Stepping Outside Social Work: A Year of College Advising

AdviseMI is an initiative of the Michigan College Access Network that works with AmeriCorps to place recent college graduates in Michigan high schools with low college-going rates. The advisers are trained to help students navigate the complex college exploration process, retake college admissions tests, apply to colleges that are a good match/fit, complete the FAFSA, secure financial aid, and matriculate to college.

Mara Casado is a first-year adviser who just completed her first year of service at Hastings High School.

As a graduate of Calvin College with a bachelor’s degree in social work, I was looking for a job that would allow me to gain meaningful skills and experiences before starting graduate school and begining my career as a social worker. I came across the AdviseMI AmeriCorps position and knew that dedicating myself to serving my community through supporting students in their college readiness efforts would be a valuable experience. My role as an adviser is to increase the number of high school students who start and complete postsecondary education. On a day-to-day basis, I get to meet with individual seniors to help them craft their post-high school plans, apply to colleges, complete the FAFSA, fill out scholarship applications, and help them understand the crazy-confusing college world. I also plan college-related events, give presentations for each grade, and support the counselors in various ways.

As my service year comes to a close, naturally, I’m feeling quite reflective and slightly sentimental. In the last 10 months, I have developed a lot of skills and learned a wide variety of new things and met so many amazing advisers, counselors, teachers, and other advocates for college access. I have been blown away by the dedication and passion of the staff at my school and the work being done by organizations like the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) to increase access to higher education for low-income students, first-generation college students, and students of color. I have been equally amazed by the students I work with every day, who, despite sometimes needing to be gently nagged multiple times to complete the FAFSA, are also incredibly smart, kind, and determined, and are breaking down many barriers to get to college - and I am honored to have even a small role in their journey to success.

Through my service, I have learned two big lessons. First, effective collaboration. Each workplace environment is different, and our school sites are no exception. I’m at a school where collaboration is expected and I receive supervision for most of my tasks, but other advisers may be at schools where they’re working more independently on tasks without much supervision. There are pros and cons to each, and while I am grateful for the amount of support I receive from teachers and staff, I did need to learn very quickly that timely communication, building relationships, and flexibility were all a key part of success in my role. Second, the importance of knowing a student’s story. Once upon a time, I was a social work major. I spent much of my undergraduate career learning about the impact of a person’s environment on their psychological, social, and emotional wellbeing. I knew the importance of a person’s environment, but I developed a deeper understanding of this in my role as an adviser. Each day I am reminded that a student’s home environment can seriously affect their behavior, academic performance, self-esteem, and even their motivation to consider college. Recognizing this and giving students both the space to focus on their pressing needs at home, and the encouragement they need to pursue their plans for after high school, plays a pivotal part in my relationships with students.

Through this journey, I have also encountered some challenges. The biggest challenge has been learning patience. I’m someone who loves seeing immediate results, and although I do see the immediate results of students getting scholarships or college acceptances, it took time to see the results of a growing college-going culture in my school. Building this culture is not a quick process and there is often community pushback on our efforts to promote college for all students. This stems from a lack of understanding of what college is and what it isn’t, but my supervisor and I have worked to push the recognition that college is not just a four-year university. There are many paths to earning a postsecondary credential. We are seeing slow, but positive changes. So we keep pushing. Because the work we do at an individual and school-level is the foundation of the work that’s done at the state-level, and we need people at all levels to “get things done” for college access.

Author: Mara Casado
Posted: June 18, 2019



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