Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students from rural areas apply on their path to college?
I grew up in a small town in North Texas where most students do not go to college. I was first in my family to attend and graduate college and I did this because I know it would give me access to resources and networks beyond what was in my town. Because my family could not afford it, I knew I would have to pursue scholarship options, and my mother helped. She encouraged me throughout the process and helped me stay focused and organized each day when she got home from work. I think it was her dream for me to go to college as much as my own. Today, not only was she able to send my brother to college but she went herself, and now both my mother and brother are college grads! I applied for over 30 scholarships and learned tips and techniques along the way for each one to go smoother and better. I received a full-scholarship from the Gates Foundation and graduated from the University of Oklahoma debt-free.
While in college, I was so grateful for my scholarship opportunity that I would do mentoring and volunteering at local high schools. During this time, I learned about the challenges schools have creating mentoring programs in low income and rural areas. Specifically, in small towns, it is hard to find mentors because volunteers are limited and traveling to schools during the day could be a challenge. This is when I thought about creating a mobile online mentoring program where students can receive individual monthly one-on-one guidance, using their smartphones, to learn about the college admission process and applying for scholarships. We launched Student Success Agency and now we work with 52 high schools across the country from Hawaii to the Appalachian Mountains. Over 6,000 students have participated in our mentorship program and today Student Success Agency has over 100 paid near-peer mentors working in the 2017-2018 school year. I have presented at The White House as a social entrepreneur impacting student success and was named to the 2018 Forbes 30 Under 30 Entrepreneur list in Education.
Why is it important for organizations like Student Success Agency to support students from underserved areas?
According to the American School Counselor Association, students receive only 38 minutes of counselor advising time each year, which makes it nearly impossible for students to have adequate guidance and direction on college and other education choices. Counselors have large caseloads and are only available during school hours when students are in class. Most students are working on college applications and scholarships after school when counselors and the student support services are closed, which means students have to wait until the following day to get help.
Since Student Success Agency is an online mobile support program that happens remotely, students can receive guidance at any time as long as they have a cell phone, tablet, or computer. Our mentors are college students who are close to their age and have recently had success going through the process themselves. This easy and available way to secure expertise is essential for students living in rural parts of the country and underserved areas. Because everything is remote, they don't have to rely on only local guidance and instead are able to move their applications forward and learn effective strategies to help with their scholarship opportunities regardless of the mentor location.
What advice would you give to students from a rural area who are looking to apply to college?
Do not be afraid to move away. I went out of state to the University of Oklahoma and moved to Norman, Oklahoma which was probably ten times the size of my hometown. When I arrived, I did not know many people, but that quickly changed as I took advantage of all the opportunities offered to college freshmen. I went to freshmen orientation, joined a handful of organizations, and really got to know my dorm-mates. Knowing you will miss your family and friends should not stop you because moving away allows you to increase your network for your future. While in college, I met my business partner, got an internship with a company, and built relationships with alumni who all helped me start Student Success Agency (and I stay in touch with my hometown pals too!).
Where would you suggest students from a rural area who may not have access to an organization like the Student Success Agency turn for help?
I have a personal website where I help students by being a mentor in their pocket. Every week I send resources and videos that provide step by step guidance for students. When a student signs up, the first thing they receive is e-copies of my books absolutely free. Students should also explore other organizations like Strive for College and College Point where they can also receive some virtual support for free.
How do you see a lack of resources in rural areas affecting a student's pursuit of higher education?
I do not think it is lack of resources but rather lack of support. Finding a mentor and connecting with a group of people who are chasing the same goals is a challenge. The internet is the greatest library and has tons of content and resources but staying motivated and keeping up with applications and scholarship deadlines is up to each individual. That is why a support system is so important – a caring adult or peer-mentor. My advice to students is to create an accountability system where you share your goals with someone who is going to check in and keep you focused. This is what our agents do for students.
How influential have you found a community's attitude towards academics to be for a student's academic aspirations?
I have seen a strong community empower students to think differently. I have worked with communities all across the country that create very unique opportunities for their students. Some schools will have career fairs, motivational speakers, and college application days, which builds a college-going culture.
Did the students you work with typically visit colleges before applying? Do universities typically come to the rural areas you work in?
Most students we work with have opportunities within their school to go on college visits. If your school ever has a field trip or chance for you to leave your town, students should do it. These experiences will allow you to see all that is available even just a few hours away.
How would you recommend a student approach the subject of college if their family or others in their community has not historically had experience with a college education?
Regardless if your parents or people from your community did not go to college, this does not mean they do not want to help you. Students should focus on sharing their career plans and long-term goals as everyone can relate to having dreams
What are ways you find the high schools and school districts you work with are supporting students applying to college in underserved areas?
Some schools have College Submission Days where seniors get an entire day off to just work on college applications. Some schools have AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, which is a college readiness program designed to help students develop the skills they need to be successful in college. There is also College Advising Corps that works to increase the number of low-income, first-generation college students, and underrepresented high school students who enter and complete higher education. This organization partners with school districts to fund another adviser at the school when counselors have high caseloads.
What is one thing you would like to see them adopt?
Ongoing support. Schools all across the country close their resources and services once the last bell rings, when students need help around the clock. We live in a digital and on-demand world so our schools need to start thinking that way by providing more access even if it means virtual support. Students need more accountability so the more caring adults you can place in students lives, the better.
How can colleges and universities better serve students in remote communities?
Connect with students where they are -- on their phones. Every college should have texting programs where prospective students can text-in to learn more information about specific colleges. College representatives know that students are more likely to attend a college if they know someone on-campus so there needs to be more relationships built from the recruiting perspective for students from small towns. When college reps have that context, and can communicate this with prospective students, it will make going to college much more real and possible for rural students.
Are there any issues that the students you advise commonly experience once they start school? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?
The common experience I see students deal with is loneliness or finding a community once in college. A lot of times, our students are the first of their family to go to college, or come from rural areas. The challenge is not dealing with being away from home, but finding ways not to stay so connected that you don't make new friends while on-campus. Unfortunately, students will walk across campus while still texting their friends and family, never having to get outside their comfort zones. With social media and entertainment at your fingertips, a lot of students are living on college campuses, but technically still operating as if they are back home.
Any final thoughts for us?
Student Success Agency aims to become the first student text support center where students can receive guidance anywhere and anytime. We partner with districts to communicate what students are requesting from our mentors so these schools can support their students better during the school day. We are an affordable solution for families as we only charge $65 a month for students to join if their school does not pay for it in their school budget. We have created a waitlist where students can sign up and will be contacted when we have availability. For more info, visit: www.StudentSuccessAgency.com.
EJ CarrionCo-Founder & CEO, the Student Success Agency
EJ Carrion is Co-Founder & CEO of the Student Success Agency which collaborates with high schools across the country bringing innovative, mobile mentoring to students through monthly one-on-one guidance to increase their chances of college acceptance while learning how to apply and earn scholarships. In 2018, EJ Carrion was named to Forbes 30 Under 30 Education List and in 2014, he presented at The White House as a social entrepreneur impacting student success and is currently on a 40-school speaking tour across the U.S. After receiving a full scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, EJ Carrion attended the University of Oklahoma where he wrote his first best-selling book, Ignite Your Dreams, which was followed by the highly anticipated Accelerate Your Dreams. Upon graduation, Carrion launched the Student Success Agency, to help students just like him get more access to quality guidance in order to be successful in the college application and scholarship process. According to the American School Counselor Association, students receive only 38 minutes of counselor advising time each year which makes it nearly impossible for students to have adequate guidance and direction on college and other education choices. When schools work with Student Success Agency, students receive 38 minutes each month of one-on-one guidance, giving them a fresh, relevant, and positive focus to increase their chances of college acceptance and individual direction on how to apply and earn scholarships. Since launching in 2012 to date, 7,500 students have participated and Student Success Agency has over 100 paid near-peer mentors working in the 2017-2018 school year. For more info visit: www.EJCarrion.com and www.StudentSuccessAgency.com.