Can you tell us a bit about your history and your personal experience applying to and attending college?

Raised in the West Garfield Park community of Chicago, my educational journey to college differed from the majority of my neighborhood peers. Residing in one residence from birth to age 18, only 6.2% of residents in my zip code aged 25 and over hold a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to an average of 35.6% in Chicago city proper (U.S. Census, 2015). In contrast, I attended Skinner Elementary for grades one through six, a school focusing on classical education (now Skinner West), and Providence-St. Mel for grades seven through 12, a private school boasting a 100% college acceptance rate for over two decades, and named by Michigan State University as a “Model for Urban Education”. Educational statistics aside, there is not one neighborhood in the city, county, state, or country that I would rather hail from, as the character-building advice from peers, insight bestowed by adults, and wisdom given by elders directly contributed to my ascension as a student and is ever-present, still impacting my progression as a professional today.

Indeed my story differs, as my mother, an educator possessing post-baccalaureate education and serving as the director of a Chicagoland Upward Bound program (TRiO), with unwavering support from my grandmother and aunt, presented college attendance to me as a mandate, surely not optional in any sense. In turn, I applied to eleven colleges and universities including four historically black institutions, and received admission to my first choice, Howard University. Academically, socially, and mentally, attending Howard University impacted my life in every way possible. I encountered problems along my journey at Howard, from grade point average (GPA) fluctuation to balancing academic achievement with social engagement, really minor issues as I reflect now. Truly, completing my undergraduate studies alongside some of the brightest, most academically focused, purpose driven young adults in America was life-altering.

Consider this though, I was neither a first-generation college student nor low-income and purchasing textbooks, traveling home during breaks, participating in social activities, and paying account balances to continue enrollment were all issues I never encountered. Sadly, and similarly to most institutions in America, students with the aforementioned concerns frequently depart college. “At-risk” and underrepresented populations must be the focus of educators at all levels, especially when considering the shift in America's demographics. Our nation cannot contend with students from the world's academically elite nations by targeting our efforts on the dwindling majority, nor ignoring the necessities related with the increasing minority (percentage-wise).

What advice would you give to students from an underserved area who have college aspirations?

Students from underserved areas should identify a few engaged school administrators and teachers to provide direction from beginning the college search process to their arrival on-campus after admission. Assistance also can be provided in places students frequent, such as community centers, churches, or homes of close friends, as residents having attained postsecondary education, or those that have successfully aided their children in reaching college, can provide counsel. Students can utilize the numerous online resources designed to support students through the process such as College Greenlight and I'm First, and pinpoint external academic programs, which include but are limited to: Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound (TRiO), The Posse Foundation, QuestBridge, America Needs, You and College for Every Student (CEFS).

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

Many high schools in urban areas have counselor-to-student ratios that are too high, disallowing counselors to allocate the time necessary to properly assist students in the college application process. Moreover, if the postsecondary enrollment or completion rates of area adults are dismal, students are not privy to a sufficient amount of neighborhood residents that have the knowledge to aid them in navigating the process.

How influential is a community's attitude towards academics? Did this have an impact on you while considering and applying to college?

Communities that promote academic achievement and college enrollment in their schools, businesses, churches, public domains, and homes, send a strong message to students that excelling academically is important. In my zip code, 46.2% of residents are living below the poverty line, compared to the Chicago city proper rate of 22.3%. Of more importance educationally, 59.6% of residents under the age of 18 are living below the poverty line, compared to 33.2% in the city of Chicago proper (U.S. Census, 2015). One consequence of poverty is the necessity to consistently focus on day-to-day living, leaving less time to plan for intermediate and long-term planning. Accordingly, it is challenging to make educational attainment one of the central topics of discussion in neighborhoods that are plagued by poverty, as achieving postsecondary education is not a requisite for survival, rather a luxury more commonly afforded to those not living in poverty.

What resources do Trio Programs provide for students in underserved communities?

Pre-college TRiO Programs, such as Educational Talent Search and Upward Bound, offer first-generation and low-income students access to a group of professionals designed to support students in all facets of secondary educational achievement and attainment. Services such as supplemental academic instruction, tutoring, standardized college test preparation (i.e. workshops to prepare, waivers to take tests), assistance in completing the FAFSA, and participation in college visits, cultural events, and student-focused leadership conferences help to prepare students for the rigors of postsecondary education.

What kind of an impact has this had on students applying to your school from these communities?

Students engaged in one of our two pre-college TRiO programs statistically enroll, matriculate, and graduate from college at a higher rate than their peers. Our TRiO staff members hold the appropriate levels of education, are professionally experienced, consistently trained, and sincerely enjoy providing assistance to well-deserving students. Furthermore, a system of committed parents, relatives, and family friends sacrifice their time to ensure student participation is possible, and dedicated school representatives allow us access into schools and consistently communicate students' progress and concerns to us -- both critical pieces of the success of both programs.

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

While high school counselors employed at often under-resourced schools (personnel and money insufficiencies) desire to watch their senior students graduate and enroll in college, the lack of face-to-face time between counselors and prospective college attendees can seriously hinder students' efforts. Counselors and other administrators, often overloaded with state testing requirements, non-academic issues, requests for paperwork, and other tasks not associated with the college admission of said students, should conduct research to connect their students with area college preparation programs (i.e. TRiO). In addition, in every community lie educational, religious, civic, and industry-specific leaders willing to aid school administrators with weekly college application workshops, test preparation, and more.

As someone who has a master's in Inner City Studies Education, what is one thing you would like to see high schools adopt to help students who are applying to college from an inner-city area?

While there are numerous activities inner city high school personnel could perform to assist students, honestly, there must be change in the culture of how enrolling college is perceived, which can be achieved with the intentional planning of college-related activities throughout the four-year high school timespan. A few examples include, but are certainly not limited to, arranging a field trip for freshman to visit local colleges, receiving admissions presentations at each campus, a sophomore English assignment requiring the completion of a college application essay with topics taken from actual applications, inviting local college admissions representatives to spend a day of service reviewing transcripts of second-semester juniors, providing feedback on classes students should consider taking for application strength, or even granting conditional admission to the representative's institution.

How can colleges and universities better encourage and aid students in underserved communities?

Postsecondary institutions can benefit from the diverse perspectives academically talented students from underserved community can bring. Even elite institutions can benefit by sending admissions representatives to speak at National Honor Society meetings, engage in conversations with AP teachers, communicate with counselors to identify students with high academic ability, and engage in a day of service (mentioned above).

Where do you suggest students from underserved communities turn for resources as they begin their college search process?

Students should first take advantage of the wealth of information provided online as they begin their college search. Identifying local colleges and universities, viewing overall college rankings, specific degree program rankings, acceptance rates, college freshman class profiles (i.e. average GPA, test scores, class ranks), and on-campus extracurricular activities. Once students have an idea of the requirements to gain entry to the college of their choice, they can reach out to school personnel, community members, and locate non-school entities, such as college access programs (i.e. TRiO) that can aid them in their pursuit of college enrollment.

Can you tell us about some of the work you do to support college freshman with their transition to and retention in college?

Our Upward Bound (UB) students have the opportunity to attend a summer bridge program between their last semester of high school and first semester of college. Students are enrolled in college level classes for credit that upon completion are transferred to their new institution, and some students opt to complete an internship concurrently. From their first year in UB as a freshman or sophomore until they complete the summer bridge program before entering college, our staff does an excellent job of facilitating workshops designed to prepare students for college achievement, creating an accountable academic culture similar to what students will encounter once they begin their undergraduate studies, and ingraining into our students that while attending college is a privilege, college graduation is an expectation.

While our UB program serves 104 high schools students with senior cohorts ranging from 25-30 students in any given year, our Educational Talent Search (ETS) program serves 899 students in grades seven through 12, with senior cohorts ranging from 125 to 150 students annually. ETS seniors, many in their fifth or sixth academic year with the program, receive assistance completing college applications, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and in-school workshops on topics related to college readiness.

Student Support Services (SSS), also a TRiO program, assists first-generation and low-income students during the completion of their undergraduate studies. If our students choose to enroll at an institution with an SSS program, our staff will direct students towards the program.

The South Bend community is tight-knit and hard-working, preparing for an innovative future, and understanding that the most valuable resource to cultivate is their youth. Our two TRiO programs provide our inner-city students a cohort of friends that are serious about pursuing postsecondary education. Upon graduating from college, the majority of these students will return to South Bend and become vital parts of the economy. However, as they grow into their professions, some pursuing post-baccalaureate degrees, and start their own families, their children will not be first-generation college students.

Ethan Zagore

Director of TRiO Programs at the University of Notre Dame

Ethan Zagore serves as the Director of TRiO Programs at the University of Notre Dame, providing oversight for two U.S. Department of Education sponsored programs, Educational Talent Search (899 students) and Upward Bound (104 students), both aimed at assisting preparing underrepresented students for college academically, socially and culturally. Prior to his current position, he served at LeMoyne-Owen College (HBCU) in Memphis, Tennessee, as the inaugural Director of the Student Achievement Center. Originally from the West Garfield Park community of Chicago and a product of Providence-St. Mel High School, Ethan was awarded a Congressional Award honoring Outstanding Educational Administrators by Congressmen Danny K. Davis (IL) in August 2017. Educationally, he has obtained a B.B.A in Marketing from Howard University and an M.A. in Inner City Studies Education from Northeastern Illinois University. Ethan is currently pursuing his doctorate in Urban Higher Education at Jackson State University (dissertation stage).