Getting college and career ready: High school seniors determine what comes next
How YouthPower365 is expanding its college- and career-readiness programs to help students better prepare for life beyond high school
For high school students, the end of fall brings homecoming, playoff sports and mounting anticipation for the rest of the year. And for high school seniors, it also means college application season and preparing for what comes next.
For seniors in Eagle County’s high schools, navigating this complex and unknown terrain of college and federal aid application deadlines, as well as determining what their future may hold, can feel overwhelming and sometimes impossible.
The nonprofit Vail Valley Foundation’s YouthPower365, which provides year-round extended learning opportunities to youth in Eagle County, has grown its programs and services in this area over the past few years to help students transition to their next pathway in life.
For Battle Mountain High School senior Neysi Chegue, these services have not only helped her see that college is within her grasp, but it has expanded the reach of what she thought possible.
Chegue has lived in Eagle County since she was 6, moving here with her family from North Carolina. She has always been academically driven, she said, taking advanced math, science and English classes and eventually diving into leadership opportunities.
Her dream for after high school is to become the first person in her family to attend a four-year college, and she hopes to go out of state.
“I really want to have new experiences,” Chegue said. “Obviously I love the mountains, and I love all that Colorado has to offer, but I’m somebody who likes change.”
She said that in middle school and even in her freshmen year of high school, she felt that attending college — especially one out of state — was not going to be financially feasible. But through having one-on-one college advising sessions with Brittany Kinney, YouthPower365’s senior manager of college and career readiness, attending YouthPower365 college and career readiness workshops and working with other local advisers, such as her school counselor, Joshua Wright, and Heather O’Malley with the Upward Bound program at Colorado Mountain College, her dream has become more attainable.
“Having those conversations and being more aware of the options that are offered to me, honestly does open a lot of doors that I wouldn’t have thought of taking otherwise,” Chegue said. “For me, with all these resources, it’s not the knowledge or the things that they tell me, but it’s more about the support and them telling me, ‘You can do this ,and we’re going to find ways to get you to college, we’re going to find ways to pay for it.’”
Without these resources and individualized help, Chegue said it would’ve been “just me and Google trying to figure it all out” since she doesn’t have anyone in her family who has gone through the college-application process before.
Already, Chegue has applied to seven colleges in and outside the state, including the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, University of Southern California through the Quest Bridge scholarship program, as well as Colorado State University, University of Denver and University of Colorado Denver and Boulder.
The college-application process, though strenuous, was easier than Chegue expected. And, she said, she learned a lot about herself through it and overcame some of the imposter syndrome she had going into it.
“Through this process, and filling out all these questions about yourself, it made me feel really proud of the initiative I have and how much hard work I’ve put into my education,” she said.
And as she looks toward the future, Chegue is expected to attend college to continue fulfilling her potential, and discovering her passions, individuality and own identity as well as a career to match these.
“I have so many ideas,” she said. “I can see myself really growing a passion for everything, so right now I’m just really trying to weed out my options.”
And being the first person in her family to go to college is something that is exciting, but also nerve-wracking, she said. Overall though, Chegue said she’s feeling proud.
“I’ve always taken my education very seriously and I’m very proud to see that its paying off,” she said.
College and career readiness
Chegue is just one of many students that have leaned on YouthPower365 this fall to learn about the college application process, get help on filling out complex financial aid forms, seek editing help for college essays and more. These resources are part of a growing sector of the organization’s programming.
As part of its founding mission, YouthPower365 seeks to help Eagle County youth and families “from cradle to career,” said Sara Amberg, the organization’s executive director. And while the organization has helped local students find scholarships through its Dollars for Scholars program for over a decade, it identified that there was a gap in its services around helping prepare students for what comes after high school.
“What we found is it really takes a lot of individualized care to see a student, listen to who they are as a person and help them develop a plan that works for them,” Kinney said. “The ‘stock model’ of you’ve graduated and you get pushed into a box somewhere doesn’t work for students anymore. So the hope is to provide students the opportunity to be well informed, for themselves and for their future.”
Over the past year and a half, Amberg said that the organization has expanded this area of its cradle to career continuum to not only help students navigate the world of college applications, but to develop students’ executive functioning skills that they need to be successful. This includes resume writing, learning how to present themselves, learning how to set goals and “all those extra pieces that lead to success in college and career,” she said.
According to Kinney, YouthPower365’s college and career readiness programs serve four categories:
- College readiness: This includes daily college advising from the organization’s certified college admissions advisers, of which Kinney is one; SAT prep in partnership with the schools; coordinating college visits at the schools, financial aid workshops and more.
- Career readiness: In partnership with Eagle County Schools and Vail Valley Partnership, YouthPower 365 helps students get industry certifications, workplace certifications and apprenticeships. This partnership recently was awarded just shy of $1 million to expand this program and add new industry certifications for students.
- Scholarships: Through its Dollars for Scholars program, the organization helps facilitate the administration of over $400,000 in scholarships to local students. The organization follows up with these students and continues to support their journey through college.
- School clubs and opportunities: These clubs and after-school programs offer students an opportunity to explore their identity and career options. Some of them include a young health professionals club, a Valley Dreamers club for immigrant students and a culinary club.
All of these services, workshops and programs are offered free of charge to all Eagle County youth and families. While the schools themselves do offer counseling or other services for students in some of these areas, YouthPower365 aims to support these by adding additional capacity and resources to fill gaps where needed.
Right now, the organization is focused on helping students and families submit federal financial aid and college applications. However, come spring, when students receive their admissions letters and financial aid packages, it will help students make informed decisions about college, student loans and help them figure out what comes next.
While many of this college and career readiness programming is geared toward high school students, YouthPower365 is also building executive skills and helping students discover their passions in all its programming — which starts in preschool. As it expands, it hopes to add more programs to help students through all of their transitions, identifying what they want and how to get there.
All of which, Kinney said, is to help students understand: “You can do everything you want to do, but knowing how you’re going to do it is the first step.”
College these days
Part of the organization’s expansion is meeting individual students where they’re at and overcoming any barriers they might have — real or imagined — to achieving their post-secondary goals.
Kinney said that for many of Eagle County’s students, like Chegue, the biggest barrier is that they feel their options are limited.
“They hear about limited schools that maybe exist just in Colorado and are popular schools,” she said. “What I think our community doesn’t know is you can go out of state and pay less for college, you can go to a private school and pay less than you would at an in-state public school — that it is possible and that there are options for everybody.”
Also, Kinney said that many students have a limited understanding of what college or post-secondary education can include. “College is a broad term. It’s not just getting a four-year degree. You can go to college and get a certificate in the trades and that’s just as important.”
Much of what YouthPower365 does, through one-on-one advising sessions, is helping students get the support they need “financially, academically and personally” to reach whatever goal they have.
Chegue said that this support helped her immensely and “is something that all students need to find, one way or another.”
Plus, for some Eagle County students who may be undocumented, Kinney said there are additional financial and legal barriers. Undocumented students don’t qualify for financial aid and in many states aren’t eligible to receive professional certifications without a Social Security card. Colorado amended the latter this spring.
“All around there’s also just this stigma where people say I can’t go to college because of my immigration status. All around there’s misinformation that students hear as well,” Kinney said. “Valley Dreamers simply serves as a helping hand, as an affirmation that: one, you’re worthy of going to college, if that’s what you want to do; two, there are financial options out there for you; and three, we will help you find a school that fits your need as an immigrant as well as professionally for your future.”
Through all its programming, YouthPower365 is working to remove any barriers and help students understand that they don’t need to compromise what they want based on their personal, financial or academic circumstances.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.