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Amazing Mentors Pave Stranger’s Rocky Path to College

Amazing Mentors Pave Stranger’s Rocky Path to College

Last September, a high school student who we’ll call “Isabella,” posted in the PayingforCollege101 (PCF101) Facebook group requesting support.

This spring, thanks to two mentors she has never met in person, Isabella’s dream of college acceptance and funding came true.

Here’s her inspiring story.

From Strangers to Mentors, Isabella’s Call for Help Is Answered

Even in the difficult pandemic year, with good grades and motivation, Isabella had her eye on Rutgers and Barnard, among other schools. The catch? Undocumented and lacking in financial and social support, she found doors slamming shut against her vision.

Then one of Gregory Smith’s friends tagged him in Bella’s Facebook post.

Gregory Smith runs an after-school program that is part of the Clubhouse Network.

This advocate for underserved young people talks the talk and walks the walk. 

“I hate to see teenagers in distress and certainly about college…Isabella was being told by all sorts of people in her life that what she wanted wasn’t possible. Somehow she knew that was wrong and was willing to fight against it,” says Greg.

Greg became her coach. “Bella and I made a deal after we first spoke via Zoom that as long as she was fighting, I was going to fight with her until we got what we needed,” he says. 

Management Consultant and Development Economist Jo Ann Hair messaged Greg and offered her assistance. A mother to two students—one a freshman in college, the other a high school junior—Jo Ann helps young women, especially those who are less-than-privileged students, attain higher education and other opportunities. As a Barnard University alum and former grad school professor, Jo Ann offered her unique perspective to Greg and Bella. 

Without meeting in person, the three strangers committed to their shared goal to get Isabella a higher education.

  • Takeaway: If an undocumented or other high school student asks you for help, think about if or what you can commit. Consider your values, abilities, network and resources, challenges, and rewards. 
  • A team of mentors is better than one.

Isabella’s Resilience Impressed Her Advocates

When Bella’s grandmother, the person caring for her on a farm in Brazil, passed away, Isabella moved to the United States as a high school student to live with a mother she hadn’t seen in years and younger siblings she’d not really known. She didn’t speak any English until she learned it in high school. “When she writes she still has to translate what she wants to say from Portuguese to English in her mind,” explains Greg. “As is typical in immigrant families, she learned English so well that she’s ended up [playing translator] for her mother.”

Isabella reached out to counselors and family even before posting in PFC101. According to Greg, many people told her that she should just work cleaning houses with her mother. Her counselor was not optimistic she’d be accepted anywhere that she could afford and recommended she go to community college.  

When Greg and Isabella started working together, Bella believed she couldn’t even apply to college without a Social Security number. 

Bella has talked about majoring in biology and now thinks she wants to be a physician assistant.

When Isabella’s home life proved unsupportive during the college application process, she moved in with the family of a friend from high school. Community college was no longer even a backup option because she didn’t feel like she had a stable place to live. 

Jo Ann says that in response to her problems, Isabella showed “resilience and perseverance.” Greg says, “she’s amazing.”

  • Takeaway: All students need and deserve help attending college. As a mentor, the work is easier when the mentee is a motivated self-advocate.

Effective, Respectful Teamwork

Greg and Jo Ann played the role that many parents play, helping Isabella pick schools, looking over and editing essays, and reviewing her common application. 

The blocks to her success were considerable, however. Because she arrived in the U.S. after the cut-off date, Isabella was not eligible for a major scholarship, TheDream.US, that many undocumented students use to pay for a portion of college.

Jo Ann connected with Barnard friends to potentially sponsor Isabella, but while Bella applied to Barnard early, she wasn’t accepted. After that, Greg said she was down for a couple of days.

Then she started researching on her own, messaging her mentors with new school ideas. Admits Greg, “I was really proud of her.”

In this challenging year, she did not get accepted to any of the schools that would have paid for her to go to college. Greg and Jo Ann encouraged her to fill out other applications.

Greg remembers feeling extremely anxious about Bella applying to Rutgers and Penn State. “I knew she would be admitted, but I doubted she’d be able to afford them without a Dream.US scholarship. She’d gotten a lot of acceptances and was beginning to become dejected that she wasn’t going to be able to [financially] attend.”

Luckily, New Jersey recently made funds available for undocumented students to attend college and gave them in-state tuition. 

Greg stresses that applying for aid from the state and making sure she did what she needed to do to get in-state tuition was “all Isabella.” He and Jo Ann answered questions. 

Jo Ann worked “to provide a sounding board for decision making. My concern is for all the informal support that’s needed for a student without family, and to provide those missing links. Especially for young Latina women. Sponsorship, guidance, and mentoring are needed to handle the non-academic and academic challenges that one faces.”

  • Takeaway: Any help you give a student on their road to college based on your knowledge and experience should be respectful of the individual’s own decision-making, needs, and skills. 

Happy Day!

By spring of 2021, Isabella knew she was accepted at both Rutgers University campuses, Camden and New Brunswick. Her problem was actually attending.

Aid from the state and in-state tuition left a gap, and didn’t pay for housing. 

Isabella contacted Rutgers New Brunswick some 20 times by phone and email, but was getting nowhere. Greg offered to give it a try and sent them “a very nice email” detailing her situation.

Within 30 minutes, he got a reply. 

After a couple of days of back-and-forth emails, Rutgers emailed Greg that they were willing to offer Bella housing.

Living on the west coast, Greg recalls he got the email about housing at a “ridiculously early” 6 a.m. 

“I immediately messaged Bella and then Jo Ann. I heard from Jo Ann [who was “thrilled”] pretty quickly but it wasn’t until later that evening that I heard from Bella.”

“[Atypically] she called me. She was shocked and about all she could say was ‘How?. . .This is all I’ve ever wanted.’’ I was thrilled to be able to tell her—especially since I knew how far she’d come in the few weeks since we started.”

  • Takeaway: It felt like magic, but hard work made Isabella’s wish come true!

Mentors of Undocumented Students Must Be in it for the Long Haul

Jo Ann has offered to be Bella’s “fairy godmother” which means she will mentor her throughout her college career and transition to the work world. She is also coordinating donors to support Isabella’s “life” at Rutgers including dorm needs and travel.

Greg sees that Isabella currently has a gap of between $3,000 to $6,000 at Rutgers-New Brunswick, but says they’re working on ways to meet that need and are dedicated to providing Bella any other emotional and financial support she requires to graduate college. 

Someone from the PFC101 Facebook group gave Bella a book scholarship. A personal friend of Greg’s already bought her Rutgers gear.

In Greg’s experience, some undocumented students and parents “are hesitant to pursue college because they don’t think they can afford it. Parents are afraid to have their children away from them. Even when they are okay with their students attending college, they want them very close. That’s not always best for financial aid.”

Lack of available federal aid is another major challenge.TheDream.US has a scholarship for undocumented students, but some students like Bella aren’t eligible for aid through the schools that give it. 

Many schools don’t or can’t give enough aid to undocumented students to allow them to attend. 

Greg says, “having worked with Bella and another student this year I can also tell you that there were many misunderstandings with schools wanting to treat the students as international applicants—even among schools who said they give aid or other support to undocumented students. I spent a lot of time calling and emailing schools to let them know that both the undocumented students I was working with were not international applicants, and just as much time explaining why they didn’t complete the FAFSA.”

“It’s mind-boggling how we pay to educate these students from K-12 then abandon extremely smart and talented students when we’re facing a demographic shortage of college students in the coming years,” he adds. “The reward, of course, was helping students who wanted to go to college realize their goals.“

  • Takeaway: Being a “fairy godparent” to an undocumented—or any—student, while rewarding, is not a one-and-done deal. Be prepared to research which state and private schools provide funding. 

Interested in helping a child, your own, or someone else’s find funding for college? Consider joining Road2College’s community of parents and professionals in their Facebook group PayingforCollege101.

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Karen Sosnoski

Karen Sosnoski is a mother of teens and a writer based in northern Virginia. Her writing has appeared in literary and mainstream publications, including, most recently The New York Times, Healthline, and The Temper She loves telling (and reading) stories about resilience found through facing limitations.
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