September 26, 2013

I Wish I Could Tell Her

by Tieisha Tift

Tieisha is an Advisor in the College Advising Corps, an organization that seeks to increase the number of low-income, first-generation college and underrepresented students who enter and complete higher education. Tieisha and eleven other recent college graduates work full-time as College Advisors in public high schools around Rhode Island.

There’s a student sitting in my office, each hand clutching the opposite elbow, leaning slightly forward. Nervous, unsure, hopeful. “Miss, if I work really hard and get all A’s this quarter, how much do you think my GPA will go up?” she asks me.

I wish I could tell her that with hard work, her GPA would shoot up to a 4.0, obliterating the low grades of her first two years. I wish I could tell her that, regardless of her GPA, half the colleges in the nation should be stampeding to recruit this vibrant, insightful young woman who has grand ideas about the kinds of leadership and guidance she and her peers need.

Instead, I give her the only honest answer I can, that her GPA might not get to where she would like it to be in so little time, but hard work this semester could only help her. Worried, she tells me “I can’t go to CCRI, miss.” To her, that would be like failing. I try to give her hope as I explain the benefits of beginning her post-secondary education at a community college, adding that she could still apply for four-year college. I feel her disappointment as she nods absently, unconvinced. Now, I feel like a failure.

Don’t personalize this experience, I tell myself. But how can I not? My students are people with such rich yet complex experiences and ambitions. The captain of three different girls’ sports teams, who is eager to use her education to heal injured athletes. The young man balancing his schoolwork with caring for his younger siblings while his mother works long shifts as a nurse in a different state. The young woman teaching herself Korean, because it will serve her later in her career as a government agent. The animated, charismatic young men who mistakenly believe that, despite at least 17 years of experience, they have no story worth telling. The students who have faced turbulent living situations, whose lives (and guardianship) are constantly in flux. These are the students that I see. They have entrusted me with their dreams, their very futures, hoping that I can direct them toward success.

I began this position wondering if my students would consider me as a professional despite my age. Three weeks into my role, I am overjoyed to learn that they not only value my insights, but count on them wholeheartedly. To them, I have all the answers. To me, I am still developing, trying to figure out how to best support them and learning to accept my own limitations in doing so. I cannot change their pasts or heal the problems of their present. What I can do is work with them and the faculty to assemble strong applications and gain the best financial aid they can. I can share what I know and research what I don’t. I can do my job, and do it well.

And accept that, for now, that is enough.

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