Just-graduated ’Hoos return to high school to help increase the number of Virginians heading to higher education.
Illustration by Robert Meganck, Communication Design, Inc.
Through the pioneering College Guide Program, University of Virginia graduates have been instrumental in increasing the number of Virginia students applying to and attending colleges across the state.
Created at U.Va. and funded by a $623,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the program teamed 14 recent graduates with guidance counselors in nine school districts throughout Virginia to bring a fresh perspective about college applications to students who might not otherwise pursue higher education.
The program has increased college enrollment numbers from several Virginia public school districts. Holston High School in the southwest Virginia town of Damascus has traditionally sent about 50 percent of its graduates on to some form of higher education. This year that number has risen to nearly 85 percent, including three students who were accepted at U.Va.
“[The students] are very receptive,” says Paulin Cheatham (History ’05) of Surry, who met with every member of the junior and senior classes at Holston during the year. “They want to go to school, but they don’t know how. I’m close to their own age and I come from a similar place and they think ‘If he can do it, then I can, too.’”
Of the 63 seniors with whom Cheatham worked, 53 are continuing their education.
These numbers are not isolated. In Fluvanna County, the college matriculation rate increased from 63 to 82 percent. In Patrick County, the rate jumped from 61 to 86 percent. Patrick County also saw a 25 percent increase in the number of students taking the SAT and a 46 percent increase in students filing federal financial aid forms. In Halifax, after College Guide Tiffany Meertins (Foreign Affairs, Sociology ’05) took students for a tour of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, Halifax County High School saw applications to VCU almost double.
“There is a high interest in career tracks and technical learning, such as emergency medical technician, mechanic or a mason,” says Meertins, who worked with 364 seniors at Halifax County High School.
“The guides have served as an advocate for the students, calling schools and asking questions, taking them on college visits,” says Nicole F. Hurd (PhD, Religious Studies ’02), assistant dean and director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence, who developed the program. The guides also serve as role models, with their own examples of difficult circumstances, or of being the first generation in their families to go to college.
“The success of the program is in the students coming to college who would not have ordinarily,” Hurd says.
The program has done more than open doors for high school students; it has changed guides’ lives as well. Meertins had planned on going to law school but opted instead for a career in education. She will attend U.Va.’s Curry School of Education this fall.
“I had thought I was going into corporate law, but this [experience] gives me a deeper sense of purpose. I could crunch numbers and make the ‘big bucks’ but at the end of the day, I think I would feel much better about kids going to college,” she says. While Meertins will miss her students, she is taking some with her. Three of her advisees have been accepted at U.Va.
Each College Guide received a $10,000 service stipend, a $10,000 housing allowance and $5,000 toward either future education or to pay for existing educational debts.
The program continues to receive support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, with a recent award of $470,000. Of the 14 guides in the inaugural program, nine are returning for a second year, four in the same districts, and more are joining the program. The funding also includes support for three new guides to work in community colleges in Virginia to increase transfer rates to four-year institutions.