It was an exciting day at the high school: alumni returning to share college life, academic and social, with high school seniors. Fortunately, it was an intimate setting — the classroom rather than the large distant space of the auditorium — and so students were comfortable asking questions and alumni were comfortable sharing and thinking aloud rather than reading from prepared scripts. A panel of former students set up in my classroom and spoke, in turns, about dorm life and the rigors of college academic courses, college clubs and frats, socializing, budgeting time, costs of college texts, laptops and notebooks, but mostly about independence and freedom and how it is empowering and overwhelming at once. But the most important information came from a former student, who had gone off to study at a prestigious and large university. It was timely information for me, personally, because my own daughter was off to college in the fall of that same year.
I am enormously indebted this forward looking and tenacious student (because my son and daughter successfully followed his path in their college — setting this up as work study options in their college when no student at that particular college had ever pursued this approach before) and I share his story with all of my seniors every year, but I think it is important to reach out to all college bound seniors and so I am sharing it here. This young man was studying engineering and he wanted a college professor in his chosen field as a mentor — from day one — even as he was just beginning his Gen Ed requirements. He ingeniously decided that work study could be used to help him secure a mentor and allow him to work (not in the traditional work study assignment –typically, the university bookstore) but side-by-side a professor, who was doing research in the field he wanted to major in at the college. He made it happen. The summer before he went off to college he did some research on the professors in the engineering program and selected approximately 10 (based on their unique research studies in the field and his level of interest in those studies) and he emailed all of them to inquire whether they needed help with their research projects. The email introduced him as an incoming freshman who had work study and was looking to gain research experience and wondering if it was possible to do both at the same time. Of the 10 emails sent, 6 professors enthusiastically responded. Now the choice was my former student’s and he selected the professor whose research study was most exciting to him. At that point, the professor’s academic department set up this work study assignment with financial aid. When the young freshman arrived at the university in the fall of that year, he had made for himself a unique, personalized learning experience with a scholar expert in a field he was passionate about entering, and for his work he earned money via federal work study job to help him with his education expenses. This student gained a mentor, real world experience, an enhanced job resume, a glowing letter of recommendation for graduate studies, and a confidence in making meaningful things happen when you have a vision and you make a way.