Redefining who is a college student so everyone benefits

Aspire Golden State Prep students on a college visit.

When Aspire Golden State Prep counselor Leonardo Ayala looks back on his own academic career, he remembers himself as an “average” student. He was a first-generation college student, and he remembers the support he received from his parents, immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, and how much they valued education and how he benefited. 

Now, in his current role, he thinks about what it means to be “average” and the expectations for going to college — and often, the limits — that are for students. Few first-generation students even apply to college (by one definition, 2 out of 10 college students are first-generation), and they face many challenges

“If you’re an average student in a family that has college-educated parents, you’ll likely squeak by,” he said. “But if you’re an average student, or worse a below average student in a community with minimal resources there is very little likelihood you’ll squeak by and make it to college,” he said. 

“If our school can have a focus on redefining average, and say the average expectation here is that you will need to apply to college and financial aid, if we can make that the expectation then we can level out average,” Ayala said. “When they get that admission decision, (they will be like) ‘I didn’t know that Cal State East Bay wanted me, or I didn’t know San Francisco State wanted me. That wasn’t in the profile I had more myself.’ The average will be more equalized.”  

Ayala is a believer that “students will meet the expectation that is put in front of them.” As a counselor, his responsibility, he said is to make sure all students are afforded the opportunity to go to college, and families are aware of their student’s progress and trajectory. He asks students where they see themselves in 10 years. What do they want to have hanging on their walls — a construction hardhat or a diploma? “What is the story you can write for yourself, and how will you get there?” he asks. 

College acceptance can redefine the way a student thinks of themselves, Ayala said. “Once they have that college admission in front of them, it really redefines their academic identity,” he said. “‘No, I am a college-going student because I have the paper right in front of me that tells me so.’”

Ayala said he understands that not all high school students will want to pursue the four-year college route. But, he added, if schools are aligned to ensure that all students are prepared for college, and have the support and complete the necessary course sequence to get in, all students will benefit and everyone will be afforded the same opportunity to go to college. 

He said he appreciates the commitment and alignment from everyone at Aspire Golden State Prep for setting that college going culture for everyone, so students have the opportunity to make decisions for themselves about what they want to do. No one else is limiting what they can do. 

“It’s just like, if we can plan our world and environment around our most vulnerable communities, we’re really supporting everybody,” he said. “At our school, I’m thankful that the language, the communication, everything that we do, there’s a mention of ‘college going.’” If we can prepare all students for that, we’re preparing them for a lot more, like going into the workforce after high school.”
Some follow-up thoughts from Leonardo Ayala:To do any of what was already mentioned, it’s important that a student and family has trust in the relationship with their school. For our counseling office, above all else, we value relationships and trust. Students are not usually comfortable entering any administrator office on their own. They usually see “going to the office” as a negative thing. If I can give a student a reason to walk into our office on their own accord, then that’s a step in the right direction. If a student stumbles in because their friend is trying to sign up for a college class, then I make sure to dedicate attention to the peer and begin to ask them questions because this is an opportunity I might not get soon again. Even if that first interaction is simply rapport. I use that minimal rapport when I see them again in the halls or after school. It’s a simple tactic but helps to deconstruct previous notions of interactions as adults as negative. My hope is to ensure students are seen at every level so they know they also have access to staff and adults who care for their wellbeing. Over time, that relationship develops into trust and allows for students to trust in the guidance of a staff member.

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