Michigan's College Access Blog

Breaking Barriers as a First-Generation College Student

Felipe Lopez Sustaita is the current Executive Director of the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan for the State of Michigan under the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). 

My experience applying to college:
I grew up a proud migrant farm worker. Year round I traveled to Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Michigan and
worked along with my family since I was four years old until I started college in 2001. I picked oranges, grapefruit, onions, strawberries, asparagus, squash, blueberries, peaches, raspberries, pears, tomatoes, peppers, and apples. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would end up going to college. My mind was conditioned to believe that I would be working in the fields for the rest of my life. Growing up, words and books meant nothing to me.

However, my sister Mayra applied and got accepted to Michigan State University (MSU) thanks to our mentor Mr. Rudy Hernandez, current Lansing Community College Professor. At the time, Mr. Hernandez worked as a recruiter for MSU, and he happened to do a presentation at a migrant school on a summer night event. That encounter with him changed our lives. Mayra got accepted, and my parents gave me no option but to follow her footsteps so that I could be with her. I had a 13 on my ACT, I graduated high school in three years, and I couldn’t really read and write, but Mr. Hernandez helped me obtain admissions in 2001. Now I ask Mr. Hernandez what he was thinking by taking a chance on us. I still don’t know, but I am glad that he did. To be honest, I don’t remember ever applying to college; I think my sister Mayra must have helped, but the rest is history. I earned a doctorate degree right before turning 30 years old. I am thankful to God, my parents, brothers, sisters, Mr. Hernandez, Mayra, my wife Danielle, my four sons, my Band of Brothers, and all the people who have supported me through my journey.  

My college experience and how it connects to the work I'm doing today:
College was difficult, as it was not easy when I had to start school late and leave early because my family had to follow the crops. I missed a lot of school assignments, plus I did not like school, and never really took school seriously. When I came to MSU in 2001, I had to work harder than anyone on campus to catch up academically. I slept in the library at night, worked and attended school during the day. I was used to physical work but not the mental work. My motivation was knowing that my brothers and sisters were out there working in the cold, while I was living a good life in college. I felt guilty, but I worked hard. Failing was not an option, and I had made up my mind that I would do everything in my power to survive. I took it a semester at a time.

My experiences are directly connected to the work that I do now. I am charged with advising the governor, legislature and the various state departments about the needs of the Hispanic/Latino Community. Education plays a pivotal role in the efforts we take on. For example, last year MCAN partnered with us to hold our second annual Statewide Hispanic/Latino Graduation. Over 300 people attended our event where we recognized over 73 college graduates who were earning associates to Ph.D.’s. Our office has also engaged in fundraising for scholarships, and organized backpack drives to help young students start thinking about college. 


Author: Felipe Lopez Sustaita, Executive Director of the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan 
Posted: Oct. 15, 2018

Gearing Up for Michigan College Month

Michigan College Month is part of a national initiative with the goal to provide every graduating high school senior the opportunity to apply to college and for financial aid. Special focus is placed on assisting students who would be the first in their families to attend college and students who may not have otherwise seriously considered applying to college. Michigan College Month can open the door for students by encouraging them to take the most significant steps toward college in their senior year. Michigan College Month emphasizes the relationship between applying to and paying for college and helps break down some of the most complex and commonly cited barriers to attending college.

Joan Helwig is a school counselor at Marlette Junior/Senior High School, a rural school located in the Thumb of Michigan.

This is my eighth year at Marlette where I serve about 400 students in grades 7-12. Prior to coming to Marlette, I worked as a middle school counselor in three different school districts for 20+ years.

A profile of the student body at Marlette shows that about 57% of our students qualify for free/reduced lunch, approximately half of each graduating class self-report as being first generation college-going students, and about 40-50% qualify for the Tuition Incentive Program (TIP). This profile drives many of the decisions I make regarding the career and college access services I provide.   

As the end of September quickly approaches, my focus is on planning and preparing for Michigan College Month (MCM) in October. We started participating in College Application Week (CAW) in 2013, so this has become an annual event as I plan out my school counseling calendar each year. The focus of the statewide initiative back then was on helping seniors navigate the college admissions process and having every senior complete at least one college application during a designated week in October.

Fast forward to 2018 and we’re busy planning and preparing for a month of college and career focused activities and events during Michigan College Month (MCM). While the major focus of MCM is on providing seniors with opportunities to apply to college and for financial aid (filing the FAFSA), I take advantage of the opportunity to build a college-going culture in our building by planning activities and events for all grade levels (7-12) throughout the month. By doing so, all students are exposed to “college knowledge” beginning in the seventh grade. Of course it is time-consuming to plan activities for all grade levels, but we are slowly making progress at changing the college-going culture in our building, as a result. Each year I review what we did the year before and try to incorporate something new into our plan to make it even better. Having a college adviser for the past two years to assist in the planning is definitely a huge help.

Just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes the entire staff to build a college-going culture in the building, and there is no way that I could do it alone. I involve our entire staff every year by sharing an overview of the MCM activities planned at the October staff meeting. Email reminders are sent out during the month so they don’t forget upcoming events and activities. Since all students have an English class, I work directly with the English teachers to incorporate career and college themed lessons throughout the month. I plan the curriculum and lessons for each grade level and provide the materials and resources the teachers need to present the information to their students. The month-long structure of MCM provides flexibility in our schedule to best serve our students and families.

I am so appreciative of the Michigan College Month resources and prizes that MCAN provides, and also for the networking among school counselors in the state that has resulted from participation in Michigan College Month. Many MCM ideas and resources shared through the Counselor Learning Community, spearheaded by MCAN, have saved me valuable time not having to create on my own.

Our commitment to participating in Michigan College Month will continue because ALL students are involved, regardless of their post-secondary plans. Our students who will be the first in their family to attend college and those who qualify for TIP know there’s a major effort to reach out to them during MCM. It’s a great way to “kick-off” the senior year tasks and leads into the College Cash Campaign and Decision Day, which we also participate in. The positive influence and value of MCM is evident every year when we compile the data and review our impressive results of the month’s activities.

The students and staff at Marlette Junior/Senior High School look forward to another productive and meaningful Michigan College Month in 2018!


Author: Joan Helwing, Marlette Jr./Sr. High School Counselor
Posted: Oct. 9, 2018 


Advising Two Schools, Achieving One Goal

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.

Mary Wilson is a second-year adviser who serves at Relevant Academy and Maple Valley High School (both located in Eaton County).

My goal, along with the fifty-five other College Advisers placed across the state, is to increase the percentage of Michigan residents who earn postsecondary credentials and to boost the college-going culture of the districts I serve. My experience is unique in the fact that the schools I serve are polar opposites: my week is split between a traditional rural high school and a suburban, virtual alternative school.

Within my traditional school, my college awareness initiatives are immersive. There are structured class times and lockers for me to decorate and a gym that I can pack full for our Decision Day celebration. It is relatively easy to pull our seniors together and meet with them all at once. On the flip side, my alternative school occupies the space of one hallway. Our students work individually on an online curriculum and report to school at varying times that work best for them. As a result, I have to be more cognizant of the time I have with them and more creative with the ways I capture their attention. Most of my advising happens one-on-one and our celebrations are more personal. I have more time to dedicate to building relationships with them. I’m able to collaborate more closely with the staff. This dynamic presents a unique set of rewards and challenges.

Splitting my week between two schools sometimes makes me feel like a celebrity, but more often than not, I feel like I am split in half. Ms. Wilson at the traditional school carries herself much differently than Mary at the alternative school and their days look nothing alike. My reception varies by the building and by the day. I’ve had countless programs that were a hit at one school and a flop at the other. Just like my students are ever-evolving, my tactics need to be too.

Despite their vast differences, my students are connected by one common thread: determination. They dream big. They break down barriers. They unapologetically pursue their goals, even if they are the first in their family to do so! Although I was placed in these communities as a resource for them, my students have taught me more than I could ever possibly teach them. They give me daily opportunities to spread compassion and to be selfless. They keep me on my toes. They make me laugh. Best of all, they remind me that we are in no way at the mercy of circumstance: each of our lives can be transformed with one step, one conversation, or one acceptance letter.

While serving two schools has brought double the challenges, I have undoubtedly reaped twice the rewards. The shift of the college-going culture in our communities has been tangible and I am better for having witnessed it. I’m sure many of my AdviseMI peers would say the same.


Author: Mary Wilson, second-year AdviseMI Adviser
Maple Valley High School & Relevant Academy  
Posted: Oct. 2, 2018 

Maritime Training: A Compass and North Star to Guide our Work

Local College Access Networks  (LCANs) are community-based college access alliances supported by a team of community and education leaders representing K-12, higher education, the nonprofit sector, government, business and philanthropy. These networks are committed to building a college-going culture and dramatically increasing college readiness, participation and completion rates within their community. Each year, individuals working in an LCAN attend Maritime Academy, where they undergo a rigorous, three-day comprehensive training in order to strengthen their college access strategy. 

Mark Litt serves as the LCAN Coordinator for the Wayne County College Access Network and attended Advanced Maritime Academy.

1. What was your biggest ah-ha moment?

The fact that during the “Great Recession” in the U.S., the huge masses of good people who lost their jobs were almost all workers in the “high school or less” educational category. Employment for workers with college degrees or certificates remained fairly steady and even increased toward the end of those dismal economic years. In my opinion, no other single fact so clearly highlights the critical importance of college access work and the need to achieve our goal of 60% college attainment by 2025!

2. How does your own background and experience inform you about the value of the Maritime 101 training?

After working 10 years implementing change processes in K-16 education, I can truly say that the MCAN model and staff are a breath of fresh air. Historically, when I’ve started a new project, I have either been handed several struggling legacy programs, or given no guidance at all and tasked to create all of my own programming from scratch.  In contrast, the MCAN model is a comprehensive, research-based, data-driven process that comes with great support. In addition, the MCAN staff has been a pleasure to work with and learn from. As individuals, I found them to be brilliant and committed—with a touch of humility, a good sense of humor, and a lot of fun to work with.

3. What is the one thing you are excited to implement that you learned?

Actually, I am eager to implement the complete MCAN collective impact model.  While each of its individual components provides value, the only way to reap its full benefit is to implement the model in its entirety. The asset map and data analysis are the foundational elements that really drive all of the other components. I am excited to guide our leadership team into taking a fresh pass at our county’s college enrollment and attainment data, and use that analysis to refocus the other foundational elements of our Organizational Plan (i.e. Common Agenda and Data Dashboard.) This will lay the framework for a new, high quality implementation of MCAN’s entire model in Wayne County over the next few years—a new foundation for success!


Author: Mark Litt, Wayne County College Access Network College Access Coordinator
Date Posted: Sept. 24, 2018 

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