When Andrew Fernandez (CAS ’14) applied to college, he visited his high school guidance counselor once—to register for the SAT. His search consisted of little more than matching his GPA and test scores to averages he looked up for a handful of schools not too far from home. “I was too shy to approach people,” he recalls. “I wasn’t secure about how I spoke, because English was my second language.” Andrew’s family had emigrated from Peru to Long Island when he was 11, and none of his relatives were familiar with the process of applying to American universities. So he was pretty much on his own. “I just went with what I knew,” he says, “and I didn’t know much.”
Landing at NYU, then, was for Andrew something of a fortunate accident.
But for Lavonnie Downer, now in her freshman year at NYU, things were different. When she was applying to college, as a star student at the Bronx Lab School, she had Andrew to help her. After graduating, Andrew joined NYU’s arm of the College Advising Corps, a national organization that works to increase the number of first-generation and low-income students pursuing higher education. Through 24 partner universities nationwide, CAC trains recent grads like Andrew for work as full-time college advisers in underserved high schools. NYU’s CAC program—the only one in New York State—currently supports about two-dozen advisers working in 21 New York City high schools.
In many schools, college prep and application support falls to a guidance counselor juggling multiple responsibilities. The average student to counselor ratio nationwide is 478 to 1, meaning that students receive an average of only 38 minutes of one-on-one advising before graduation. But with CAC advisers strictly dedicated to college access, 60% of students get to meet with someone like Andrew five times or more. Aileen Moner, the College Advising Corps program director at NYU, estimates that each of the two dozen advisers she supervises has held between 250 and 300 one-on-one meetings so far this school year.
Lavonnie had been a star student since elementary school, when the principal asked her to read her poetry in an assembly for the whole school. By high school she was the head of practically every club and sports team. “Because of how strong my academics were, ever since I was little,” Lavonnie says, “it was always expected that college was going to be the end goal. But no one ever actually spoke to me about it. They just assumed I would figure it out.”
Finally, senior year rolled around. “It came time to apply to college and I didn’t know what to do, because I was the first person to go to college in my family,” she says. Then Andrew arrived. “It was easy to talk to him about the whole process. He made it simple for me.”
Together, they winnowed her list of dream schools. Lavonnie brought in financial documents from home, and they worked through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Both remember the getting the news that Lavonnie and been was accepted to NYU. Lavonnie opened the email and skimmed it in disbelief, before asking her mother to read it out loud. “It didn’t sink in for a good month,” she says.
“I didn’t need to help Lavonnie very much,” Andrew demurs. “The initiative came from her.” But the job isn’t always so easy, he says. Sometimes, the toughest part is changing people’s minds.
“When you grow up in poverty, you develop characteristics against growth, against initiative, against becoming better, against challenging yourself,” Andrew reflects. “Sometimes you butt heads with students because you want to see them succeed, because you know that they can, but they don’t think so.”
The summer before NYU’s CAC advisers are assigned to schools, they undergo six weeks of intensive training on the college application process for New York City students, learning the ins and outs of CUNY and SUNY applications and the common app, financial aid packages, and additional considerations for students with special circumstances (including undocumented students and those with disabilities).
For Andrew, this was an eye-opening experience. “When I was applying, I probably only knew 10% of the college application process,” he says. “The training taught me the other 90%—I learned just how much time it takes to research a school, what to consider, how many schools there are.”
Because CAC works on a near-peer model—at 21 to 25, advisers are close in age to the students they serve, and for many, this is a first full-time job—Moner says that professional development is also an important part of the program. While advisers are helping high school students apply to college, she provides guidance and support to them as young professionals at the start of their working lives. In their second year with the program, advisers are encouraged to apply to graduate school at NYU (where they are eligible for tuition remission), and many go on to pursue careers in counseling or higher education.
As for the traits that best prepare someone for successful advising? “Patience,” Andrew says. “And huge people skills. In my case, I was familiar with this socioeconomic demographic because I grew up in it. I could understand the hidden languages, the unspoken rules.”
In recruiting, Moner says, she prefers for NYU grads with leadership experience—those who’ve headed or even started clubs or organizations—because “being able to build something from the ground up is really important in this kind of work.” Often, advisers are going into schools with no structured college readiness programs in place, she explains, so they must work out a system of their own. And flexibility is a must. Advisers’ duties can include everything from lecturing in classrooms to reaching out to parents to giving workshops to teachers and community members.
Though coming from similar backgrounds to those of the students they’re serving isn’t a job requirement for advisers, Moner notes that about 70% NYU’s of CAC advisers were either first-generation college students or identify as people of color. Moner was herself the first in her family to go to college, as the child of Cuban immigrants to New Jersey. “This work definitely speaks to my past as well,” she says.
There’s ample evidence to suggest that CAC’s near-peer approach to college advising is working. Nationally, high school students who receive CAC advising are 30% more likely to apply to college. Within New York City, NYU’s CAC advisers have seen a 42% increase in the number of financial aid forms students completed, and an 18% increase in the number of students who don’t just apply to college, but also end up enrolling.
Lavonnie is just one of 20 NYU freshman who found their way here with assistance from the program. After a brief flirtation with astrophysics, she’s decided to apply to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music to nurture a passion she and her adviser share. Andrew is taking evening classes toward a graduate degree in Steinhardt’s music business program. As a shy immigrant kid, playing violin in his middle school orchestra, he says, was the first U.S. educational experience that made him feel like he belonged. “I felt part of something,” he says. “It gave me a feeling of worth.”
Neither is quite sure what their dream job might be, though Lavonnie, who as an upperclassman served as a mentor to freshman in her high school, says she might consider the CAC after graduation. Andrew, in his second year of the program, says he’s still processing all the ways working as an adviser has helped him grow.
“I’m more conscious, more aware, more thankful for what I have attained,” he reflects. “Statistically, people of color coming from our backgrounds don't end up where we are now. So for me, it’s something to look at with humility and gratitude—a learning experience to use to inspire those who are still working to get up here.”