Outlook 2018: Counselor mentors, guides toward opportunities in higher education
SHARON – The bulletin board in Christal Graham-Jones’ Sharon High School office is a source of tremendous pride for the 12-year college counselor.
What started as a way to map of which colleges and universities her students chose to attend, Graham-Jones used a student photograph to mark respective destinations across the country.
The bulletin board has turned into a full-blown collage over the years, now spanning almost an entire wall.
She calls it her “wall of fame.”
“And that’s not even a pinch of the students,” Graham-Jones said as her eyes scanned the board.
As a counselor and education specialist for Penn State University, Graham-Jones is responsible for mentoring students from Sharon and Farrell as a part of the Penn State’s Educational Talent Search Program – a program designed to help eligible youths complete secondary education, or its equivalent, and enroll in a college or a training program.
The effort is a 26-year partnership between Penn State and the U.S. Department of Education designed to work with students from families with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty level, whose parents have not attended college. Two-thirds of the students need to meet both of these criteria, the other third do not have specific criteria attached. The program works with more than 300 students in Sharon and Farrell and an additional 1,700 students in six other school districts across Pennsylvania.
The primary mission of Talent Search is to eliminate barriers to postsecondary education for students. The program has never had to turn a student away, and doesn’t foresee ever having to do so.
“If they come to me for help, they get it, “Graham-Jones said. “That’s what I am here for.”
Students are required to fill out a simple application with personal information and career interests to enter the program. Candidates are also chosen based on grades and teacher referrals.
None of Graham-Jones’ students are forced into the program, she said. They all want to be there, making her job easier, but putting her services in high demand.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to even eat lunch because I have students knocking on the door and peeking through the window,” she said.
The college process begins in seventh grade, with the intensity slowly building until it finally peaks during a student’s junior and senior year of high school. Most of the legwork, Graham-Jones said, comes with searching for financial aid, applying for FAFSA, and looking for grants and scholarships.
“I help with financial aid literacy,” she said. “Lots of students don’t know how to find aid, and the parents may not be educated in that area.”
“Most of the time the parents just tell me, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. You do. Help me,’” she added.
Graham-Jones admitted that her services can only take students so far. Their high-school-to-college journey ultimately comes down to the student’s will to succeed in the classroom. A 2.0 grade point average is required to get into college, with automatic admission earned with a 3.0 GPA or higher along with required SAT and ACT scores.
“You have to take care of business in the classroom,” she said. “If you can’t meet the criteria here, it’s going to be hard for you in college.”
Graham-Jones has four computers – two in her office and two in the outside hallway – at her disposal for students to use to complete the online college application process. The machines see plenty of action.
“Just today I had a student who completed eight college applications, did his FAFSA and signed up for the SAT,” she said. “And we had a parent on the phone the whole time.”
With countless hours spent preparing for one of the most important decisions of her students’ lives, Graham-Jones said that they eventually become like family.
Some past students, she said, even start to call her “Mom.”
“You develop a bond,” Graham-Jones said. “Almost like they are your own.”
And she treats them as such by giving her students, and their families, the same advice she gave to her own children when they went away to college.
Perhaps the most important advice: When you get to campus, don’t come home.
“My son wanted to come home every weekend when he first went to college, but I rarely went to get him,” she said. “Of course I wanted to, but I tell parents, ‘Just leave them there.’ They have to be able to adjust and make the transformation from teen to adult. If they keep coming home, eventually they are just going to stay home. Then you are going to be mad.”
It is all part of the lesson of learning that they can stand on their own, Graham-Jones said.
“You have to live and learn. You have to get some bumps and bruises.”
But the program goes well beyond the confines of the Sharon High School office, as Graham-Jones also takes her students on college visits around the country.
She has taken groups on visits to Alabama, Tennessee, Princeton, Rutgers and Bucknell, Slippery Rock, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and various Penn State University campuses, among others.
“We want to expose them to different cultures and campuses,” Graham-Jones said. “It’s more than just a basic overview of the college. We always try to do some kind of activity while they are there. We expose them to professors, talk to them and even try to do some experiments with them.”
Getting the students from high school to college is only half the battle. Keeping them there is the next step.
“Retention is key,” Graham-Jones said. “We give them a contact with someone on campus – someone to talk to and guide them. We don’t want to just drop a students off on campus with no contacts.”
Graham-Jones’ own experiences as a high school student applying for college is part of what makes her such a successful counselor to her own students.
Raised by her mother and grandmother, neither of whom attended college, Graham-Jones grew up in a similar situation, and had to rely mostly on her high school to help with her college applications.
“It was difficult,” she said. “The school gave me a little bit, but I had to learn most things on my own.”
But attending college was always her dream, and Graham-Jones said she sees the same quality in most of her students that she had when she first left home for college – an eagerness to take the next step and get out into the world.
“I enjoy seeing kids graduate from high school and college, and going on to be productive in society,” she said. “I enjoy when students excel. That’s my reward.”