My work at Cone is never boring. With each new account, I get the opportunity to learn about new industries, new issues, new programs and new organizations. I get to talk to new and different people about ideas, problems and solutions I wouldn’t learn about otherwise.
It was in this capacity that I was introduced to College Summit, a nonprofit committed to serving the 200,000 academically capable, low-income students who graduate from high school but do not enroll in college. It’s approach? Harness the positive power of peer pressure by training a core group of influential students to drive a college-going culture in their classrooms.
The training starts with a four-day workshop for 20% of rising seniors. The workshop is held on a college campus and students get a head start on college applications by learning how to effectively write a personal statement, meet one-on-one with a guidance counselor, learn the basics of financial aid and gain concrete skills in self-advocacy. Armed with real experience, these students then return to their schools and spread their enthusiasm to their peers.
Inspired by College Summit’s model, I considered volunteering as a workshop writing coach, utilizing my paid volunteer time as part of Cone’s Hours for Good program. College Summit’s only criterion is that you are a college graduate, but I was hesitant. I assessed my skills: I knew I was capable of writing memos and issue toplines, but would I be able to guide a group of students through the complex and emotionally draining process of creating a personal statement? My account team encouraged me and I bit the bullet. Before I knew it, I was on my way to Amherst College for what would be one of the most powerful four days of my life.
After receiving a thorough training, I met the members of my team – seven teens from inner-city NY. Immediately my nerves kicked in and I clung to the curriculum like it was a life raft. We followed the book and did a 10-minute free write. Then I asked students to read their work aloud. The first student to read shared an eye witness account of his grandmother’s murder. He was seven when it happened. We all started crying.
And the tears didn’t stop. For the next three days, my students shared their deepest fears, personal struggles, challenges, fondest memories and biggest dreams. We shared and we cried and we wrote. The students recognized new traits in themselves through their writing. They were surprised to discover they are courageous, smart, resilient, eloquent, funny and strong. And they were empowered when they realized these qualities looked pretty damn good on a college application.
Today the students in my group are back in school and are working to inspire their peers to take the same steps they did – to believe they are college material and to make their dreams a reality. As a team, we made a pact to reunite at their college graduations; if not sooner. Until then, I’m signed up to use my Hours for Good with College Summit again next year.
To learn more about College Summit and find out how you can volunteer as a writing coach, click here .
- Jillian Wilson, Senior Account Executive, Cause Branding