Episode 11: Believing In Our Students

Featured Guest


Lamisha Alston

College Advising Corps Adviser, CollegePoint

Elauna Pettigrew

College Advising Corps Adviser,
AdmitHub/Common App


Nicole Hurd:  Welcome everybody to the Knowledge for College podcast. I am so glad you’re here to join us today. My name is Nicole Hurd. I’m the Founder and CEO of College Advising Corps. And I have two awesome advisers with me today. I have Lamisha and I have Elauna, and they are going to radiate a bunch of light and love and expertise.

There are two things going on in the world today that I want to talk to these two amazing advisers about. One is how they’re doing this in the digital age. As you know, we’ve been out of school in most places. These two have stepped up in beautiful ways to make sure that not only can they reach students through virtual means, but the whole College Advising Corps can do it. I also want to talk to them about it’s almost decision time and we’re getting some answers back about how this is going. I want to get some advice on how to navigate these next few weeks as we head towards Decision Day.

Lamisha. Elauna. You both radiate such light and love. I will also say they were recently at our board meeting and knocked it out of the park, so I also wanted everyone to see what we saw at the board meeting. But thank you both for joining me today.

Lamisha Alston:  Thank you for having us.

Elauna Pettigrew:  Thank you.

Nicole Hurd:  So let me start by introducing you all to everybody.

Lamisha, just real quickly, can you tell us just a little bit of your story? And again, 30 seconds to a minute, not too long, but what you did before you came to the Corps, your own background, and then also what you’re doing now with the Corps in terms of what piece of the College Advising Corps orbit are you part of?

Lamisha Alston:  Yes. I started with the Corps fresh out of undergraduate. I graduated from Georgia State University, and as soon as I graduated, my supervisor—that was actually my supervisor while I was a student assistant—suggested College Advising Corps to me. I thought that was really interesting that she saw something in me that she thought I could be a part of this organization. So I researched College Advising Corps a little and realized that diversity inclusion was really one big thing and I thought, wow, I would love to really serve a great body of students from all different backgrounds. I decided to apply and I was able to be one of the first advisers that actually started with the first partnership, so that was pretty great. And then I went on and received my master’s degree in higher education administration. And I came back to the Corps in this virtual space and so I’m really happy to be here and to be serving students right now in this virtual space.

Nicole Hurd:  Awesome. And Lamisha, first of all, you’re always going to be College Advising Corps family, but love to have you back after your in-school experience and now having you do this virtual work. Can you tell everybody… You’re doing one piece of the virtual work that was really a response to COVID-19 and the pandemic. Do you want to tell everybody what you’re doing?

Lamisha Alston:  Yes, I’m actually working with the AdmitHub team. What that team is doing… We actually have Oli bot who is artificial intelligence that will respond to students. And whenever Oli bot has a hard time understanding, it will be escalated to us, the advisers, and we’ll be able to respond to students. This is really a new space of text-based advising, where we’re really able to just send students quick responses via messages.

Nicole Hurd:  I want to talk more about your experience, because it’s so cutting edge and exciting and interesting. A huge shout out to our friends at Common App and AdmitHub. Class of 2020, we served about 173,000 students with Common App, AdmitHub, the chatbot, and our advisers. Now Lamisha and her colleagues are doing an amazing job. And there’s what? 375,000 students in your universe that you’re helping right now in the Class of 2021? And also doing some really interesting reaching out to families. So Lamisha, thank you for being such a pioneer.

Elauna is also doing incredible virtual advising. So Elauna, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your story?

Elauna Pettigrew:  Yeah. After seven years in the customer service industry, I went to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where I graduated with a dual degree in Spanish and communications studies. As part of my undergrad work, I really got into volunteering, and my story starts at that local high school that I’ve previously told you about. Whenever I was working at the local high school, I was working with students who were of low English proficiency and most of them were Spanish-speaking students. And I remember one day I went into class and one of my students told me, “Hey, Miss Elauna. You don’t have to worry about coming to class tomorrow. I won’t be here.” And his story was so much like many of the other stories from the students that I’ve heard in that school, because they were in a school that had seemingly failed them. They were in a place where teachers had “English only” signs on their doors, where they were sent to the office if they were caught speaking Spanish, where they were made to feel inadequate for less than passing grades. When in reality, their English-language skills were the real test and not the actual material, as they could demonstrate their knowledge if asked in their native language. They were just at a place where no one believed in them. And unfortunately, a lot of them were believed to not even graduate high school, much less continue their education. And a lot of them met this low standard and they didn’t graduate. They didn’t continue their education.

I remember feeling really defeated and I remember thinking that I don’t want to be a part of this system. I wanted to be a part of a system that told these students that they believed in them and then backed that up with the resources to help them succeed. And it was perfect timing because a friend of mine was a current adviser at CAC and he was like, “Hey, you know this system exists, right?” And I was over the moon excited. I applied that day and it’s been two years later. And I am still here and still so excited to be a part of that system that does not only tell the students, but also tells the advisers that they believe in them. And together, we’re really making a change.

Nicole Hurd:  Elauna, thank you for that. I could not have said it better myself. We do believe in you. We do believe in both of you and your fellow advisers. And we do believe in our students, and it’s so important that our students hear it from the two of you and your fellow advisers. So, thank you both for just… Like I said, I knew when we started this, I said you would radiate light and love and I think everybody now sees it.

The other thing I just wanted to talk about with you, Elauna. Talk a little bit about CollegePoint and what you’re doing as a CollegePoint adviser. Because like I said, both of you are doing virtual work but in different parts of the College Advising Corps ecosystem. Talk to me and talk to all of us about CollegePoint and the work you’re doing every day.

Elauna Pettigrew:  Yeah. So, with the CollegePoint program, we are working with high-achieving students. These are students… We have two different models right now. One of the models is if a student has like a 3.5 GPA, they’re in the 90th percentile whenever it comes to their SAT and ACT scores, and then they are within a certain income range. And that’s one model. And then now—in a way thankfully due to COVID—we now have another way in which students are put into our program, and that’s if they have like a 3.7 GPA, if they have taken two or more college-level classes, and then in the same income range.

It’s really nice because we are working with these high achieving students all virtually. And that’s the thing that makes our CollegePoint team so unique. Well, previously made us unique because we were the original ones who were virtual. And now we are the ones that are getting to help a lot of the other advisers with their transition into this virtual work.

Nicole Hurd:  I want to give a huge shout out to Bloomberg Philanthropies for helping us make sure the CollegePoint work happens in an impactful way. And the other CollegePoint organizations. We’re doing this work with some others. But really want to just shout out again to both of you, just your ability to innovate and think about students in this really difficult time and think about reaching them in different ways.

Elauna, you just pointed this out, but I should tell this story. We made the difficult decision to pull everybody out of school last March. It was actually March 13th that we pulled everybody out. That weekend we increased the server size so everybody could text out of our platform. We immediately turned to Elauna and her colleagues and said, “Can you help us do webinars to train the rest of the in-school advisors who are now out of school? Can you create a virtual playbook to help everybody get ready for this?” And Elauna and her colleagues just rocked it and allowed all of our advisers—over 800 of them—to be able to pivot into this virtual space. And then, like I said, Common App and AdmitHub called, and we got to do the work Lamisha’s doing. There’s just been a lot of activity since we’ve gotten in this pandemic, and I think we’ve learned a ton.

Can you both just answer briefly… A lot of people are skeptical. Skeptical about how much we can do virtually. Skeptical about a chat bot. Skeptical about reaching students by text or video chat. Can you both—and maybe Lamisha, you can go first—talk about for those people who don’t believe we can do this virtually, how has this worked for you and what do you see that makes you know that actually students do want to see us in that virtual space?

Lamisha Alston:  I think the fact that we’re able to reach so many students so quickly. I think this is like the first time that we’re able to really meet students where they are in the sense that students have other factors going on such as working, possibly taking care of a family member. And these are things that were all happening pre-pandemic, but with the pandemic, it was really heightened. And so, I think we’re able to see being able to reach students so much quickly and they’re able to access us at any point really is helpful.

And then I would also say that during the pandemic with virtual advising, students were kind of ripped away from what they knew. Their teachers, their support systems. And so just being able to know that we’re here, we’re able to pivot with you guys is really helpful. And I think it’s important to know that the virtual space is really flexible, and so we’re always pivoting. We’re always looking for new ways to reach students. And if one model may not be working, we’re always able to pivot and find a way to work and find a way to meet students where they are.

Nicole Hurd:  Lamisha, I love that because I have seen—and this is why the advisers are such amazing advocates for their students—your ability to pivot and your ability to innovate and your ability to meet people where they’re at. I’m just so thrilled to hear that you feel like you’ve got the freedom in this incredibly hard moment to throw an audible. To try something new. To know that this isn’t about being perfect. This is about being with students wherever they’re at, and it’s a time to really learn together. So, thank you for those reflections.

Elauna, what have you been thinking about as you… Again, skeptical about, hey, can a student really confide in me virtually? Can I really create connection virtually? How have you felt this year during this pandemic about virtual work?

Elauna Pettigrew:  I really liked Lamisha’s comment about meeting the students where they are, and I think that that is something that has really been an asset for us in the work that we do, because we have been able to. I’ve had Zoom meetings with students while they were on the bus before. And so just the ability to meet them where they are is so important. And with our students being home more, our meetings have really become personal because there are advantages to being in school, but then there’s also a lot of advantages to being virtual as well. And how more personal can you get than being in each other’s homes? A lot of our meetings are face-to-face virtually, and so we are brought into their homes. We have a better picture of what life is really like for them, whether it’s their siblings running and screaming in the background while they are trying to take care of them and talk to us about college, or the ability to grab a passing parent and say, “Hey, can I introduce myself? I’m so-and-so and I work with your student.” And so there have been a lot of advantages to being able to come into the students’ homes, figuratively speaking.

And just the fact that we are an innovative project gives us the ability to adapt quickly. And I think that that is one of the greatest assets and one of our strengths, because whenever we’re in school, things move a little bit slower. But while being virtual, as soon as we can think of something, we’re pretty much able to do it with our students and that has been absolutely amazing. And whether it’s the lack of technology, we’ve been able to address that with a lot of our students via the tech grant. Virtual work is difficult if the students don’t have the means to access it, but with our program and being able to address that lack of access, I think that we are really doing innovative work and making a huge difference.

Nicole Hurd:  I love the creativity and I love just the energy that’s coming from both you and the innovation. The ability to pivot, to think creatively in service of students. But we’re also about to hit a more difficult time of year because some people are getting really great news and you’re helping them think about financial aid and award letters and which school they should go to. Some people are getting some disappointing news right now. Again, one of the things we’re seeing in the college access and success spaces with students being able to apply test-optional, really selective schools got a lot more applications and so we’re hearing some noes right now as well.

Talk to me about how… And maybe Lamisha, you can handle the first question and Elauna the second. A, how are you handling helping students navigate that college choice now that they have some options hopefully? And then Elauna, how are you helping the student who might’ve had their heart set on school A and now it’s time to talk about school B or C.

Lamisha, you want to first talk about that choice and how you navigate choice when you’re in April of your senior year?

Lamisha Alston:  Yes. One thing that I always say is we want to help students be able to see themselves in the environment. And so, I’m always trying to encourage students to find the best match and fit for them. I always say, “Let’s do some research together. Let’s look at what resources the campus offers. Let’s look at what organizations the campus offers.” Always try to get students to see community and be able to build community. And that’s one thing that College Advising Corps is really big on, is just being able to see community. I always say, “Let’s not focus so much on other factors. Let’s focus on you. Let’s focus on where you see an environment that you can thrive in.” And so that’s one way that I’ve kind of been navigating the conversation with them.

Nicole Hurd:  And Elauna, like I said, I know CollegePoint students are applying to similarly highly selective schools. So again, I’m sure there’s a little disappointment out in the world right now. How are you helping a student who’s gotten a disappointing email or logged into a portal and not gotten the answer they wanted the last few weeks?

Elauna Pettigrew:  It’s been difficult just because our caseloads are a lot smaller, and we are able to build more of an intimate rapport with our students, so their heartbreaks easily become our heartbreaks, which is never easy. I think the first thing that we do, or at least I do with my students is validate. Like, this sucks. This is really difficult and it’s really hard whenever you have your heart set on something, and it doesn’t go as planned or as we want. But after we let that reality set in, then we move forward. And so, it’s not always in one conversation like, “Hey, well look at the bright side of this,” because it’s important to validate those feelings and to let our students have that moment, but to not be there too long, because one thing that we do is we work really hard with helping our students build a balanced list. We are going to have those reach schools, but part of our program is making sure that we have those safeties. And so even though it might not be a top choice, just remembering and reminding them the reason for their “why” in the beginning of even wanting to get an education. It wasn’t always so I can wear that name-brand hoodie. It’s a lot of the things that are behind the education and how even though this may not be their top choice, they can still end up in the same place, even if it wasn’t their dream school.

Nicole Hurd:  Elauna, I love what you’re saying, because there’s a couple things I would just want to tease out. One is to feel that moment. I think it’s really important not to kind of brush off hard moments. We all have moments that are difficult and that’s part of life and maturity and growing is to be able to reflect on those moments and have those moments and then as you said, kind of move beyond those moments when the time is right.

Also just want to acknowledge the college admissions process feels really judge-y sometimes. It just feels like you worked so hard on your high school career, you worked so hard on your application, you worked so hard for all these things, and then within a split second, it’s kind of a “yes” or “no” letter situation.

And just want to hold all those students for a second—and I know the two of you are doing this—to say, don’t let that judgment penetrate you. Don’t let that in. It’s actually not judgment. They don’t know you well enough to judge you. They had a piece of paper and some data points and they made a decision, but you’re not your GPA. You’re not your score. You’re so much more than that, and so let’s now pivot to where you can seek out that potential, where you will—I love to say this—where your spark will become a firework. Let’s find that space. And know very well that if you really wanted to go to school, there’s more ways than one to get to school. You can always think about transferring and other options. But I think what you’re both teasing out is it’s just so important to think about match and fit. But what is really most important is to think about yourself, your agency in this. And don’t let that in, that sense of judgment. It’s not about judgment. They don’t know you well enough to judge you. They judge a piece of you, which is your academic portfolio and your application. And you’re not your application, you’re a person. I think just the dignity in that and the fact that you all can reach out to students and give them that message is incredibly important, especially when we’re seeing some record application rates this year.

As we start to wrap up, again just thinking about your service. You both spent over a year doing this work now. Lamisha, if you could talk to any student or parent right now, what would you want to say to them about the next few weeks?

Lamisha Alston:  I would say that I know that it’s tough right now, but I would go back to our core values and the things that we say, which is, “I believe in you.” And so just to let them know that they’ll always have us to refer back to, they’ll always have us as resources. They’ll always have us to guide them in their next steps. And so, in the next few weeks, let’s just all be kind to each other, let’s all pull together, and let’s all get through this together because I believe in you.

Nicole Hurd:  Thank you, Lamisha. I cannot think of a better sentiment during a pandemic to remind us that we do have community even when it doesn’t feel like we have community, and we will get through this together.

Elauna, any thoughts and reflections you want to share as we wrap up here?

Elauna Pettigrew:  I really could not have said it better than Lamisha. I know right now, sometimes it’s hard whenever we’re scrolling through social media and all we are seeing are all of these acceptances and things like that. And while we may see other students’ acceptances, we’re not seeing all of the denials that they may have received as well. And so, kind of what you were hitting on. It’s so important just to remember that any rejection letter that you may receive is not reflective of who you are as a person or who you are as a student. A lot of the times, you were just as competitive of an applicant as any others, and at the end of the day, it’s really a numbers game. And so, it has no reflection of who you are or the values that you hold. It’s just important to remember that. And the school where you end up is really where you’re going to be meant to be. You’re going to find a way to shine on that campus just as you would any other campus. Just like Lamisha said, just remember that we believe in you, but what is important is that you believe in yourself.

Nicole Hurd:  You two have both touched my heart with that. I think this is why you’re advisers, because of what you just said and I just hope every student can hear… My wish right now is every student could hear the two of you because you’re right. Students need to hear, “You are enough.” And I hope every adviser hears, “You are enough.”

And to your point, so much of life is what you make it. It’s not your zip code of the college that you land at. It’s actually what you do once you actually occupy that zip code. It’s really about… Like you said, it’s not about the sweatshirt you’re wearing. It’s about what you do when you get on that campus, to add more voices to the table, to amplify, to show up, to be your full self. So, thank you for reminding all of us that that’s what this is all about. It’s about opportunity and it’s about… Lamisha started with this. It’s about diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s about, like I said, making sure that there are more seats at the table. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the two of you have created more seats at the table in your service. So, thank you for what you’re doing for our country and for our students and for your fellow advisers and for all of us at CAC. It’s an honor to serve with both of you.

Until next time, I hope you’re feeling inspired. I am. I’m feeling very inspired and very grateful. This is the Knowledge for College podcast. Thanks for joining us.