Staying the Course – Mentoring First-Generation College Students During High School
The President’s Challenge Scholarship (PCS) Program at SUNY Ulster assists first-generation local students with overcoming socio-economic barriers associated with attending college. Selected in eighth grade, students receive counseling and mentoring throughout high school.
The PCS College Mentor team, comprised of SUNY Ulster’s Enrollment and Success Center Counselors, is charged with supporting nearly 100 scholarship recipients from nine school districts across Ulster County. Their primary goal as mentors is to be a consistent resource for students – keeping them motivated and on the college-bound track.
The PCS college mentors visit with students on SUNY Ulster’s campus and several times throughout the year at their high schools. Mentors have found the most success in creating small discussion groups where they are able to assess student needs and offer individual attention. During their in-person sessions, mentors were able to use a career assessment tool called FOCUS2 to get students thinking about future career options based on their interests and strengths.
“The PCS students have consistently surprised me with their enthusiasm and varied interests,” said Rebecca Mercado, PCS College Mentor for Ellenville and Rondout Valley high schools. “The College will be lucky to have such amazing young people as a part of our community!”
Students also have an online component to complement what they are exploring in their in-person mentor sessions. These sessions will offer them remote access to college readiness material, discussion with other scholarship recipients, and guidance from their mentor in between in-person visits. Online content will further expand each year the student is in the program as they move toward graduation from high school and entry to SUNY Ulster. Due to COVID-19, this summer’s College Mentor engagement session now includes an online connection with mentors and SUNY Ulster student leaders to challenge scholarship recipients to reflect on their experience over the past few months and encourage them to try something new before their next session.
In addition to providing a support network and getting students acclimated to online learning, mentors are also a resource for college planning. Through SUNY Ulster’s Collegian Program, students are able to complete college-level courses right at their high school. These courses not only give students a jumpstart on their college experience by offering them transferable college credits, they also are funded through the student’s scholarship. Mentors advise students on course options, including how courses will fit into their college degree programs.
While most of the PCS recipients are still in high school, this fall, four of the original group of six students from the 2016 Rondout Valley Central School District pilot program will attend SUNY Ulster full-time. One of the students from this cohort is entering her second year at SUNY Ulster, as she entered a year early. Mercado, the students’ college mentor, offered support with the admissions and financial aid process as well as with course registration. While two students chose to attend college elsewhere, Mercado was happy she was able to advocate for them on their road to college.
The lives of the students who attend the PCS program will be forever changed, noted Dr. Alan Roberts, SUNY Ulster President.
“PCS recipients not only accept our challenge when they enter this program, but they also make a PCS promise and sign our pledge book by committing to being responsible students who are active in and out of the classroom by choosing and acting with kindness, having an open mind and being ready to learn new perspectives, setting a good example for others, and making every effort to participate in PCS activities. In turn, we promise to build relationships through mentorship experiences and donor engagement opportunities during their time in high school, continuing to motivate them to act on their future educational plans in real-time.
“The students entering universities in the fall are stellar success stories who have become the ultimate beneficiaries of the support and guidance received from four years of mentorship in the program,” Roberts added. “I am proud to serve as a champion for the success of PCS students through their educational pathways and entry to SUNY Ulster.”
To learn more about the PCS Program and how you can support these first-generation college-bound students, visit our website: www.sunyulster.edu/presidentschallenge.
Nancy S. Clarke is Administrative Program Coordinator for the President’s Challenge Scholarship Program at SUNY Ulster. Fourteen of the President Challenge Scholarship students have been sponsored by the Johnson Scholarship Foundation.