Serving the Underserved in Puerto Rico

Dr. Maria Rosa Bruno, University High School – University of Puerto Rico

by Celeste Suris-Rosselli, Baldwin School of Puerto Rico

It has long been acknowledged the inequity that exists in the public school system, a fact that could not be more true of the public school system in Puerto Rico. Not tied to property taxes or limited to geography, the public school system on the island was centralized upon its inception to provide more consistency in access and instruction. Decades later, the centralized system continues to face significant decline.

It was the disparity of the system that inspired DJ Meehan, Director of College Counseling at Saint John’s School, to seek out SACAC’s support. Together, we pitched the first Mini-Camp College event held in August of 2019. With the support of current and past SACAC members Giselle Martin, Karen Vargas, Joe Latimer, Claudia Marroquin, Jimmy Suarez, Yamilette Medina-López Danita Salone, Carolina Echevería, Marilina Matta, Claire Oxford, and Jessika García we held two mini-camp college sessions. We were excited and looking ahead to Mini-Camp College 2020 but the pandemic paused our plans. This allowed us to see how we could improve on the program’s initial success.

Enter Dr. Maria Rosa Bruno.

Mari Rosa is the heart of the college counseling department at the University High School, the laboratory high school for the University of Puerto Rico(UPR). This public school serves about 500 students from 7th to 12th grade, and it offers dual enrollment courses as part of the college preparatory program. UHS was created so that the students in the university’s education department could do their practicum and develop new ideas, launch projects, and conduct research. Prospective students must pass a rigorous battery of exams similar to the college admissions process of the UPR to gain admission, making UHS one of the most competitive schools on the island. Notable alumni include two former mayors of San Juan, Hector Luis Acevedo and Carmen Yulin Cruz; current coach of the Boston Red Sox, Alex Cora; and celebrated Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos.

DJ and I knew Mari Rosa for years as our paths crossed at dozens of counselor events. As we looked to expand the program, we knew that Mari Rosa would be an essential ally.  Though not a member of our organization, Mari Rosa has long felt the support of members. Karen Vargas, Mario Silva-Rosa, Marie Nocella, and Julie Maloney took the road less traveled and helped her increase the number of students who pursue their education in the mainland.

It was this experience that led to Mari Rosa joining our team, and for the past year, we’ve met to plan the next phase of Mini-Camp College. This newfound partnership with UHS and the UPR’s education and counseling departments will help us expand our outreach to students like those at UHS and other underserved communities. Together, we want to broaden their access to public schools on the island and expand their recruitment efforts, as well as connect with them and their families.

Colleges can start to bridge this divide by learning more about how the system works and what college options students have available. The island has a strong college-going culture, but finances keep many students from going away when more affordable options are available to them within our state and private college system. The PAA is a College Board entrance exam similar to the SAT and used for admission in Puerto Rico and at Fordham University, NYU, Bentley University, Assumption University, University of Connecticut, University of Texas at El Paso, and Temple University.  In PR, students in the public school system take the PAA for free twice before their senior year, and on average, 2,000 sit for the SAT while close to 30,000 take the PAA.

Community-based organizations like the Kinesis Foundation and their Bright Stars program have made inroads in offering students in underserved communities guidance during the college search process. Community programs like Caminando Con Caimito and POSSE’s new partnership with Bard College and the Lin-Manuel Miranda Foundation hope to increase mainland college-going rates.

Getting to know the PAA, the history of the public school system, and connecting with counselors like Mari Rosa are key ways our organization will be vital in opening doors to students in Puerto Rico.

The Facts and Feelings of Choosing Your College or University: Tips

Bryan Rutledge, Director of College Counseling, Woodward Academy, College Park, GA

If you are a counselor trying to help students make college decisions this spring (or summer), we hope you will find these tips helpful to share with students!

The waiting is finally over, and you know your admission results. Congratulations on the acceptances you have earned. In addition to meeting all your academic, co-curricular, and family obligations, you have been welcomed to college or university communities and your path to a bright future. Now you get to choose; but how do you go about it? Here are some tips, and of course, remember you can also consult your college or school counselor.

1. Decide about any waitlists and focus on your options.

If you are on a waitlist for admission, follow any directions to reaffirm interest should you wish to pursue it. Then, set the matter aside and focus on making a choice among the available options. If you decline a waitlist offer, you might create an option for someone who would like to have it. You can withdraw your application to any school where you have been wait-listed or admitted and are no longer interested. Think of those who will benefit from your anonymous gift.

2. Be creative about researching colleges and universities.

Not being able to visit colleges and universities in person is a hassle, but there are work-arounds. Some are offering visits by appointment, and others may do so in the near future. Virtual tours and admitted student online events can help as well. Reach out to current college students to get a diversity of opinions. You can contact the administrators and student leaders in identity and affinity groups (sometimes via social media) to learn what campus life is really like and what kind of community resources are available. Some colleges and universities are extending the May 1 enrollment confirmation deadline, creating more time for you to research and weigh your options. Stay in touch with the undergraduate admissions offices via their websites. Most have admission reps designated by territory. Email this person with your questions or concerns. Don’t hesitate to reach out and pose questions to admissions and financial aid counselors and to follow up with them. They want you to enroll and are eager to help.

3. Weigh your options and lean on your wise advisors.

Ask yourself, “What is the current state of my interests and plans, and have they changed, or have I changed, in the past year? What do I think now about the size, cost, diversity and inclusion, distance from home, academic and career opportunities, co-curricular life, virtual or in person learning, and surrounding community of my college or university options? What kind of residential life suits me, and are learning/living communities available? Would more research lead me to a destination that will feel like a second home? Am I choosing based on vague reasons or thoughtful analysis?” Some students organize the pros, cons, and offerings of each college or university on a spreadsheet. Also, now is the time to turn to the wise advisers in your life. Instead of asking them where you ought to enroll, consider asking, “Would you describe my strengths and interests?” You can take it from there.

4. If you’re undecided about your college major or college life, reach out directly to professors, administrators, or college students.

Many students are undecided about their major or career, and that’s fine. At the same time, you’ve probably narrowed it down or have combinations in mind, and that’s all you need to launch your college major research. But how do you get started? Email your admission counselor or just email the academic department(s) at your prospective school. Ask if you can communicate with a professor in your preferred field of study or an upper-level student majoring in that field. These conversations could be game-changers.

5. Check in with the Career Planning Office.

One of your most vital resources is the career planning office. Call or email them as well, tell them the majors/minors that most interest you, and ask what they can do to guide and assist students with your particular interests. What are their services for internships, alumni networks, popular companies that interview, summer jobs, interest surveys, resume and interview services, and career/professional school placement? Estimate all the time and money you and your family will invest in your undergraduate experience. After you have caught your breath, ask yourself whether your outcome in four short years is worth some college major and career planning. You should build a working relationship with your school’s career planning department no later than your first semester.

6. Consider how you’ll finance college.

Let’s introduce the elephant in the room: Money. Money isn’t everything, but it’s very important. Choices you make now will profoundly affect your future financial life. Low interest college loans can enable futures that would otherwise be out of reach. At the same time, consider that, in 2019, the average debt for Georgia college graduates was more than $28,000. Consider the impact of debt on your early career and what it will mean for your lifestyle, freedom, and graduate or professional school choices. Ensure that you thoroughly understand the details of any financial awards; if you’re not sure, reach out to the financial aid office. If you have been invited to a school’s honors program, contact the program director to learn about all the enrichment it provides. If you haven’t been invited, find out how you might earn your way in after enrollment if that looks appealing.

Once you have enrolled and gravitate toward your academic major(s), speak with professors about departmental funds that could enhance your learning. Perhaps you could become a tutor or research/technical assistant. (What a terrific way to network with faculty!) After your first year, student jobs may open in the residence life office. Be creative: If you can construct a website, whip up tasty pastries, or bench press a car, you can make money. Also, consider the potential earning power of your college major. If you are planning a major in the humanities, social sciences, or fine arts, that’s great; yet it might be a good idea to consider adding a minor or double-major in something like computer science, business, natural science, or communications. The good news is that colleges and universities are more flexible than ever at helping you tailor your undergraduate experience to your particular needs and plans.

7. Keep going, and keep your sense of humor.

While these tips are a good starting place, there is so much guidance available, including recommended reading.


General guides:

The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together by Brennan Bernard and Rick Clark; There Is Life After College by Jeffrey Selingo; Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be; and Colleges Worth Your Money by Belasco, Bergman, and Trivetto.

Remember, these simple words will see you through many challenges: Own your education, keep up, and keep a sense of humor!

Community Based Organization Spotlight: The Peer Power Foundation (TN)

Sydney Olojo, Director of Storytelling, Peer Power Institute

The Peer Power Foundation (Memphis, TN) is a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains high-performing college students to deliver high-dosage tutoring and mentorship in public schools. The organization launched in 2005 as a unique student-to-student tutoring concept at East High School, hiring 40 high school honors students to tutor and mentor their peers. This inaugural effort led to better academic performance, increased school involvement and increased motivation from students. This has led to what Peer Power is today–a tutoring-mentoring program that has served more than 28,000 students to date. The tutors, now called Success Coaches, are high-performing, compassionate college students who have strong subject-content knowledge. Peer Power provides Success Coaches with competitive wages, flexible schedules, internship credit opportunities and essential life and job skills. The organization aims to improve the lives of the diverse talent who help carry out the mission of inspiration and empowerment. From learning how to design and deliver educational content to developing interpersonal skills that navigate classes in-person and online, Success Coaches build impressive resumes for future opportunities.


Peer Power partnered with the University of Memphis and Shelby County Schools (SCS) beginning in 2015. The program now employs 131 Success Coaches who are placed in classes to assist an assigned teacher with lesson design and delivery. Through consistent high-dosage tutoring, Success Coaches offer more individualized learning experiences and provide immediate attention and feedback to students. Peer Power also offers other opportunities for SCS students, like test prep instruction through an ACT Prep University program where more than 4,500 students have been served. On average, students who attend the full round achieve a 3.4 composite score increase. Peer Power also partners with The University of Memphis Office of Admissions and Financial Aid to give students who excel in academics an exclusive recruitment experience, orienting them to college life with access to counselors for student and parent questions. Since the start of this program, there’s been an increase in enrollment to the University of Memphis from partner school students.


In 2018, The Peer Power Institute was launched at the University of Memphis to work with leadership in different academic departments to coordinate development, gather data and improve the quality of services. Through partnership with the University of Memphis, Peer Power also provides a comprehensive, paid internship experience. There are multiple options for students entering the internship program, including job and course credit opportunities. Additionally, the Peer EmPOWERment Fellowship will launch at the University of Memphis in Fall of 2021; incoming freshmen will have the chance to take Peer Power staff-led courses. There they can earn a competitive wage as a Success Coach, take academic courses to better prepare them for their role as tutors and mentors in SCS classrooms and attend monthly personal, professional and leadership development training. Peer Power’s vision is to create a world where all children are provided the ability to learn and grow regardless of their zip code, and the passionate college students Peer Power works with make positive change possible.

School Counselors Reflect on SACAC Professional Development

Amy Short, School Counselor at South Forsyth High School in Cumming, GA, and Meg Scheid, School Counselor at The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, & Technology in Lawrenceville, GA, sum up what SACAC wants to provide for school counselors – resources and support for college access counseling:

My SACAC membership has been everything to me, and I am continually promoting membership opportunities to fellow public school counselors. I am at a large, public, suburban high school, and the demand for knowledge and student support for the college research and application process is often more than we can adequately provide. As a SACAC member, the professional development offered at the annual conference, Drive-In Workshops, and webinars has allowed me to gain valuable information that I can then quickly share with my families.” -Amy Short

“ALL of my college and post-secondary option knowledge comes from SACAC. And it comes from both the professional development offerings AND the informal connections I make within the membership. I feel confident talking to my students about their options after high school when I get the information directly from the source. SACAC keeps me informed about the post-secondary world so that I can properly advise my students.” -Meg Scheid

SACAC strives to equip school counselors with strategies and resources that can help them find information quickly and effectively. Listed below are several future events that can help school counselors stay up to date with the changes that are occurring in college admissions:

February 6th, 2pm-3pm: Mini Camp College: Mini Camp College is a free, interactive, and informative college planning workshop designed for high school students from underrepresented and underserved populations. College admission professionals from institutions across the country will lead workshops designed to help students navigate the college application process. The topics will include: The College Search Process, Types of Colleges and How to Determine the “Right Fit.”

February 10th, 7pm-8pm: Mini Camp College (this session is a repeat offering for the event listed above). Two sessions of Mini Camp College are provided to allow as many students/families to attend as possible. Please only register to attend one version of the event.

Here’s what Anna Graham from Hardin Valley Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee had to share about Mini Camp College: “This summer’s SACAC Mini Camp College webinars posted on YouTube were great resources and gave me just what I needed to begin my year with confidence in these uncertain times. I feel better prepared about my work, and being able to lean on the professional experience and information from these webinars, students and parents were reassured that we are all in this together to adapt to the future.”

February 11thSACAC Virtual College Fair: All students are welcome to attend.  A virtual college fair allows colleges to share brief presentations about their college in a virtual setting. Students and counselors attending these sessions are able ask general questions of all the colleges in the session or to ask questions of a specific college. With the COVID pandemic impacting students visiting college campuses, this is a great way to interact with college admission officers without having to travel.

Our Spring Webinars are great opportunities for counselors to learn more:

February 18th 12pm CT/ 1pm EST: Highlighting HBCUs

March 18th 11am CT/ 12pm EST: Women in Leadership Panel

April (Date and Time TBD): Preparing for a Virtual SACAC Conference

May 20th 11pm CT/ 12pm EST: Test-Optional Best Practices

April 19-21: 2021 SACAC Conference

The SACAC conference will be virtual this year and is free for all current SACAC members and all public school high school counselors, HBCU employees, and representatives from community-based organizations who are not currently members. Stay tuned as registration will begin in February, 2021.

Need financial support for future SACAC Professional Development?

Apply for the Counselor Participation Fund– The deadline to apply for the Counselor Participation Fund is Friday, February 12, 2021. If you are interested in receiving funding from SACAC for professional development, now is the time to submit your CPF application! As a reminder, the SACAC 2021 conference is free, but CPF funding can be used toward other SACAC programming, such as Summer Seminar, Sweet Tea Tour, or Dry Run. Additionally, members can utilize funding toward the NACAC Conference in September 2021. Please reach out to Laura Metzler or Julie Moloney, Co-Chairs of the Counselor Participation Fund, at, if you have any questions. Take advantage of this wonderful opportunity from SACAC to grow professionally!

Challenges, Triumphs, and Advice: School Counseling During a Pandemic

As we continue to make our way through National School Counseling Week, we wanted to bring to light some of our very own school counselor SACAC member voices! From student support and success to college and career counseling and everything in between, our high school counselors this past year not only continued to serve their students, but they did so while navigating a virtual and remote world. We wanted to get an inside look at what some of our school counselor members have faced during the pandemic. We share below their challenges, their triumphs, as well as advice to other counselors.

Challenges & Triumphs

Engaging with students who have chosen virtual learning is a big challenge and requires some creative planning. Additionally, the financial burden that COVID has placed on families is intense; many of the virtual students are working long hours at a part-time job after school or taking care of younger siblings while trying to do their school work because parents have been forced to pick up extra shifts or work multiple jobs. They often don’t see postsecondary education as even an option, so my challenge is to help them find a way.

  • Sarah Bast | West High School

It’s probably easy for all of us to list the challenges! It’s been really tough conducting mental health support through digital learning. Zoom meetings just don’t offer the same type of support, though we are all finding ways to improve. It has also been very difficult to help students with their study skills, organization, and motivation when we have never had to “guide them” through a pandemic before! Students are really struggling with digital learning – especially for students who thrive in an environment where projects, discussion, and debate drive the learning. For small victories, I love that our alumni have been joining us on virtual “hangouts” with students. They are connecting more with our current students because the virtual world opens up all sorts of opportunities. We offered sessions that gave our graduating seniors the chance to talk about “real life” with GSMST Alumni. We also have more GSMST Alumni now getting involved in our Partnership Program, because they can offer presentations, live chats, and even mentoring for projects through the virtual setting.

  • Meg Scheid | The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, & Technology

I love to use technology and social media tools to communicate with students and parents. However, this school year provided an even bigger opportunity to lean into that love, expanding my knowledge of technology and social media in ways I never imagined. I have learned how to record workshops and seminars and have started the HVA College and Career Youtube channel, so students and parents have an opportunity to gather information when they need it the most.

  • Anna Graham | Hardin Valley Academy

Navigating my first year as a school counselor amidst a COVID world has been quite a whirlwind! I interviewed for my current position and was hired all during the mandated stay-at-home order period last year. Each day I come to work, I am learning that things are having to be adapted and changed in order to fit this school year and the challenges that COVID brings. Our county has offered both in-person learning and digital learning, so it has been interesting to learn how to support and counsel these students at a distance. One great part about being new to the profession this year is that it seems like everyone is a “first year” this year, so I don’t feel so alone in this learning process. Even though my students’ worlds have been turned upside down, I get to celebrate victories every day when my students get into college, make a sports team, or get hired for a job they really wanted! I’ve found that COVID has made us appreciate the small things more, and I hope I never stop appreciating the work I get to do and the opportunity I have to help others.

  • Mackenzie Molter | North Oconee High School

Students have opened up about their feelings more since interactions with their peers are limited.

  • Briana Duncan | Maynard Jackson High School

The COVID challenges I have faced as a school counselor this year have been many. For instance, one example is the higher numbers of failing grades. Our students have been somewhat disconnected. This is particularly concerning when you are trying to help students earn their diploma. In addition to this, the fluidity of students being virtual one day and then in-person another due to the need to quarantine has made our jobs very difficult when trying to schedule conferences, and addressing grades and behaviors.

  • Anonymous

Advice As We Move Forward

We always try to do the best we can. And right now, the “best we can” won’t be our best at all. Show yourself some grace. (And find great peers that support you when you don’t listen to your own words…LOL)

  • Meg Scheid | The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, & Technology

We will get through this – the students need our unwavering support so we need to stay positive for them.

  • Briana Duncan | Maynard Jackson High School

As a first-year counselor, I just want to say thank you to everyone in this field that has continued to help out new hires despite all the new challenges that have been thrown your way. When I started my graduate program, I never imagined I would begin my career in education during a global pandemic, but it has forced me to grow and learn and adapt, and I believe it has prepared us all to be better educators. Even more exciting are the hopeful educators that will continue to come behind us, so don’t forget that there is always someone looking up to you! Whether that be an intern, an undergraduate student confused about what they want to do when they finish school, a grade school student, or even a parent, let’s continue setting a good example and never hesitating to share with others why this profession is so special.

  • Mackenzie Molter | North Oconee High School

Stay open to new experiences, and be sure to take time to reflect on how you’ve grown over this school year. At the beginning of the spring semester, I took a moment to look back and reflect on the beginning of the fall semester; I was surprised to learn how much I have adapted to the challenges we face. No matter how long we have been in the profession, change and growth is possible!

  • Anna Graham | Hardin Valley Academy

Listen to your students, learn what they need and want….it will look different for every student. Teach them to believe that postsecondary education is possible whether that is an apprenticeship, technical school or 2/4 year college.

  • Sarah Bast | West High School

Thank you to the school counselors who were able to participate in our survey for National School Counseling Week, and for all school counselors continuing to serve their students tirelessly as we continue to move through the pandemic.

We encourage you to tune into ASCA’s webinar tomorrow on School Counselors Respond to COVID-19 at 2pm EST via Facebook Live or ASCA on Air.

A Glimpse Inside YES-Appalachia in North Carolina

Rebecca Figueroa (she/her), Operations Manager, YES-Appalachia (NC)

Tell us about your program and what you do:   

YES-Appalachia is a community-based organization that identifies high-performing, low-income students from rural Appalachia. Our mission is to uphold and implement America’s promise of equal opportunity for equal talent in the Western North Carolina counties of Ashe and Watauga. YES-Appalachia commits to providing long-term holistic support services that meet students’ needs at every milestone along their educational journey. We equip highly motivated scholars with the resources, support, and academic skills required for success through high school, college, and career. YES support services include, but are not limited to, weekly YES sessions focused on challenging students academically, in-house summer camps at Appalachian State University, college preparation advising, and access to internships and educational programming across the country.

How did the program get started?

YES-Appalachia is an autonomous branch of YES, a national 501(c)3 non-profit organization with over two decades of educational development work. YES originated in Los Angeles, and later expanded to Chicago, New York, and eventually rural Western North Carolina. YES-Appalachia is the fourth and newest YES branch, and is the only YES branch that serves and supports rural students. YES-Appalachia was established in 2014, in partnership with GEAR UP at Appalachian State University, after an App State alumnus had the opportunity to work for YES-Los Angeles. He believed that YES could be a great resource for high-achieving rural students like himself, and he decided to return to his home state to establish a YES branch in the Appalachian region of North Carolina.  And we are so glad and grateful that he did!

What is one thing your program is known for?  

What makes YES-Appalachia unique is our long-term commitment to our students. We recruit students in 6th grade, and our support for them extends through high school, college, graduate/professional school (if students choose), and all the way up to career placement. We walk alongside each individual student through every phase of their educational journey to ensure that they receive the support necessary to achieve their career goals.

What are you excited about in the near future for your program?           

We are super excited that the inaugural YES-Appalachia cohort will be graduating from high school this year! The scholars have all been diligently working on college applications, and we cannot wait to see the wonderful results after all their hard work.

How has SACAC played a role in your program and/or team?     

SACAC has been very supportive of YES-Appalachia projects, and it has served as an important resource for our staff. We were kindly granted an “Extend the Dream” grant for our three-day “YES-App Route 81 College Tour” for YES juniors and seniors that was scheduled for April 2020. Even though the college tour was cancelled due to COVID-19, we were able to transform our college tour to a two-part brown bag series with 9 different universities, and this was a wonderful experience for YES scholars to connect with admissions officers from various institutions. Additionally, SACAC has been instrumental in my own professional development through their webinars and their SACAC Counselor Participation Fund. We are very grateful for SACAC!

What’s the favorite lunch food of you or your team?     

I absolutely love Kimchi-jjigae with a bowl of steaming rice. Even though there are many ways to prepare this kimchi-based stew, my favorite is with pork belly. Yum!

What’s your favorite quote, and who originally said it? 

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

-Lilla Watson

Tell us an interesting and fun tidbit about your program.            

Every summer, YES-Appalachia hosts the YES Adventure Academy at Appalachian State University. During this week-long, residential summer camp, six rising ninth grade scholars from each YES branch (Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and North Carolina) come together and enjoy a plethora of educational and social activities. This is a great and fun way to build a strong community of YES scholars across all four branches, and it serves as a rite of passage for YES scholars as they transition from middle school to high school. Even though the pandemic has disrupted this in-house summer program, we are eagerly planning for future YES Adventure Academies.

Anything else?

We are currently recruiting for the YES-Appalachia Class of 2027. It is always exciting to identify new YES scholars and begin working with them. We are grateful for the ability to continue to expand and serve more students, despite the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Member Spotlight

Jahleese Hadley, Director of College Access, GLOW Academy, Wilmington, NC

Who/What first inspired you to work in education? Or What motivates you to wake up and go to work?

I am a product of a small, all-girls college preparatory school in the heart of Spanish Harlem in New York City. I went to that school at a pivotal moment in the history of public single-gender education in the United States. Admittedly, I was not aware of this until I graduated from college and became a working adult. I realized that while I had been  a motivated student, there were some specific and intentional mechanisms that my school and college counselor put in place to increase my chances of access to and persistence through college. I wanted to understand what those mechanisms were and the social scientist in me wanted to understand why they were needed. I have stayed in education because now that I understand why those mechanisms are still needed, I want to be a part of making sure they get implemented and that students who historically have been underrepresented in post-secondary vocational and academic spaces have the opportunities they desire.

Tell us about GLOW Academy and your college advising program:

At the Girls Leadership Academy Of Wilmington (GLOW) we prepare students for successful college admission, college graduation and citizenship through life. Our 6th through 12th grade, single-gender school is designed for first-generation college students. Its “whole girl” focus offers a learning environment that nurtures the emotional, physical and academic facets of each student, developing a strong and supportive culture among its faculty, students, their families and the broader community.

An affiliate of the Young Women’s Leadership Network, a group of groundbreaking and successful single-gender schools founded in New York in 1996, GLOW is guided by a proven educational model.  Here, young women are encouraged to dream big and then given the structure and support to make their dreams come true. Our focus on academic rigor, personal responsibility and college preparedness requires our students to deliver their very best, in the classroom and out. The result is a school that works hard to close the opportunity and achievement gap among families with fewer available resources.

For the majority of my students, the obstacles to a college education are real.  Many will be the first in their families to attend college.  We are committed to getting students to and through college. Our College Bound team works with each student and her family to build college awareness, visit college campuses, provide one-on-one application help, secure financial aid, and support enrollment.

Biggest “win” in your school/program history? Explain what it was, how it came about, and what it meant to your team.

A big “win” for our school was securing a partnership with Cape Fear Community College to offer academically advanced and motivated students at GLOW the opportunity to earn a Business Administration Certificate beginning in the 9th grade. Our “Early Risers” program is a unique opportunity, and our students are able to begin gaining transferable college credit as early as 9th grade. As a smaller, still growing school with a public school budget, we can’t offer all the same traditional experiences that students envision in high school like sports just yet. This program helps some of our students build an even stronger resume while we continue to grow our other programming.

What are you excited about in the near future for your program (or school)?

I joined the GLOW school community in its founding year. I am so very excited to support our first graduating class through their junior year and actually begin their long-awaited college search, match and application process!

What has been your favorite project so far?

My favorite project so far was taking my 8th grade students on their first overnight college trip to Washington D.C. Some of my students had never been outside of North Carolina, so to watch them navigate college campuses like Howard University and the University of Richmond with burgeoning confidence was inspiring.

What would you do for a career if you weren’t doing this?

If I were not working in college access, I believe I would still be doing some sort of education program development that serves students. Learners are the foundation of our society, and I have always felt driven to support them in some form. When I retire, though, I would most definitely like to open a custom dessert bakery. I’ve been making custom confections for 10 years now and it is a passion of mine. Plus, who doesn’t love frosting?!

What chore do you absolutely hate doing? Cleaning the bathroom is gross.

What are your quarantine hacks? CDC guidelines haven’t steered me wrong yet 😉

What music is on your iPhone/Android phone? From about November to February of every year, it’s a steady stream of Holiday music. Otherwise I am a true eclectic. I will listen to anything.

If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would you meet? I would love to meet Ida B. Wells. She was full of guts and conviction and those kinds of people are always great to talk to and learn from.

What’s your favorite indoor/outdoor activity? I always have a book with me. I will read anywhere.

What is the first concert you attended? I don’t like crowds so that’s a NO for me. But I would have faced my fears to see *NSYNC in concert.

(Interview by SACAC North Carolina Communication Liaison Justine Worthington)


You’ve Got a Friend in Me

Shannon Grimsley (left), Outreach Program Director, Get2College/Woodward Hines Education Foundation

Brandi Lyndall (right), Director of GEAR UP Outreach, Get2College/Woodward Hines Education Foundation

When students across Mississippi were sent home from high schools and colleges due to COVID-19 in March 2020, our world, and theirs, changed. Get2College responded professionally in the way many of us reacted personally – we called our friends! We immediately realized the best way to reach students would require us to work even more closely with Mississippi colleges and universities if we are to succeed in meeting the needs of the students we all serve.

Get2College is a program of the Woodward Hines Education Foundation, and we serve students, families, and educators, helping students in Mississippi get to and through college. Although this has been an unusually difficult and unpredictable time for all of us, we want to share what we have learned thus far. 

We need partners more than ever. Every two years, Get2College hosts an Admissions Counselor Summit. This event is designed to provide college admissions colleagues with information on issues of college access: entry, financial aid, and college planning. In August 2020, we shifted to a two-hour virtual event, and 95 admissions professionals representing 23 institutions across Mississippi joined us. To maintain the highly interactive nature of this training (even with the shift to virtual), the agenda included three sessions of round-robin, small group (3-4 people) networking, KAHOOT! trivia game covering colleges access hot topics, and a guest presenter on implicit bias from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation that facilitated small group (2-3) discussion.  

During the summit, two small groups were formed to address inequities in the college search process for rural and adult students. These groups will reconvene in January to share what they discovered and discuss with one another. In true SACAC spirit, we connected with our college and university friends and fostered relationships that will help us all serve Mississippi students, families, and high schools despite the difficulties we are all facing. We found this is the perfect time for testing new strategies. Get creative and try different approaches to reach your students. More than ever, this is an opportunity to “fail in service of learning,” a quote from one of our favorite consultants. Reach out to your partners and work together to meet today’s challenges. Together we can help students overcome the additional barriers COVID-19 has put in their way. 

Admissions Counselor Summit participants were asked to complete a post-event survey. Many of the participants completed the survey providing feedback about the virtual event. Below are some of the responses to the questions: 

Since Attending this Get2College Admissions Counselor Summit, what will you do differently? 

“Our institution is looking at new ways to recruit with the limitations in place because of COVID-19. Virtual admission events tailored to certain programs is one way we are approaching this recruitment season.” 

“I will do my best to incorporate more interactive activities into my virtual sessions.” 

“Since the summit, I will try to work more collaboratively with others to maximize this time despite the lack of face-to-face options we have with students. I will also work to meet my students, guidance counselors, and families where they are at by checking any of my bias at the door and understanding that one size does not fit all. Lastly, I will do more outreach with my network of ACs to see if we can bounce ideas off of each other for recruitment efforts this year.” 

“Not shy away from difficult conversations about race.” 

I will be mindful of my virtual presence, as well as work on strategies to reach students in rural areas.” 

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about the Admissions Counselor Summit? 

“Since the first time I attended in 2018 I have always come away with some added knowledge that I can use in my position. Thank you.” 

“Enjoyed the breakout session and sharing knowledge regarding COVID-19.” 

“You guys always do a great job!” 

“It was very engaging, helpful, and it held a lot of knowledge and tools to use during this uncertain time.” 

“Overall great event.” 

This one small endeavor seemed to have informed and motivated many of our partners and inspired Get2College to continue thinking creatively. Connecting virtually, through social media and snail mail is less than ideal, but with all of us working together we can see this through and help our students get to and through college.

During this season of Thanksgiving, Get2College continues to be grateful for our SACAC friends and Mississippi partners. 

Supporting Transgender & Transitioning Students in the College Application Process

Melissa Kotacka, MA NCC CT, Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment

*Views and opinions expressed herein are the author’s own and not the institution’s

This year marks my thirteenth year in the admissions profession, and thirteen years of working with and supporting LGBTQIA+ students through this process across three institutions. I’ve been on the undergraduate and high school sides, and now I work in graduate admissions for a professional school within a larger university, with some independent client work. Some years, such as when I worked at the high school level at a small, independent school with a high proportion of students who were out within our community, my work with LGBTQIA+ students — especially with transgender, transitioning, nonbinary, and gender fluid students — was more visible given the amount of time I was able to spend with those individual students and their families. Some years, it has been more subtle, such as holding space for students to share deeply personal stories in their essays during committee, or shepherding a student through application systems back before those systems understood that “sex” and “gender” were two different things, and that our societal binary was incredibly limiting and inaccurate.

I am not special for my experiences. I am not rare in admissions work. Unless you are brand new to counseling, admissions or working with students in any capacity, you must know that the sentence “We’ve never had/I’ve never worked with a trans* student before” will always be followed by the unspoken caveats of “that you know of” and/or “that felt safe being out with you/your community.”

We have to assume we have trans* and nonbinary students in our populations. Even and especially if those students aren’t out and may be exploring and/or questioning their identities, these students need and deserve to feel seen and safe with us as their counselors, admissions officers, and support staff. It is also important to remember that all of us are working with trans* and nonbinary colleagues in the admissions space. We have to do this work for our students, and we have to do it for each other, full stop.

Please know: trans* and nonbinary communities are part of the larger LGBTQIA+ community – and within that larger community, there are challenges of discrimination and transphobia (and biphobia and racism). Here in the SACAC region, we must truly mean it when we say “Y’all means ALL.”

To that end, I offer the following collection of resources, queries, and suggestions for expanding your and your educational communities’ capacity for supporting trans* and nonbinary students. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’m hopeful that you’ll find something useful here:

  • Start with getting your vocabulary updated.
  • Practice and normalize using pronouns:
    • At my current institution, our Center for Sexuality and Gender Diversity emailed our full campus at the start of this Fall 2020 semester with instructions for how to add our pronouns to our Zoom screennames. It is also expected that we include our pronouns in our email signatures. In pre-pandemic times, we included pronouns as part of our introductions during live events (e.g. “Hi, my name is Melissa and I use she/her pronouns, and I am one of our Assistant Directors of Admission”). Pronoun buttons and stickers were also common practice.
    • Especially normalize screwing up, quickly fixing mistakes, and then immediately moving on without making misgendering someone else all about you. Apologize, correct yourself and/or gracefully accept correction, and do better next time.
    • NOTE: Pronouns are not “preferred” – they simply are. I don’t “prefer” to use she/her – I just do.
  • For trans* and nonbinary students, use their chosen names wherever possible, and follow their lead.
    • Coming out is a lifelong process, as individuals determine when and whether to share this part of their identities based on a combination of personal, safety, professional, and other factors. It is possible that your trans* and nonbinary students may only be out in one of their communities at first – maybe at school, but not at home; or maybe just one community at school (e.g. their athletic team or close friend group) but not to the whole school. Ask your students how they want you to navigate their naming and pronouns.
    • Avoid deadnaming where you can, and talk about those circumstances where you can’t.
      • Know your campus policies for updating transcripts and other records (e.g. most institutions require that a legal name change be on file with the state first). If you don’t already include a “preferred name” section on school documents and online learning systems, advocate to add one.
      • Proactively reach out to trans* and nonbinary students when you know there will be a conflict in naming conventions. Explain when and where they may still see their prior name so that they are not caught off guard.
      • In a virtual world, allow students to rename themselves on virtual platforms. Constantly seeing their deadname in their learning environment with no option to change it is hurtful.
      • Navigating applications can be tough in this regard, and this is where open, honest, and authentic conversations with students are key. These logistics will also depend on how the institutions themselves handle applications from trans* and nonbinary students. Ask admissions offices for support here, and present the options to your students for how they would like to proceed.
  • Get trained:
    • Campus-based colleagues: your LGBQTIA+ center likely has staff and faculty sessions available. Check their schedule for each semester, and talk to your manager/team lead about the possibility of attending as a group – or even scheduling a training session with your whole office.
    • CBO- and School-based colleagues: if you are located near a campus, check in with their LGBTQIA+ center or office. They may have the capacity to accommodate you to attend one of their training sessions, or to host a training for your staff. If your area has a city-sponsored LGBTQIA+ Center, they may also be able to support you.
    • Independent colleagues: Reach out to city-supported resources, and see what community resources there may be.
  • Get trained again.
    • Best practices evolve over time. We have a professional obligation to ensure we are as up to date as we can be.
    • Most of us will change institutions at one or more points during our career. That is a great time to both refresh your general knowledge on LGBTQIA+ best practices AND to learn how your new community supports their trans* and nonbinary students, staff, and faculty.
  • Make trans*, nonbinary, and LGBTQIA+ training part of your regular professional development.
  • Institutional-based colleagues, some considerations for you
    • Do you link to your campus LGBTQIA+ center from your admissions homepages as a resource?
    • Does your application offer the option to identify beyond the rigid binary of female/male, and if so, do you allow students to self-identify rather than simply selecting “Other”?
    • Update your prospect and inquiry forms to be more inclusive: include preferred name as a bare minimum, and consider including an option for students to self-identify their gender. Double check that you are using “preferred name” in your mailings rather than defaulting to “first name.”
    • How do you train your readers to hold student essays about coming out with care and respect?
    • Do your application instructions include guidance on how to navigate documentation for trans* and nonbinary students?
  • School- and CBO-based colleagues, some considerations for you:
    • If you are writing letters for your students and they have come out to you, ask them whether/how they would like you to address anything about their identity, and then do that. Follow their lead here.
    • Gender-neutral bathrooms should be clearly marked and easily accessible. “Just use the staff bathroom” is a band-aid, not a solution.
    • If your school has a gay-straight alliance, is it welcoming for trans* and nonbinary students?
    • What kinds of harassment policies do you have in place to protect your students? Are they equally enforced?
    • If your school offers sexual education, advocate for
    • Go beyond the basic pride flag. There are many communities within the broader LGBTQIA+ community, and as noted above, some struggle for visibility and acceptance.  Some campuses have the resources to provide pride flags for students, such as setting them in a designated area of an office for taking. Whether the flags are big or small, this can be a strong but passive way to signal “You are seen and held for who you are.”
  • School- and CBO-based and independent colleagues, help your students check campus culture at the institutions they are considering
    • Ask admissions representatives about supports specific to trans* and nonbinary students.
    • Does a campus have a LGTBQIA+ center? How well is it staffed? How robust is their training, support, resources for their campus and how public are they about it on their website and social media?
    • Does the institution’s application include space for gender identities beyond the binary?
    • When an institution emails your student, do they use the preferred or legal name?
    • Check the surrounding community where schools are located – while college may be a bubble, it isn’t hermetically sealed.
    • What supports are in place through an institution’s Title IX office?
    • How robust are student health insurance plans? Do they cover hormones and other medical support (e.g. surgery) for trans* students?
    • Check state laws and policies regarding LGBTQIA+ communities, such as bathroom bills.

There is a lot of work to be done in ensuring that our trans* and nonbinary students and colleagues are safe and affirmed in their learning and work environments. Are there other resources and suggestions you’ve found helpful in your work? I encourage you to share additional suggestions, and resources in the comments to this piece or send them to SACAC’s Inclusion, Access, and Success Committee at

Be well and hold each other close, y’all.

Indigenous Peoples’ Day

by Rachel Fried, Director, Public School Initiative

Basic cultural comprehension goes a long way.

Often, schools and individuals are unsure where to even begin with Native recruitment and retention. The reality is, simple transformations can have great significance. As college access practitioners, a first step can be to look inward at institutional and individual language, references, and resources through a critical indigenous lens. A few common areas for consideration are below.

A starting point for people in all places

The way we communicate often makes or breaks opportunities to be active accomplices. Whether seasoned indigenous-serving professionals or first-time engagers, starting with how we talk to and about Native and Indigenous people is always the best step one.

Avoid historification

Native people are often referred to in the past tense – “those who used to live on this land”… “the ones who came before us”… – and honestly, it’s creepy. (Side note: It wasn’t until the last 20 years when Native American people were officially moved out of the Museum of Natural History.) The point is, Native people exist today… Check your school and personal verbiage for unintentional historification! It’s a quick way to demonstrate understanding.

Amplify authenticity (know your sources)

Ethnic fraud is rampant. We can all contribute to its end. Rely exclusively on authentic Indigenous and Indigenous-serving sources for knowledge and support. Amplify authentic indigeneity at your institution, elevate authentic indigeneity everywhere.

Recognize (specific) sovereign nations

Understanding Native American identity as a citizenship, nationhood-based status is an essential foundation. In daily practice, asking about, remembering, and recognizing the specific Native nations of individuals is a key starting place for effective culturally-resonant communication.

Acknowledge diversity (of identity and experience)

As with many communities of color, the vast diversity of identity and experience within Native America and the broader global Indigenous community is immense. Start by acknowledging the fact of breadth, and then break down pan-Native assumptions in communications and practices wherever possible.

When in doubt, ask! SACAC provides a knowledge- and experience-rich community for all. Whether you are deeply dialed in with Native and Indigenous communities or you are just beginning your process, let’s learn together.