Campus connections | The power of personal interaction

It was in 1999 that the Ohio College Access Network (OCAN) first sent volunteer advisers into urban high schools in an initiative aimed at boosting college enrollment among low-income students in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and other cities. Today the advisers backed by the Ohio Board of Regents, KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the Ohio Department of Education, Lumina and a host of community-based grants have spread across the state. They help lower- income students in nearly 300 urban and rural districts with college applications, financial aid forms and other parts of the admissions process that seem second nature to students in middle-to upper-class homes.

As in Maine, a changing employment dynamic the decline of agriculture as an economic engine has driven the expansion of the program to the furthest corners of Ohio. Officials also recognize that, without a college education, young Ohioans will have difficulty coping in the expanding global marketplace. "Rural students don't feel as much a part of the flat world," says Kimberly Gormley, OCAN's director of development and marketing, invoking the title of author Thomas Friedman's bestseller on world economics.

Perhaps the most important lesson that has emerged from the OCAN program is the understanding that, in order to spread the word about college access, advisers and mentors need access themselves to the middle school classrooms, corridors and guidance offices where students who most need the message are likely to hear it.

Nicole Hurd's epiphany in that regard occurred three years ago in a University of Virginia parking lot. Then an assistant dean at the university, Hurd had just left a meeting on how a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation grant might be used to put underprivileged students on the college track. As she searched for her car, Hurd's thoughts turned to the young people living in the hardscrabble counties south and west of Charlottesville. "They knew U-V-A was down the street," says Hurd. "But that was about it."

Advising Corps Executive Director Nicole Hurd (center) leads a discussion with a new group of advisers at Chapel Hill. They are (from left): Dexter Robinson, Ebonie Leonard, Meghan Bridges and Camille Cates.

The concept of the National College Advising Corps, in which newly minted college graduates serve as college-access counselors in low-income high schools, was hatched right then. Hurd, the Corps' executive director, successfully designed the initiative as a means for highly motivated undergraduates to spend the year between commencement and graduate school performing community service in a program based loosely on the Peace Corps and Teach for America models.

"I became the gap-year dean," says Hurd. With additional funding from Lumina and the Cooke Foundation, Hurd extended the program's reach and then transferred its headquarters from Charlottesville to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Known as the College Guide Program during its start-up in Virginia, it has since been rechristened the National College Advising Corps. Now, in partnership with the National College Access Network, it is poised to expand to 10 other colleges and universities across the country.

Former Guide Kimberly Morris with freshly conferred degrees in psychology and pre-med from Virginia landed in Danville, Va., in the summer of 2006. Two hours south of Charlottesville on the North Carolina border, Danville has watched its population slowly disintegrate along with the textile and tobacco industry jobs that were once its economic backbone.

An African-American woman, Morris good-naturedly notes that she "broke a lot of stereotypes" when she walked into Danville's George Washington High School, where 70 percent of the students are minority, and began preaching a gospel that everyone in the building was college material.

"When a kid walks into my office and hears a 22-year-old who just finished college saying: "You do it," then it has a big impact," she says. "No offense, but no 40-year-old guidance counselor in the world has that kind of pull with these kids."

Friendly, but with no nonsense, Morris got right to work. Moving from classroom to classroom, she methodically indoctrinated GW students with the details of getting into and staying in college. That was the easy part. The hard part was convincing kids with battered self-esteem and beaten-down hope that they had the tools to succeed in college.

Midway through the first semester, Morris assembled the data from her first months in Danville. ("Spreadsheets are my friend," she says.) The outline that emerged was nearly identical to the trends that guided Hurd in developing the Advising Corps' national strategy: Students with 3.5 grade point averages and above had family support and a college plan. Students with a GPA of 2.0 or lower, if motivated at all, saw a two-year degree as their limit. The focus of her mission, Morris concluded, had to be the group in the 2.0-3.5 GPA range "kids who can go to a four-year school but either don't know how to do it or don't know how to get there."

Senior Britteny Madine came to Morris with a 4.0 GPA and a plan. What she needed was the necessary boost to put that plan into action. During a trip to Orlando's Disney World as a sophomore, Britteny took one look at the design of the Epcot Center and knew she wanted to be an architect. Once back in Danville, she hit the Internet, identifying the colleges that could lead her there.

In the printed version of this issue (Pages 10 and 12), some of the information about the high school academic record of Britteny Madine created an inaccurate picture of her readiness for college. As this corrected version shows, Britteny's grades at graduation were more than sufficient for her to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), which she listed at that time as her first-choice college. In fact, Britteny applied for admission to four universities (IIT, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech University and Tulane University) and was accepted at all four institutions. We at Lumina Foundation apologize if this error created a negative impression of Britteny's abilities; indeed, we celebrate those abilities, commend Britteny for her academic achievements and wish her continued success.