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  • laurenwhitehurst8

A Leap

Yesterday, I took a step. It turned into a leap.

I’ve been thinking about how I want to spend my non-leisure time for a while now, and sometime this summer, I concluded that I want to try helping first generation college students both gain admission to and persist in school. The realization came from the enjoyment of coaching Jack and Emma on their applications, as well as over the course of their freshman year. I felt such purpose and satisfaction helping them through the process – from choosing schools to consider, to writing essays, to managing the organizational challenges involved. And I again have felt purpose (and their appreciation), as I’ve supported them at college, helping them navigate everything from class choices, to time management, to living on their own. I hoped that I could really make a difference for other young adults by applying my skills in service of those who were meritorious, but who also did not have significant experience pools or resources to guide them on their path. And with my dreaming hat on, I fantasized that I would start with directly helping a few individuals, and then maybe I would grow my pilot idea into a larger and even more impactful endeavor based on leveraging college alumni or empty-nester volunteering, imagining an organization that I would launch, steer, and participate in ongoing.

My first attempts at finding a way to pursue this idea did not start well. I approached my alma mater and was told it has a robust First Gen program that does not really involve alumni, and the development team tried to steer me to other opportunities. I then reached out to a well-known organization that identifies and coaches high schoolers through the college process, and while they were excited about my interest, they let me know mentors had to be professors or administrators in residence on campus, so they steered me to career coaching, resume editing and application essay editing. While I agreed I would consider trying these opportunities, I felt pretty sure this was not what I was seeking. After two “rejections” that had taken a couple of months to work through to their ends, I was frustrated, and in fact, I wrote my last, somewhat morose, post amid that disappointment. While there are so many organizations working on first generation college access and many addressing college persistence, I started to worry that few, if any, were structured for the kind of time I was willing to invest combined with the life and location flexibility I did not want to sacrifice.

I’m in Colorado, and so I am hiking a lot. And for the past week or so, Jim and I have hiked with our wonderful friends, Tracy and Alan, who also have a place here. Tracy, Alan, Jim and I are long-term group hikers, and our jaunts are not for the faint of heart. Tracy sets a firm and rapid pace, and Jim, Alan and I only lag slightly behind. We regularly hike 4,000 feet to mid-mountain in about ninety minutes. When on flatter terrain, five or six miles is usually our minimum. And we are all competitive, perhaps to a fault. Once, when we hiked together in Italy’s lake country, our guides told us no one had completed the full day’s hike in time to make the last ferry. Jim and Alan had time for beers at the dock before it left.

Anyhow, discussion topics on these hikes range, but we are all close enough that we generally air whatever is on our minds. About a week ago, I was loudly airing my frustration. Tracy advised I look for more organizations – she was sure I could find what I wanted, and the good friend she is, I woke up the next day to a list of links in my inbox. Most felt like they would end up in similar places as my previous endeavors, and I wasn’t ready to invest a ton of time to hit more brick walls. But then I came upon Strive for College – I don’t know if Tracy used some magical combination of Google Search words or if Strive for College is just incredibly good at SEO, but it was clear right away that this organization was worth a close look.

Strive for College works with high school seniors and college students who are either first in their families to attend college or are from families with fewer resources to put towards the college search/process. It started like many of the other organizations I had researched – in person matching and mentoring -- in this case, between college students and high school seniors. In its first year, the program drastically and successfully increased the rate of college applications and admissions for a single high school with a dismal record in St. Louis, and the Wash U founder decided to make this program into a career. One year after he graduated, the program was active at 20 colleges. The next year, he decided he could best scale the program if he reinvented it as a platform where students connect with mentors virtually, and he also partnered with corporations who ask their college-graduate employees to volunteer as mentors. Fast forward seven years later and Strive for College has helped over a million kids. In 2020, it partnered with The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to add college persistence and career guidance to its offering.

The more I researched, the more I knew this was what I should try.

Still, I sat on the link to the mentor application for several days. I am not sure why – whether a fear of further rejection or a concern that I would be overwhelmed or an inability to get my hands around exactly how I would really perform in the role. But yesterday, I made a profile and submitted it. Within minutes I had been background checked and was up on the site as a potential mentor. Here is what my profile said:

Hi! I'm Lauren. I am mom to 2 kids at NYU and Rice who I helped throughout their selection, application, and decision process. And I advise them now on the college experience overall. I'm an Amherst & Harvard Business School graduate who knows what it takes to succeed at getting into and attending college & beyond, and nothing would be more fulfilling than helping you in your endeavors. I promise you I will be there to help and guide you, whether that be through the selection/application/decision process and/or through the college experience and career search. I only ask that you too be truly committed!

I figured I probably would appeal to someone seeking guidance, but I had no idea whether I would hear within days or weeks or longer. And I was a little concerned that I might be too late for this year’s seniors who, by late September, should be way down the college process road already.

Two minutes. That’s all it took for Saraiya to pick me. Ten more minutes and Olivia did. Another five, and I had a text from Padmaja. And then I panicked – I was hoping to pilot this with one, and I already had three students knocking at my door. I quickly found the toggle on the site that hid my profile (which I had either missed or not been warned about) and started wondering how I would tell two students I couldn’t help them. I thought helping one student would be a significant time commitment, and while I might be interested in multiple in the future, I was not at all sure I could handle three at once in my inaugural (pilot) year. If I took on all three, I’d certainly learn if this was really where I wanted to focus, and I’d also better understand with what kinds of students I worked best, but was it too much?

And then (with Jim’s encouragement), I leaped. I texted all three to let them know how excited I was to work with them. My mind started racing: What did I need to plan for the first video call? How would I structure the process? How would I get up to speed on their needs? I found myself excited about something that had nothing to do with my family, my workouts, or my book. Jim couldn’t shut me up the whole evening.

I’ve leaped. And I am excited. Root for me – we’ll see how this goes!

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