People often talk about support and accessibility for first generation students; how important do you think support is for all students?

Support is important for all students because of where they are developmentally -- discovering who they are and becoming confident in that person. Students need that support to know they can be themselves, they have room to grow, and they don't need to have all the answers. Support is a way for them to know they don't have to go through this alone and there are people out there who are willing to help them.

What forms of support do you think are most often missing?

The main thing I see missing is the understanding that not every student knows what the college application process looks like, especially in communities where going to college after high school isn't the norm. Students need someone to help them navigate this process because the intricacies can be overwhelming. We need to teach them the basics, because you can't assume that students come with this understanding. They need to know the differences between an AA or a BA, a scholarship and a loan, and between a major and a minor.

Why is support such a vital part of the college application process?

Support is vital because there are so many different steps that can be missed if a student isn't aware of all the requirements. There are so many deadlines: deadlines for testing, deadlines for the application itself, and deadlines for the FAFSA. If the application requires letters of recommendation, students are going to have to ask adults to write them and rely on them to get the letters back in time for the application deadline. Once you miss a deadline, it can really mess the whole process up.

What does good support look like to you?

For a parent or guardian:

Ideally they will hold the student accountable to their deadlines, goals, and communications with their college guidance counselor. They'll also be there emotionally because it can be overwhelming for the student with everything that is going on in their young lives, acknowledging when the student feels overwhelmed, and just letting them know that the student can do this.

From a mentor:

A mentor should set up a calendar with the student so all the deadlines for all the schools they want to apply to can be accounted for. Missing one deadline can mess everything up. They should also aide in keeping track of their to-do list; check-in with them during the college application process as often as you can because things can come up pretty quickly. Reaffirm that they can do this.

From a community:

It really takes the whole team, every stakeholder in that student's life, to stay engaged with what's required of them. This ensures nothing is being done twice, starting with a steady line of communication to make sure things are being done efficiently and deadlines aren't being missed. This should be followed by continued affirmation that the student can do this and achieve their goals.

From a school:

Schools should make sure teachers are completing their letters of recommendation in a timely manner and that college guidance counselors are aware of the scholarships and programs students may be eligible for. They should then communicate these resources to the student, mentors, and parents/guardians.

How can the overall community attitude towards education affect a student's college aspirations?

It can really go two ways, negative and positive. Who they're around can affect how they see their future self, especially for first generation students. When they're hearing their families say they can't afford college, it makes it so they can't see a way out. They need to hear that they can do it, despite what their grades look like, despite the decisions they've made in the past. An encouraging community can definitely motivate a student who doesn't have that intrinsic determination; all they know is what they hear. So if they hear, “College is not an option, we can't afford it”, they'll believe it. But if they have one or two people who tell them, “You can go to college, there are scholarships,” it can be a huge motivator.

For students who don't have the traditional parent/guardian role in their life, where can they turn?

What I've found working with youth in foster care at Treehouse is that there are so many people who are willing and would love to make their goal of college a reality. It is really just a matter of going out and finding them.

How would you encourage students to ask for help who may be afraid to?

With my students, if they're nervous about asking for help, I'll maybe ask them what their needs are and have them write it out. Then maybe we'd roleplay what it will be like to communicate those needs to that person. Basically, whatever they need to do to make them feel prepared. It's important to empower students in high school because this is something that they will have to learn if they're going to move on to college.

What is the role of a high school when providing support to students who may be struggling?

Most high schools have a career or college counselor in addition to the traditional school counselor; their role should be to support students with post-secondary options. They should help create awareness around college-prep programs that their school is collaborating with, and work with students to get them connected to those resources. Most importantly, they should make sure every student has a plan for their immediate future after graduation.

What are ways we can bridge the knowledge gap between students in the college application process and parents/guardians who are not familiar with the process?

Parents need to be included into the entire process of applying to college, and communication is key. All stakeholders in that student's life need to be brought to the same table. Mentors, like myself, need to make sure that we're communicating with the parent or guardian about what that student is working on, so they can help as much as they are able to. It starts with updates, but if they want to be more involved, help educate them on the entire processes.

How would you recommend a student approach the subject of college if their family has not historically had experience with a college application?

I would recommend that the student create some kind of plan on how they're going to explain to their family why they want to go to college and how they're going to get there. Students should start conversations as early in the process as possible. They should explain what resources they have available to them in order to relieve any anxiety a family might have about not knowing how this is going to work.

How can students who have always had the expectation of going to college be advocates for those who haven't?

I think high school students are extremely influenced by their peers. So when a student encourages another student to get connected to college resources, to look at colleges together, or to even just do their homework together, it can be extremely beneficial for everyone involved.

What is one thing you would like to see all high schools adopt to help students who don't come from a traditional background transition to college?

I would really like to see high schools have programs that give intentional support to students who don't grow up in families where college is the norm. A program designed like Treehouse's Graduation Success model, but geared towards first-generation college students. This would be a program where a positive caring adult would become a consistent person in that young adult's life; a mentor that would hold them accountable academically, emotionally, and even socially. They would walk them through every step that goes into the transition to postsecondary education with a holistic approach. I think a program like this could be just as impactful as Graduation Success.

In your opinion, how can colleges and universities improve their systems to help first generation, or under-supported students have an easier transition?

A lot of schools are starting to have programs that are catered to supporting first generation students and youth who were in foster care transition into postsecondary life. Some of them use mentors that connect with them regularly. However, a lot of these programs go unnoticed by students, so for schools that do have these programs, I would start by improving outreach.

How do students become connected with your nonprofit or other nonprofits like yours?

Students are referred to Treehouse by either a state social worker, counselors, or teachers through our website at treehouseforkids.org. For other nonprofits, students can be recommended or referred to programs by teachers or other adults in that youth's life. Many times, students who already have resources are the first to get recommended and referred, which creates an additional barrier for students who lack resources to get connected. It needs to be student-initiated, teaching the students how to reach out and get connected to these programs. If you're a student trying to get connected to these programs, I would talk with teachers or counselors you trust to see if they know of any resources you may be qualified for. If that doesn't work, I would go to Google to do your own research.

Final thoughts?

It is so important that students feel supported in their goals and aspirations. Sometimes we even need to teach them to have goals, to have aspirations. Once they do, we need to help them navigate how to get there, making sure that they have all the tools and resources they need along the way.

Tajiana Ellis

Senior Education Specialist, Treehouse

Tajiana Ellis is a Senior Education Specialist at Treehouse, an organization committed to providing youth in foster care with academic and other essential support to graduate from high school. Over the past four years at Treehouse, she has provided one-on-one support to more than 60 youth in foster care using the student-centered planning and Check and Connect models. Tajiana serves as a facilitator for student-centered planning trainings at Treehouse to onboard new Education Specialists. She has more than 15 years of experience working with young people, providing mentorship and academic support. Tajiana was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where she earned her bachelor's degree in sociology with a double minor in education and diversity. Tajiana received her master of science degree in youth development from Kansas State University. When she's not at Treehouse, you can find Tajiana serving at Evangel Temple Full Gospel Church and ministering spoken word poetry.