Monday, March 16, 2009

College Program: Working with First Generation College Students

Working with potential first generation college students poses a unique set of challenges for tutors and mentors in prepping their students to go college. The tutor/mentor might be the only adult in the student’s life that has attended college or some form of higher education. If the student has not received messages about college or higher education at school or through other enrichment programs, the student might have a limited idea about college, its purpose and the overall preparation process. If you face this challenge, you may wonder how to prepare a college student starting at square one.

Here are some strategies I have either implemented or seen others implement in working with potential first generation college students in the college prep process.
  • If you work with your student at a tutoring/mentoring program, do not underestimate the resources available to you through the organization. Connect with other mentors and the program staff and ask them about how they worked on college prep with their students. If you meet other tutors at square one, brainstorm, research and keep networking.
  • Start by talking about your own experience in higher education. Talk about your own education experience staring from what you did in high school to prepare for college and what your experience in higher education was like. Prepare a set of questions in case your student does not have any questions about your experience. Sample questions include: Did you live at home, in a dorm? What was your major? What were you involved in on campus? Was your college small, medium or large? How was attending college important to what you do now?
  • Use a pop culture reference. When asked, some students will open up about things they have seen in movies or television. I learned this strategy in college when I did some rape and sexual assault education at some high schools in Chicago. Although bringing up the topic of rape and sexual assault often made students feel shy or think that the topic did not pertain to their lives, I found that students better connected with the topic when I would ask, “has anyone seen Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?” Connecting the topic to media the students consume every day made them think about how the topic fit into the real world. Fortunately, college prep is a less dramatic topic and less likely to induce a sudden case of shyness. If you use this method, you can start with, “what have you seen or heard about college on TV or in movies?” Make sure you only address “appropriate” pop culture references about college. You want to stress the academic and personal development aspect of college.
  • Ask about the student’s interests and favorite school subjects. This topic provides an excellent segue into talking about majors and potential careers.
  • Go for a college visit. Visit institutions of higher education in the area and if you can, sit in on a class. College visits help students envision themselves as a college student. Some institutions have offices that work with at-risk youth. If you can find a university with such an office, take your student for a visit and make sure you make your student aware that these resources exist on college campuses.
  • Engage the parents. Parents are your best allies for preparing your student for college. Talk to them about your college prep goals and feel out the parent’s educational goals for their child. Do not assume anything about the parent’s educational or personal background. Some parents might not have an education past elementary school and some parents might have a college degree or some other training. Some parents might be refugees or immigrants with educational backgrounds ranging from no formal training to post-graduate work. Other parents may have served time in prison. Some parents might not speak English well enough to have a conversation with you. Furthermore, depending on cultural and individual preferences, some parents might have a hard time accepting their child might go to college and live away from home and some parents might want their child to become a world traveler. Be sensitive to these concerns and go in with an open mind.
  • Start each session with a practice ACT or SAT exam question. Many of these sample questions are available for free online. A weekly practice question can introduce your student to the types of questions they will encounter on the exam.
  • Encourage your student to attend a summer enrichment program. If you live in Chicago, you should check out a Chicago Public Schools program called Summer Quest, which sends CPS high school students to summer educational and leadership programs, including sessions at colleges. In addition to the educational benefits, these types of programs help students and families mentally prepare for the idea of having the student attend college.

I will post more suggestions as I think of them. If you have suggestions please contact me (Carla [at] u [dot] northwestern [dot] edu).

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