She Says Giving Students Voice and Choice Empowers Them To Take Charge Of Their Futures

The third oldest of 10 children, Elizabeth Herrera is a first-generation college graduate. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when they both were just 20 years old. Neither arrived with much more than a grade-school education.

“Just graduating from high school has been a big milestone in my family,” shared Herrera, who grew up in Wilson County, North Carolina, where the population is less than 50,000. “Entering high school, I had seven siblings looking up to me to see what I was going to do in the future.”

Unfortunately, says Herrera, she didn’t have the “luxury” of having a counselor or adviser who could walk her through the process of applying to college. With a six-year gap between Herrera and her older sibling, there was no one in her family from whom she could seek guidance. As it turned out, a couple of her teachers were available to help Herrera navigate the journey to enrollment.

Herrera went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While a student there, she joined LatinxEd, through which she began working with Latinx high school students in the region. Through the program, she learned about College Advising Corps whose mission is to increase the number of low-income and underrepresented students who apply to and enroll in higher education.

“As part of LatinxEd, we worked with students in three counties,” she said. “Having seven younger siblings and the experience I received from working with students through LatinxEd, I developed a true passion for young people. I realized I could be that person for them that I didn’t have when I was thinking about postsecondary education.”

Today, through a collaboration between College Advising Corps and UNC-Chapel Hill, Herrera advises students at two underserved high schools. She splits her time between Chatham Central High School, a small public high school located in Bear Creek, North Carolina, and Jordan Matthews High School in Siler City, North Carolina.

“The demographics between my two schools are very different,” explained Herrera, whose schools are just 15 minutes apart. “According to our enrollment summaries, of Jordan Matthews 858 students, 540 are Latinx population. On the other hand, Chatham Central has a total of 411 students of which 318 are caucasian. Although the two demographics are very different, I get to see how access and resources are scarce at both schools regardless of backgrounds.”

Herrera points out that at Jordan Matthews she often speaks with parents whose primary language is Spanish. At Chatham Central, situated in a farming community, Herrera advises students who may have not considered higher education possible until after meeting with her.

“I love advocating for my students,” she said, smiling. “My job is to share with both groups of students options that have the potential to increase economic mobility and also, quality of life.”

According to Herrera, students can get caught up with the expectations of others, whether it be parents, teachers, or their peers. Consequently, many are conflicted as to what they will do after high school.

“The one-on-one time we have with our students is invaluable,” said Herrera. “It allows us to have the conversation and ask, ‘What are you thinking? What do you want to do?’ We allow them to use their voice and to be heard. This is what makes college advising so impactful.”

In this video two Jordan Matthews seniors, Leslie Arenas-Ramirez and Luke Martinelli, share their experience with College Advising Corps at UNC-Chapel Hill and their adviser Elizabeth Herrera. Video produced by Carly Martinelli, Graphic Design, College Advising Corps Communications.