Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students from underserved areas apply to college?

I've held several positions on my campus including tenured faculty member, Faculty Fellow of Equity & Diversity, administrator for the Center for Student Success, and adjunct instructor.
In each position, I've taken a variety of opportunities to assist students from under resourced areas with the college application process and campus experience. At times, the supports have been campus-wide, and at other times the supports have been one-on-one where I've worked individually with students.

For example, on a macro level, I founded and developed two campus student success initiatives specifically for African American students, Men of Merit and Sisters of Strength. The initiatives brought student participants together weekly, offered monthly African American guest speakers who were successful professionals, and provided discussion around selected books that addressed challenges and successes of African American men.

On a micro level, I've helped students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASA), attended meetings with students and their advisors, introduced students to faculty members, and spoke with their parents, grandparents, and other family members.

I've acted as a reference for student worker positions and other jobs, advocated for students with faculty, deans, and student judicial boards, and on some occasions helped students locate legal representation and went with them to arraignments and hearings. With so many students struggling with the absence of resources, including food insecurities, I've helped students access groceries, bus passes, and gas.

How does the college application process change if you are a student from an underserved urban community?

The application process often begins while students are still in high school.
High schools situated in urban areas are oftentimes under resourced and understaffed, leaving gaps in providing students with necessary support and guidance to choose colleges that are accredited, offer degrees in the areas in which students are interested, and are cost friendly.

Students from urban areas are typically from low-income families, making applying for financial aid a part of the college application process. Families from urban areas sometimes have feelings of distrust among government institutions, including colleges and universities, and may feel uncomfortable disclosing personal and financial information on financial aid forms. Some families have such strong feelings that they refuse to reveal information necessary to complete the financial aid application.

Further, students from underserved urban communities are sometimes in situations where they have to live with someone other than their parents. Living with a relative such as a grandmother, aunt, or older sibling can prompt their applications to be selected for a Verification request. Verification requests require additional documents from students' families to confirm information originally submitted. The Verification request can delay the financial aid process and disbursement of funds.

What advice would you give to students from an underserved area who are looking to apply to college?

Look carefully at the colleges students are considering attending to see what types of resources and supports are offered on-campus. For example, do the colleges they're considering applying to offer Open Educational Resources (OERs) to reduce the cost of textbooks? Do they offer bus passes to offset transportation costs? How about meal plans and food pantries?

Oftentimes students from underserved areas are first generation college students (students whose parents didn't earn a college degree). It's important that these students explore the availability of social and academic supports for first generation students to help them navigate the transition to higher education.

Students from underserved areas are often students of color. Students should consider checking out the diversity of the campus. Are several racial and ethnic groups represented on-campus among both students and faculty? How active is the office of equity and diversity? Have there been racial incidents on-campus and if so, how have campus leaders responded?

Location, which is oftentimes overlooked, is one of the most important items students from underserved urban areas should consider before applying to college, especially when the location of a college is in a rural area.

Here's why: students from urban areas, who are accustomed to the inner city but choose colleges just outside the city or in rural areas often don't anticipate the isolation and inconvenience of rural living - until they are already on campus.

Students from urban areas are often accustomed to being within walking distance to stores, restaurants, food trucks, movie theatres, bus stops, clinics, and community agencies. Friends, family, and extended family, too, are often only blocks away. Students from urban areas often haven't needed or been able to afford cars and find themselves on rural campuses with no transportation miles from the commerce and convenience of the city. These students who are distant from social support systems often struggle with feelings of homesickness, boredom, isolation, and anxiety in their new environments.

I would go as far to say that other than academic proficiency, a rural campus location is one of the largest deterrents of success among students from urban areas.

How do you see a lack of resources in urban areas affecting a student's pursuit of higher education?

Students from urban areas sometimes attend schools with subpar resources, less qualified teachers, and fewer guidance counselors, which hinders or stymies academic preparation.

Students from urban areas who have missed, or have been guided away from, college preparatory classes are often lacking proficient skills to begin their college experience with credit-bearing classes. Many students need at least one remedial course most often in reading, writing, or math.

The lack of tangible resources such as technological devices and internet access can also impact students' ability to locate information, complete forms, and access helpful software apps.

How influential is a community's attitude towards academics? Does this affect students applying to college?

It's common knowledge our environments shape our beliefs. With this in mind, it makes sense that the culture of a community and its attitudes towards academics would impact students' feelings, attitudes, and beliefs about education. For example, when communities pass mileages, sponsor or host educational events, participate in Community Reads, and publically celebrate the academic successes of their community members, they foster a value for education and higher learning.

Where would you suggest students from an underserved community turn for help as they begin planning for college?

College access centers can be a valuable source of assistance that can help prospective college students with the college application process and financial aid applications.

Prospective students can also contact colleges directly to talk with admissions representatives, advisors, or even program lead faculty to get information about how to begin planning for college. Students can request campus tours, meetings with student navigators or advisors, or attend campus events.

Upcoming students can also tap into colleges' social media pages and other independent sites to gather information to plan their college experience.

Another place to find help in planning for college is through a role model or mentor who has attended college and earned a degree. This could be a teacher, family member, or member of the community.

What are some positive ways you see high schools in urban areas supporting students who want to apply to college?

Many high schools are connecting with local colleges and promoting College Nights, where students can visit college campuses with their parents and family members to talk to financial aid representatives, advisors, and lead faculty members. High schools are also providing college visits and tours to students who are seniors.

What is one thing you would like to see them adopt?

I would like to see more communication and collaboration between high schools and colleges in regard to academic expectations, so high schools are aware of the skills students need to begin their higher education experience with college level, credit-bearing classes.

How can colleges and universities better serve students in remote communities?

Lack of transportation is the largest obstacle for students located in remote communities. Providing shuttles or public transportation options would help students access college campuses and other resources.

It's likely that colleges and universities that provide transportation would also increase student retention and persistence. When students from remote communities have the means to arrive on-campus as well as a way to return to campus after holiday and seasonal breaks, they are more likely to persist.

What role does mentorship play in helping better serve underrepresented students?

Mentorship is critical for the success of underrepresented, under resourced students.
Colleges, however, should be cautious about implementing mandatory mentoring programs that randomly assign mentors to all first year students. These types of artificial mentoring programs are often unwelcome by students. Instead, mentorship programs should be completely voluntary, both for the students and the campus mentors, to capitalize on the impact of making connections, building relationships and a sense of belonging (just like we know is effective in the classroom).

Amelia Leighton Gamel

Assistant Professor, Faculty Fellow of Equity & Inclusion, Jackson College

Amelia Leighton Gamel is an assistant professor of College Reading and Faculty Fellow of Equity & Inclusion at Jackson College, the recipient of the J. Ward Preston Outstanding Faculty Award and the author of Help! My College Students Can't Read: Teaching Vital Reading Strategies in the Content Areas. Amelia is also the founder of two nationally recognized college success initiatives, Men of Merit and Sisters of Strength, both which promote the success and advancement of African American college students. Her successful leadership on-campus and in the classroom is a result of her no-nonsense but compassionate methods, interpersonal abilities, insights into the human experience, sincere respect for all people, and a genuine passion and value for cultural, racial, and social equity and diversity. Amelia is a national presenter who provides professional development workshops to teach faculty and administrators how to effectively encourage cooperation and promote success among marginalized, under resourced students.