The news that the annual CAC Summit Conference would be held in Boston, Massachusetts in early December drew excitement from me the moment I heard it. The College Advising Corps has been hosting the Adviser Summit’s since 2005 to bring us college advisers together to share new strategies for advising based on data-driven research, encourage us as young professionals to network, revitalize our dedication to the program’s mission and values when advising our students; and to enjoy panelist, presenters, and guest speakers who are advocates and scholars across multiple fields and all invested in supporting our students. Dr. Nicole Hurd, our founder and Chief Executive Officer, welcomed and guided us throughout the events making sure to lead with gratitude, love, and a message of perseverance and support. With all of these opportunities at the forefront, I was also presented with the chance to personally develop myself through travel and exposure to new experiences and people with vast lived experiences. I could spend time with my coworkers to better understand their approach the world, whether that be how they address the problems their students face or how they simply get by on a daily basis. Summit was an environment where we could model what we seek to impart on our students as well as harness the power of our narratives to lead our impact.
I share these details to give context to the sort of possibilities afforded to me by this program and to explain my experiences and how I managed to connect with such a fantastic organization. I am excited by its investment in us as advisers and the potential for me to return this to the students in our communities. It is a theme of investment that has pushed me from a very young age to take chances even when I couldn’t predict the outcomes or guarantee my success. My mother invested in me when she moved us to Sparta, North Carolina from Cincinnati, Ohio before my first birthday and divorced my biological father who refused to participate as a parent and tried to steal her autonomy. I grew up in the Blue Ridge and watched as my mom, a hard worker and dedicated mother, supported the three of us on her own. She invested in me by pushing me academically, challenging me to dare for an education she had been unable to complete without the proper support and academic investment. She pushed me to try for leadership positions as I got older, and when my step-dad entered the picture, he expected me to use my curiosity and energy to consume as much knowledge as possible; they both instilled a belief that I should attend college.
Though this expectation came early, so did a host of lived experiences one can only have in a household of a blended family consisting of my step-dad’s five boys, their younger half-brother, and my mom’s three children (the eldest: a boy, the middle: my sister, and me: the youngest). Later in life, I would find I have a half-brother through my biological father. To say that my childhood was at times chaotic and complex, would feel like an understatement. We had a lot of mouths to feed and my mom was a hard worker, still, her unfinished college degree made bargaining for the wages she was worth difficult. My biological father barely participated in my life and where he hadn’t completed high school any child-support was minimal or never sent. That left my step-father, who had achieved a Bachelors in Earth Science’s Geology and granted me some insight into the postsecondary system, but even that couldn’t save his steady employment in the construction industry during the 2007 recession. My mother’s investments, and later my step-dad’s expectation of success through education, were necessary for me to seek to thrive during periods of my life where my family was just trying to survive.
I had high expectations for myself and a knowledge that money was tight; moreover, financial assistance was not guaranteed if I desired to pursue college. My parents also didn’t have an in-depth understanding of a system that annually changes its vocabulary, policy, and conditions of admittance and retention. We were living in Statesville, NC when a college access program through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began advertising itself in my middle school. I took the chance and ran with it, frantically completing the application and submitting it to the Visual and Performing Arts Center Early College High School. This was my opportunity to achieve an Associate’s Degree over a five-year high school experience where I would dual enroll at Mitchell Community College. This was what I thought might be my only chance to attend college with minimal debt and maximum preparation for the rigor of a four-year university. With joy and anxiety, I was admitted to the program! During my freshman year as I began my dual high school and college student experience, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s. This was the fall of 2010, so the College Advising Corps would have been in its fifth year of existence, speeding ahead to increase college-going knowledge and to add individualized assistance to students through the college-going process. It seems the CAC and I have been working on college access for a little while now!
My experience with the early college was necessary, tumultuous, and difficult with Crohn’s, and let’s face it: being a teenager in general is a confusing time that invites more questions than it answers. I participated in clubs; I tried out for plays; I spent time with friends and tried to formulate a sense of self; and I did pretty well in my classes, all things considered, until junior year when depression hit me pretty hard. My grades fell as my interest in my academics dropped, and when mental health isn’t a conversation at home, there aren’t words to describe feelings for things like that. I had so many people in my life express patience and interest in me despite these difficulties I faced, and just like my mom and step-dad had done so, they also invested time into my process. My mental health improved with therapy, and I graduated with my high school diploma in 2015 unsure of my next steps. Due to the aforementioned setbacks, I would complete the few credits needed to accomplish my Associate’s Degree in Arts at Mitchell Community College in the spring of 2016.
A persistent influence of support encouraged me to continue further with college, even if my influencers weren’t sure exactly how to guide me through the process they warned me about losing momentum. I didn’t understand how to apply for scholarships, so I didn’t, and we wrestled with the online FAFSA, something with which neither of my parents were particularly familiar. We did our best to navigate the checklist of things to do as I applied for Appalachian State University with the intention of studying Sociology. The imbalances of financial stability and access to opportunities my friends and family experienced, and the difficulties I faced as a chronically ill student had manifested an interest in college courses that explored social inequities and constructs of social realities. The early college and the degree I achieved with it, had allowed me to explore my interests and bypass the first two years of my undergraduate degree, saving me money, and propelling me into the bulk of my sociology coursework. While studying subjects on race, ethnicity, psychology, gender, human development, philosophy, and anthropology; to name a few, my interests in social justice and equity extended into a desire to service my communities. Through the network of sociologist and the partners within the college, I had the privilege of interning with College Access Partnerships during my senior year. One particular program within the department, GEAR UP, had a message that spoke to experiences familiar to my own and with a focus on trying to make college more accessible to first-generation, low-income, and underserved students.
I was able to work on projects within the program and assist students with college tours through Appalachian State University. We tried to encourage them to be curious, think ahead, and dream big with their college aspirations. Working with the students gave me a joy I hadn’t experienced in a long time, and I carried it with me through my 2018 fall graduation and completion of my Bachelor’s in Sociology. The experiences I had access to during both of my degrees were incredibly formative in a positive way. I learned a lot and met diverse groups of people whose identities impacted their daily realities and opportunities in vastly different ways. I worked through both degrees while dealing with Crohn’s and established a stronger sense of self and what I want to do with the rest of my life. The more inequity I uncover, the more I want to help expand other’s potentials for self-actualization and advocacy to help them regain autonomy. I also understood through my life, academics, and the lens of GEAR UP’s mission that education could be a portal for students to take those steps for themselves and become self-sufficient. I recognized that those investments from people during my own process, were a huge portion of my success, and others deserve the same chance I received.
When the program coordinator who inspired me during my internship, Rachel Fried, urged me to apply in spring of 2019 as an adviser for the upcoming Appalachian College Advising Corps, I was looking to do something more intentional than work in the food industry after graduation; however, I was still not convinced that I was truly best suited for the position. It took a lot of debating and resume editing before I finally submitted the application and began the interview process. From there, it was a blur of more interviews, accepting the job offer, onboarding, and training with a goal to get into the Western North Carolina school system as quickly as possible to maximize outreach. Our students need our support NOW, and the Appalachian College Advising Corps was eager to take up the challenge. Things seemed to come full circle as the county I was designated to advise in housed the town where my first investment in life was made. I would be returning to Sparta, North Carolina to assist students and families in Alleghany County with their college-going plans so that they can be informed agents in their choices. I and my coworker, Yesenia Martinez-Salazar, even had the unique ability to participate in a search committee for the director of our program. The College Advising Corps made sure to integrate our perspectives into the creation of the programming while also placing an emphasis on our growth as community members and young professionals.
From being a young student in the Blue Ridge of Appalachia, to growing and pursuing early college in the Piedmont, and returning eventually to the mountains of Western Carolina for my postsecondary education, there were people that invested in my potential and convinced me to keep moving forward in spite of obstacles in my path. The College Advising Corps seemed like a natural transition in my passion for equity in college access, and as the time for the Summit finally approached, I reflected on my path to this position and the investments in me over the years. I packed my bag to travel to Boston for the conference and almost laughed at the reality that I had never imagined this sort of career or possibility for myself. The theme of the adviser-focused conference was “Igniting Your Potential”, and Dr. Hurd, the program staff, our directors, and the event staffers delivered in a grand fashion. With eight hundred advisers converging from all over the nation in Boston on Monday, December 9th, the daily theme focused on Igniting Opportunity. We sat in on presentations from Boston University and Harvard University on their graduate programs in Social Work and Education, where they encouraged us to see ourselves as potential graduate students and continual learners. In the evening, our corps had the chance to get to know one another over dinner, sharing about our lives and the concerns for our students as we enjoyed Italian food!
This was already gearing up to be something I had never considered a possibility associated with my career. To travel for work, to a conference full of other young professionals, and to have access to strategy sharing, networking, and tips for being better as advisers; this sounded like something from a television show where everyone works in a high-end nine-to-five career! I had never experienced being uplifted and invested in to that extent when I was working in the food and service industries. Dr. Hurd led the events by embodying the values of grace and humility, grit and tenacity, a focus on data-driven advising, and an emphasis on learning and innovation. Every moment was tailored to push this to the forefront of our shared mission to increase the number of low-income, first generation, and underrepresented students who enter and complete college. The importance of narrative was evident in the storytelling of each speaker and the update on the status of the corps since its humble beginnings in 2005. Tuesday’s theme was dedicated to just that, “Igniting College Access”, as an entire day was devoted to improving our impact as advisers by utilizing resources, analyzing data to create effective strategies, sharing best practices, and strengthening our networks for increased chances of success. At breakfast, we even had the chance to represent Appalachian State University, raising our voices as loud as we could to announce our arrival to the corps during roll call. GO APP! FIGHT APP! GO. FIGHT. KICK APPS! Our director, Adam Warren, encouraged us to consider two professional goals and one personal goal to accomplish by the end of Summit. I spent most of the day trying to work on my professional goals of networking with twenty people by the end of the conference and finding new ways to reach my students, while cultivating my personal goal of being more comfortable participating in a room full of people.
I put my best foot forward during the adviser-led sessions introducing myself to advisers from Pennsylvania, Georgia, New York, and other North Carolina chapters of the corps. I learned about utilizing data to improve the college-going culture in my school and how to be effective as an adviser of diverse populations of students. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and ready to pour myself into the next full day of development! Wednesday was dedicated to “Igniting Future Leaders” and allowed us a moment to step into the realm of personal planning and future professional development. I opted in for a rural networking session during breakfast and got to meet other advisers in rural communities. I learned about where they served and found that many of their concerns and difficulties were similar to my own. We got to encourage each other’s successes and celebrate our students’ potential, and most importantly, we could gather each other’s contact information for future reference if we needed support. We were given opportunities throughout the day to get career and resume advice from State Street, and as a break, we took a family photo of the College Advising Corps of 2019-2020.
A highlight of Wednesday was keynote speaker Jose Antonio Vargas’ story of perseverance and his mission to tackle the racialization of the immigration debate and to confront the dominant narrative of what defines an American from the perspective of an undocumented American. His story and the mission of his organization, Define American, run parallel to many instances when our advisers help their undocumented students navigate against the odds of a system that is often impartial to their difficulties and financial struggle. These speakers and panelists challenged us as advisers to conceptualize what our goals were in life after the corps and to encourage our continued support of vulnerable populations in our communities. We attended adviser-led sessions that focused on college, careers, social change through leadership, and participation in non-profit organizations for the remainder of the evening before we ended the day with a display of skill from advisers who performed in the talent show. This show served as a dazzling reminder of who our students could one-day become and the possibilities they could one-day explore.
On our final day with the College Advising Corps at the 2019 Boston Summit, the theme was “Igniting Possibility”. I had managed to complete my professional and personal goals by now, and after traveling to Boston for work, I was embracing possibilities as they came. Adviser speakers shared narratives that reminded us of our purpose for the students, to be a support, to share resources, to assist and help meet the students where they are. We are in our roles to help them gain the confidence to make informed decisions that are in their best interests for their goals and aspirations… whatever that looks like for them! Dr. Tony Jack, guest speaker and sociologist, addressed diversity and inclusion of students in poverty at the level of higher education and the role that cultural capital plays in softening the matriculation of students in poverty to higher education. A final panel of experts continued this conversation by debating the realities defining free college and the implications of this growing trend in policy for college inclusion for students without the ability to fund college themselves. As Dr. Nicole Hurd offered us closing remarks, words of encouragement, and expressions of gratitude for our contribution to the mission and our students, it was difficult not to consider how different my life could have been if I had sold myself short of my potential or shyed away from chances to expand myself. The investments of time, support, and concern from adults in my life who recognized my potential beyond my circumstances has influenced me to pursue advising our high school students to return that investment.
The College Advising Corps Summit encouraged me to embrace my story and to share it, because it is central to why I am passionate about the work that I do and why it is important to give our students a chance. I am proud to have represented Appalachian State University at the 2019 Summit. I think it’s important to always expand Yosef: your vision, your skills, and to give your best to your communities and students with each step you take into the future. I have been a student in Western North Carolina and the Piedmont areas, where many of my opportunities were limited by the money or circumstances I couldn’t contribute instead of what my interests and strengths were as a student. With a network of advisers and professionals available to aid me in assisting students and their families in their college-going process, we can offer support, information, and resources for students to plan their best next steps. I am carrying the excitement and experiences from the Summit to share with my students and continue expanding their imagination of what is possible for themselves and how they define their careers.
On a final note, and in efforts to remain humble about my journey I want to extend a heartfelt moment of appreciation for the people who assisted me to this point in my life. I believe very few notable things in human history have been achieved by a singular force; and I am happy to review that my life is the culmination of forces that began long before I came to be and that I hope will continue long after I have been. Thank you to my mom who stuck with me through thick and thin, and the dad who stepped up; the teachers who saw things in me when I could not see them myself; the friends who encouraged me to keep going; my family who pushed me to succeed; the professors who presented me with a space to challenge myself academically; the bosses who tested my perseverance and expected hard work ethic; and the college access programs and professionals who eagerly do good to help our students and to develop their advisers. Reclaim your space, pursue equity, and expand Yosef!
Thank you, Summit 2019, thank you Appalachian College Advising Corps! We will fulfill the dreams and actualize the potential that those before us were denied, and we will never stop sharing our successes with others to uplift their possibilities!