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Great Story: Top Five List

Zoe Wender

By Zoe Wender, AmeriCorps Member 2019-2020

As a high school senior coach I was told that my students are expected to apply to five colleges. Early in the year I asked my session, “How do you feel about this expectation? Is this more than you were planning? Less? Does this match what you thought?” The answers were across the board, “I’m applying to 10…or 12.” “My plan is PCC, why would I apply to any others?” “I guess I’ll apply to a few schools, but I know I’m going to Portland State.”

Maida’s plan was Portland State. It’s close to home, she knows people that go there: it is familiar. I try to push her for more info, “What do you like about PSU, as a school?” She realizes she doesn’t really know. Right now it is the only school on her list. “OK, let’s do more research!”

It’s the first week of session and I’m asking students to fill out a work sheet. It’s a table where they are supposed to look up specific information for each of the school’s on their Top Five List. Most students are doing other things. I try to get people back on track, to little success. OK, maybe worksheets aren’t great for my group. I think about the number of work sheets in the curriculum book and get a little stressed. Maida is the only student giving the work sheet her full attention. At the end of session Maida brings it back to me totally filled out with additional information in the margins. “I learned a lot about these other schools. Thanks, Zoe.”

Maida stops being able to attend sessions after school early in the year. Her mom goes on an extended trip to visit family and her dad is a truck driver, so he leaves for work for days at a time. Maida has to be home after school to take care of her siblings. She starts coming into my office for makeup sessions. Sometimes, she’s in my office every day, hanging out during her free periods doing work, or watching Grey’s Anatomy on her phone, or talking to me and the MHS junior coach about life, even when we don’t have a makeup session.

By October, Maida had five schools on her list. The more she learned about other schools, the less she seemed interested in Portland State. “I like how small Warner Pacific is, the community seems really tight knit. Oregon State seems to have a lot of different types of academic support for students. I know that support like that will be really important for me in college.” It’s FAFSA season, so she asks the next big question, “How can I afford to go to any of these schools?”

We search for scholarships together. I recommend the Dell’s and the Renaissance. We spend her free periods, lunches and flex times working on her essays together. She’s feeling stressed between AP homework, college applications and scholarship essays. We do box breathing together and I help her make a schedule. She reads sentences out loud to me, “Does this make sense? What do you think?” I show her where she needs to elaborate on her ideas or fix grammar mistakes.

By early March, Maida had been accepted to five colleges and won the Renaissance scholarship. I am amazed at the amount of time, dedication and perseverance she put into this process, all the while taking care of her siblings, maintaining her academics and holding a job. I just keep thinking of her at the beginning of this year when she knew nothing about any of the colleges that she was considering. All she needed was a gentle push, someone to say, “What if you had more options than you thought?” and she was instantly ready to put in the work to pursue those options. Although there are more obstacles in Maida’s path, I know that she will put that same perseverance, dedication and time into her goals throughout college.

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