She looked at me with the common expression of the day—a combination of “I’m lost” and slight panic, “I’m gonna be late!” Truth is, I expected, and even looked forward to seeing and assisting disoriented students. It was the morning of Monday, August 22nd, the first day of the fall term, so I knew our campus would be teeming with new students. Yet something different happened that day: I recognized her! And thankfully, I remembered quickly enough to utter, “I know you. You’re part of College Summit; right?” She nodded, smiled, and sighed with relief. Jasmin and I officially met, and I walked her halfway to her class and pointed her in the right direction.
Just like that, two important parts of my life intersected. I began working at Florida International University (FIU) five years ago, drawn to the diverse student population and the institutional commitment to equity. And I started volunteering with College Summit four years ago, drawn to its dedication to transforming the lives of low-income youth by increasing their college attendance and completion. Like many others, I’ve long been disturbed by inequitable college-going and completion rates in the U.S. So, when an FIU faculty member told me about College Summit, I was immediately drawn to the chance to play a small role in leveling the playing field.
One College Summit initiative, held several times per summer, entails inviting rising high school seniors—called “peer leaders”—to a 4-day, 3-night college prep bootcamp of sorts, held on college campuses across the country. That’s where I had met Jasmin in 2015. Students, volunteers, and College Summit staff stay in dorm rooms and engage in a variety of college prep activities. Volunteers serve as either writing coaches, helping students craft a personal statement, or as college coaches, helping them generate a list of colleges to apply to.
College Summit recognizes that many, if not most, of its peer leaders will be the first in their families to attend college. Many are not yet convinced college is within their reach, that they can afford it, that they deserve to go, that they can be successful there, and that colleges are interested in students like them. In addition to the writing and college coaching, veteran peer leaders and workshop facilitators share candid, inspiring testimonials that start replacing (or at least juxtaposing) students’ apprehensive narratives with empowering, hopeful ones.
This past summer, I learned that College Summit launched a program called PeerForward, in which teams of high school juniors and seniors are prepared to plan activities and workshops to foster a “college-going culture” in their schools. High school students themselves are empowered to help their classmates get to college.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that students excel as peer coaches. We’ve seen it at FIU, home to the country’s largest learning assistant (LA) program. LAs are undergraduates who excelled in certain courses, take a seminar about effective instruction, and then help their fellow students master the course content and competencies. This fall alone, about 300 LAs are working within and outside of our classrooms to help their peers learn. And like College Summit, we recognize that our students’ learning and performance are shaped by complex factors. LAs therefore serve as informal mentors, too, and as evidence to our students that success is attainable.
In my current administrative role, I have fewer and fewer opportunities to work with students one-on-one. At College Summit, I sit beside 7 to 10 rising high school seniors, one at a time, slowly earn a bit of their trust, and hear them tell their stories and describe their aspirations. I’m reminded that while U.S. higher education has made a great deal of progress with respect to equity, we still have a long way to go. When I see Jasmin bustling into the library, I’m reminded that the work we do every day matters a great deal, and my commitment to higher education is renewed.
Isis Artze-Vega, Ed.D. is Assistant Vice President for Teaching & Learning at Florida International University in Miami, Florida