inadequate advice. As a university professor, I see it all the time. Too often, students are relying on hearsay, the limited experiences of friends or family members, or (worse) something they read on the Internet. “Fake news” is not just something found in the political arena, believe me!

CAC especially likes hiring graduates who “resemble” the students they’re hoping to help – black, Hispanic and/or from low-income backgrounds. The CAC salaries ain’t great, but there is some money dedicated to tuition loan reduction. And, by all accounts, the program is working.

The trouble is, of course, it is a very small program – with about 600 advisers in as many schools, with about a third in rural areas. There are still hundreds of thousands of deserving students who will receive little or no college counseling across the U.S.

In a perfect world, every potential college student would receive plenty of useable, up-to-the-minute advice. And because of the often dizzying class credit requirements at most universities, they would continue to receive high quality advising through their college careers.

My own university, Baylor, has a large cadre of well-trained advisers. Baylor needs them, too. The school is expensive (as are most private universities) and has an uncommon number of credit hours required to graduate – with the low end being 124 hours. That means if a student makes a single mistake in scheduling, changes majors, or even makes an error in math, I could see them an extra semester or two. This isn’t a big deal for some kids. But for others, the ones the CAC is working with, an extra semester could be prohibitively expensive.

That’s not to mention the fact that the average age of college students is rising, as more and more nontraditional students are entering college later and later. At some schools, seeing classes composed mostly of women in their late thirties with a child or two is the norm, not the exception.  These non-trad students come with their own sets of needs and advising issues.

All of that to say, God bless the CAC, but double blessings on the thousands of over-worked high school counselors who are on the front lines of American education. They deal daily with crises of health, crises at home, the wildly divergent needs and expectations of schools from dozens of backgrounds, and wide, almost insurmountable gaps in income and expectations.

You guys are the real heroes.

Being a teenager just isn’t fair!

God bless those of you who teach them.

Jazz historian, activist and author Nat Hentoff died January 7, 2016. Hentoff was an extraordinary chronicler of jazz and the men and women who created the music. He also wrote several novels, most notably two books for young adults, This School is Driving Me Crazy and Does This School Have Capital Punishment? They follow the misadventures of a fairly normal seventh grade boy and have the ring of authenticity about things like bullies, fitting in, and the inexplicable terrors of junior high. They’re not my favorite YA books – Hentoff is prone to preach from time to time – but they’re worth a read.

Hentoff’s passing, though, also put me in mind of the YA novels that have stuck with me through the decades– Sarah, Plain and Tall, A Chance Wild Apple, Tuck Everlasting, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Ramona Quimby, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMN, A Smart Kid Like You, The Secret Garden, Jacob I Have Loved, and so many others. So much so, the next day I Netflixed the Disney movie version of one of the best, A Bridge to Terabithia (2007). If you haven’t read the original by the great Katherine Paterson (a Newbery Prize-winner in 1978), the movie is pretty darn close. Treat yourself.

It’s the story of Jesse (played by Josh Hutcherson), a 5th grader with lots of problems: three bossy sisters, a brooding distant father (the great Robert Patrick), and a school full of bullies. Jesse escapes into his one love – art. Suddenly, there is a new kid in his class, Leslie (the heart-breakingly good AnnaSophia Robb), who has problems of her own (not the least of which is that she’s an outsider in this close-knit rural school). They become inseparable and, together, create the world of Terabithia.

No spoilers here, but you will love this little movie. It is full of magic and love and courage and – because the real world isn’t Terabithia – tragedy.

It also reminded me of the hardest time in my life and, from an informal poll of friends through the years, the hardest time in most people’s lives: junior high. From about 5th grade through 9th grade, nothing make sense. And your body and your emotions make the least sense of all. If you’re a guy, strange hormones are unexpectedly surging through your body. Girls become infinitely complex, unendingly mysterious alien life-forms. Teachers suddenly become authority figures. Someone has taken away recess. Mom and dad go from being your favorite people to slightly … embarrassing.

I would never, ever want to be 10 or 12 or 14 again.  For the first time – I was experiencing adult emotions in a kid’s brain, and my kid’s body was turning into a teen-ager’s body. It was baffling. It was scary. And – geez louise – it’s just not fair! No one should have to endure all of that.

After watching A Bridge to Terabithia (and yes, I cried – but it was a manly sort of tears), I was swept for time back into my own junior high days. As a Military Brat, I went to different schools in my fifth, sixth and seventh grade years. It was a long time ago, but through the fog of hazy memory, I remember a mostly upbeat kid with Coke-bottle glasses, buck teeth, and a crew cut reading voraciously, dreaming of playing first baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals, and torturously finding my way through this scary new world.

I remember that the feelings I had at the time were as real to me then as they are now. First love! First loss! First bully! First argument with my parents! But because I was a kid, the adults in my life thought I was still feeling a kid’s emotions.

A Bridge to Terabithia reminded me, yet again, that junior high kids really do feel. The loss of a friend or loved one is no less real because you’re only 11. The crazy-quilt of emotions, including something like love or infatuation, that follow when you meet That First Girl or That First Guy are no less real to the junior high kid who experiences them the first time.

When our children went through those years, our emotions careened with theirs. During those days, they were a blur of long arms and longer legs, loveable one minute, infuriating the next. They couldn’t help it any more than I could have when I was that age. I wish I had been more understanding during my kids’ junior high years. Perhaps I will be when the grandkids turn that awful/wonderful age.

God bless those of you who teach junior high. You’re doing God’s work. You may never meet a more confusing, enduring group of people in your life. But those who teach junior high year after year tell me it is worth it.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ advice to a young man

And how it can live on in your classroom

My research into the roots of black sacred music as protest music repeatedly took me to the great African American writer, educator and leader, W.E.B. Du Bois.

In his Autobiography, Du Boise closes with advice to his recently born great-grandson. Du Boise is 90 as he pens these words; his Autobiography was first published in the United States in 1968, five years after his death. It is remarkably appropriate for today, not just for May and June graduates, but for all of us: