From College Grads to College Advisers

college adviserAlex Withrow graduated in 2009 with a communications degree from the University of Missouri, intending to have a glamorous, jet-setting career in public relations. But after doing an internship in the field, she wasn't sure if that was the route she really wanted to take.

By chance, she heard about the university's College Advising Corps, which sends out a group of new graduates every year to high schools and community colleges across the state to work as college advisers. After listening to three advisers who were passionate about their jobs, Withrow decided to enlist.The result? "This was a godsend," she says. Now in her second year as a college adviser at Salem High School, Withrow has decided to change her career path and go for a master's degree in higher education. "This was supposed to be a growing period for me, before I went into communications. But I'm so passionate about education now, and my future career goals are now clearly defined in that area."

Many high school students don't get enough help when it's time to choose a college. According to a 2002 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, there's an average of one full-time guidance counselor per 284 public high-school students. With all the government budget cuts, that ratio has probably increased.

In 2007, the National College Advising Corps (NCAC), headquartered at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, decided to step into the void. Through a consortium of colleges and universities nationwide, it places recent graduates of those institutions as college advisers in low-income high schools. It's designed to increase the number first-generation and underrepresented students pursuing higher education and getting degrees.

Salem High School is in a rural part of Missouri, and the majority of students are from lower-income families, with parents who rarely left town to attend college. Withrow, who grew up nearby, also is a first-generation college student, so she easily relates to the students and knows how to give them advice that they can understand. "The corps program is really geared for first-generation students like myself to give back," she said, "and to encourage students with the same background to follow in our footsteps,"

The national program typically works with one university in a state, which hires its own graduates as advisers. But the program plans to expand to let other colleges get involved in each state. Currently, 179 recent college graduates serve as college advisers in 219 high schools in 14 states. And while there's more interest than spaces available (180 applications for 12 spots in North Carolina schools this fall), the NCAC is expanding rapidly nationwide. It's adding 125 high schools in Texas alone next year, and New York is its next target state, with college advisers scheduled for New York City schools in Fall 2011.

"We want to expand in states where we see a high level of low-income, first-generation students," says Nicole Farmer Hurd, executive director of the NCAC.

Who is the right candidate for this program? "We're looking for good public servants with inspiration and humility who want to help students," says Hurd. "Innovative, collaborative young people who will roll up their sleeves and talk to students as well as the guidance counselor, principals, teachers and parents."

Advisers are expected to work one to two years at a school before moving on. NCAC does not want to recruit education majors. "We look at history, arts, sciences majors. We've even had some pre-med majors who wanted to give back before going into medical school."

There's no typical daily routine for a college adviser. When Money College talked with Withrow, she had just finished taking some of her students on a tour of three colleges in Springfield, Mo. Next up, she was planning classroom presentations about nursing careers and prepping for life in college.

Withrow's goal is to meet with every senior, 157 of them, twice during the school year to talk about their future plans, career goals and college applications. She also helps them with SAT prep, and meets with their parents to discuss their concerns.

One topic that she often brings up with students and parents is the choice between community college and a four-year degree at a university.

"In the past, I never considered that community college was a good option for some students. Last year, it was definitely a learning process not to push them to do a full four years," Withrow said.

"Now I understand their academic and financial needs, so I can realize what would be a better fit for them. I also make them understand how affordable college can be, and that not all private colleges are out of reach. I can show them how a financial-aid package works and why it's important to apply early. It's really rewarding when they understand the information I give them."

Withrow says that her youth is not a problem--in fact, it's a benefit. "Parents tell me, 'I'm glad you're so young because my kids will talk to you, while they think I'm an old fogey.'

"When I talk to students, I talk a lot about my and my friends' experiences in college," she says. "They feel comfortable expressing their needs. I have them call me 'Miss Alex.' " Sometimes they want to sit in my office rather than go to class, but they respect it when I say it's time to go. I tell them I can be their friend after they graduate."

While working as an NCAC college adviser is a short commitment, some of their advisers are considering job offers from high schools--to stay on as an adviser or full-fledged guidance counselor. The NCAC pay is not much, but advisers get a small bonus at the end of each term that helps pay back student loans. And an adviser position is good for those who aren't sure what field they want to be in, says Withrow.

"It allows you to be creative, and gives you a lot of leadership opportunities--like planning schedules; organizing budgets; meeting with students, families and educators," she said. "The skills you use daily can be transferred to any job. It's a great resume builder."

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