When I think back to middle school, I knew that I wanted to go to college. Neither of my parents attended college, so I did not know how I would get there - but I knew it was something that I wanted to make happen for myself. I applied to attend the early college in my community and luckily got accepted. I attended Caldwell Early College High School in Hudson, NC and could finally start to see those dreams become reality. #firstgenproud
Throughout school, I went through many different job options, as all students do. So let me take you down my career exploration path. At first, I wanted to be a tattoo artist, but then realized I couldn’t draw - which is a very important skill to have for that profession. Then, I thought I would want to be an orthodontist - but soon realized I could not fathom paying for that much schooling and also just staying in school so long. So I settled on being a forensic scientist. My stepdad is in law enforcement and was always open about the possibility of helping me job shadow or get an internship when the time came, this would combine a love for true crime and chemistry. So I thought, until I realized I hated biology and did not want to pursue that profession since it is pretty much split 50/50 for biology and chemistry. So I was left with not knowing what I wanted.
All of these professions required some sort of postsecondary education. I say this to express that I was fortunate enough to have been immersed in college-going culture at the earliest point I can remember. I had so many opportunities provided to me that might not have been there otherwise. Even though my program had a strict path to set every student on their own path to success, our school was fortunate enough to also be served by an adviser from Carolina College Advising Corps. During my graduation year, 2018, the adviser at my school was Laura Burgess. Doing some more personal career exploration on my own time, I finally thought I had settled on a job path. I met with Ms. Burgess, and I told her about how I thought having a job like our CCC&TI Liaison would be fun and something that I would like to do eventually. I had no idea how to get there and if it required any postsecondary education. So then, she was able to expose me to the world of Higher Education Administration. I realize that I would have learned about this once I did decide where I wanted to go to college, but I like to stay five steps ahead of myself, and it was comforting knowing that there actually was a name for that type of work. This was someone else making me aware of opportunities that I would not have been exposed to otherwise, or at least until a later point in my life.
Fast forward to the present year, 2021. I reached out to her to find out her thoughts on how she thinks my experience from when she knew me in high school benefits the work that I do now as an Appalachian CAC adviser. Laura said, “Baylee has been provided a very unique position coming from Caldwell Early College High School, which has an extremely noticeable and successful college-going culture, to serving as a college adviser at Ashe County High School--the only public high school in Ashe County. Baylee has first-hand experience with what successful college programming looks like in a high school, so she is able to implement many of the things that she experienced during her 5 years at the Early College. She has seen the impact that parent nights, college campus field trips, ACT/SAT prep sessions, FAFSA nights, one-on-one application help, etc. has on a student’s desire to apply to and attend college. Baylee is able to take this experience and reshape it to best fit her students at Ashe County High School. While not everything translates from her small high school experience to serving at a large high school, she is able to adopt strategies that will work on a larger scale in a school where she is the main point person for everything college related.”
Having an adviser in high school really benefited me in so many different ways. Granted, the culture at CECHS is vastly different from most schools, where our grade was a small cohort with a maximum of 80 students typically. CECHS was very big on team building and establishing relationships, especially since we would be with the same group of people for all 5 years. But, just having someone that was closer in our age and we knew had just graduated college really made all the difference. We knew and trusted our teachers because they were all very invested in our success throughout high school and after, and I knew that when I enrolled in the program. But, just knowing that Ms. Burgess had recently been in college and was able to help us navigate things in a fresher perspective really helped us all to trust her on a different level. Being an adviser myself now, I know this is the benefit of the near peer model that CAC bases itself around.
Establishing this relationship with Ms. Burgess really shows through still to this day, as we have stayed in touch and are still close with each other. So close that when I told her that I was thinking about applying to join AppCAC once I knew there was a program, she immediately offered to write me a recommendation. She wanted to give back and help now that she was out of the program, since others had helped her get to the position as well. When I asked Laura what she thought carried over from our friendship now tying into CAC values, she said: “Thinking back, I believe that the most important thing I learned from my experience with Baylee was that taking a personal interest and having an actual relationship with her changed everything. We trusted one another and that allowed us to work effectively towards her goals. If I had one piece of advice for any new college adviser, that would be it. Actually get to know your students. Although I was not able to do that with every student, I feel like I made the most impact on the ones I got to know--and they likewise had the biggest impact on me. I am sure that Baylee does not need to be told this because she has never met a stranger--everyone is her friend and wants to be her friend. This quality alone will take her very far in her personal and professional career.”
Growing up in Caldwell County, I did not really know of many other opportunities out there. Lenoir is known for the furniture factories and Stallergenes Greer mainly, where I have multiple family members working. I just wanted something different. I worked on the “fast food highway” which is what we call the section of 321 at Smith’s Crossroads during high school. That’s really all that there is. Now, working in Ashe County - it is eerily similar. So many families own Christmas tree farms in the area, that’s what they grow up knowing and want to continue to do, and there is nothing wrong with that. But there are those students, just like myself, that want something more. Something that I stress to my students, is that you truly don’t know of all your opportunities until you’re exposed to them by someone else or by experience. I luckily get to work with a Postsecondary Leadership Committee within Ashe County High, and this is made up of myself, our GEAR UP Coordinator, Career Development Coordinator, and Wilkes Community College Career Coach. All that students have to do is reach out, or we reach out to them. This is how I now help students find out what they want to do with their future. I truly love helping students find some sort of path after graduation, no matter what that may be.
While our jobs main goals are 1:1’s, family engagement, FAFSA, and college applications, something that I have had great success with at Ashe is going into classes and giving presentations - in all grade levels. It was not hard for me to get close to practically the whole faculty and staff, and they have all been so welcoming to me and are invested in their students success. Because of this, I have been able to reach a lot of students, to help promote a college going culture. And honestly, for the students that have no interest in attending college - they still like learning about all of the different options out there. In my short 3 months at the school, I have learned that there is a pretty good spread of college/community college bound students, students that plan to enlist in the military, and people that want to stay and work in their community. Students are eager to learn how they can take steps to make their future plans pan out, no matter what their choices may be. Ms. Burgess said, “Baylee is extremely personable, kind, organized, hard-working, logical, reliable and intelligent. All of these qualities are necessary to be an effective college adviser. I have no doubt that her students find her extremely approachable (+ very fun!) and constantly seek her out for help. Not only students, but I am sure that her teacher-colleagues have no problem giving up precious class time because they trust that the information and value that she is providing her students is crucial for their future success.”
When I share with students that I grew up in an area almost exactly the same, that gains their trust even more. They know that I understand where they are coming from, and I can meet them where they are. They really do trust me, and I can see the passion in their eyes. There are students that are applying to 9 different universities just to keep their options open; students that plan to continue to run their families tree farms and possibly pursue education later in life; students that are so burnt out from school and COVID that they just want to work for a local business after graduating; and students that plan to attend community college to give themselves a bit more time to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Even if those plans change, as most of us know, they do. But there is one constant - these students have a plan. This is the College Advising Corps goal as a whole, to help students have a postsecondary plan after high school. The relationships come naturally, and students look to me for guidance through these stages in their life. They trust me, just as I trusted, and still do, Ms. Burgess from Carolina CAC.
Pictured above: Baylee with a group of seniors she is currently serving at Ashe County High in West Jefferson, NC.
Pictured below: Baylee and Laura at CECHS annual Decision Day celebration for 5th years, May 2018.
*Perspective written by Ashe County Adviser Baylee Smith