For many high school students, just the prospect and promise of college can feel like the impossible dream. Applying for and paying for it can seem even more daunting.
But access to postsecondary education is not only possible, it’s attainable, as teenagers and their families discovered at the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston this past Friday. Nearly 100 people participated in College & Career Conversations, the third annual resource fair designed to help middle and high school students navigate a realistic path toward college, and learn how to overcome financial and other common barriers.
Harvard is working hard to address the questions and challenges that both students and parents have about the planning process, according to Annie Tomasini, the University’s director of intergovernmental relations and strategic outreach.
“Many of the workshops here tonight are a great opportunity to talk through some of those things, to not only provide resources but encouragement as you take that next step forward together,” Tomasini said in her opening remarks.
The fair included informational sessions and workshops on financial aid, career goals for middle and high school students, a panel discussion with first-generation and immigrant students, and abundant information from organizations committed to helping local youth gain access to a college education. Simultaneous Spanish interpretation was available.
Keynote speaker Christopher Parris, senior director of College Success Academy at The Steppingstone Foundation, said that even at age 9 or 10, prospective scholars are articulate about their desire for higher education.
“Even among this group there is a universal agreement of motivation to go to college,” said Parris. “The one thing that is consistent is the desire for college.”
Parris, a native of Barbados, explored why it’s important to pursue postsecondary options, citing the Declaration of Independence’s promise of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” His talk on “the pursuit of happiness and why preparing for college and careers in life actually does matter” set the tone for the evening.
Parris said that he understands what it’s like to navigate and sometimes struggle through the education process as an immigrant. Nonetheless, he said, “College and career pathways become critical to our happiness, because without it our ability to thrive and prosper disappears. Without it we struggle even more to care for ourselves and for our loved ones.”
Jaein Josefina Lee, who moderated the panel “College for First-Generation Students,” said she did not speak English when she came to the U.S. from Paraguay with her parents. Today Lee is a Ph.D. candidate in a joint program of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“I’m a first-generation college graduate,” she said. “A lot of people told me I couldn’t go to college. You being here really makes a big difference in their college education.”
Parris said often parents want their children to have a college experience, but don’t have the experience to help them.
“The common thread is that kids want to go to college and their parents want them to go, and they all need assistance,” he said. “Some are motivated by extrinsic factors of wanting to pursue a specific career, or to help their families. Family can be such a huge influence.”
Sixteen-year-old Fatima Kebbous of Brighton is in 10th grade at New Mission High School in Hyde Park and wants to study medicine.
“I have a big sister who went to Boston University. It’s never too early to plan for college, I’ve been thinking about it since fourth grade,” she said.
Dora Capobianco of Allston, a sixth-grader at Gardner Pilot Academy there, came with her parents. Although she is only 12, she is already thinking about college.
“It’s easier to learn about college and possible jobs in the present because then you have more options for the future,” she said.
Priscilla Anderson, her mother, agreed.
“When you are choosing a high school or even choosing an elective, if you have an idea about college and careers and what you might do later, you can make better, informed choices.”
Jose Mendoza, currently a sophomore at Lesley University, helped organize and plan the resource fair. He grew up in Allston, and attended the first College Conversations program when he was a senior in high school. Today he is an intern with Harvard’s Public School Partnerships team, which works with Boston Public Schools to identify opportunities to connect Harvard faculty, researchers, and students with youth, families, and teachers in the Allston-Brighton area.
“I am both an immigrant and a first-gen student. Talking to others who had been in my shoes, and were living the dream that I wanted to live, was inspirational and really showed me that college wasn’t just a pipe dream — but instead it was a real and achievable possibility,” Mendoza said. “I’m so fortunate to be back here, and giving back to others. I know many of these kids personally. They’re from my neighborhood. Hopefully by them seeing me — already in my second year of college — they will know that this is possible for them too.”
Parris provided tips for how to prepare for college: challenge yourself academically; set clear goals; find summer opportunities, including internships, to develop your skills; find your passion and work on it; obtain deep knowledge about the college application process; build your team — families, friends, teachers, mentors — and utilize their support; and last but not least, persevere.
“For those of you who imagine that success looks like a series of checkboxes along a continuum in straight line, it doesn’t,” said Parris. “It often includes mistakes, wrong turns, and even the bitter taste of failure. But each of you is unique, with your own jagged profile where you are strong in some areas and weak in others. As a result, there is going to be not just one single or normal pathway you all must take. Your pathway depends on your own individuality. Don’t give naysayers the satisfaction of giving up on your dreams.”
College Conversations & Careers is a collaboration between Harvard Public School Partnerships, Harvard Financial Aid and Admissions Office, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Boston Public Schools, Gardner Pilot Academy, Bottom Line, OneGoal, the Steppingstone Foundation, and the Cambridge Housing Authority.
Other resource fair participants included the Boston Higher Education Resource Center, Kids in Need of Defense, West End House, Breakthrough Greater Boston, Cambridge Agenda for Children, Cambridge College Success Initiative, and the Harvard Ed Portal’s Workforce & Economic Development program.