My secret weapon for getting into college

ByDale Dykes (op-ed)

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Amidst all the college-graduation success stories this time of year, it’s important to remember that a college degree still remains out of reach for far too many young people. Nationally, the college graduation rate for low-income African-American and Latino students has hovered around 10 percent for decades.

As a South Bronx native, I easily could’ve been a statistic myself. But last month I received my diploma from Syracuse University. I just started my first full-time job as a financial analyst.

Why did I succeed where so many of my peers did not? Two reasons: my mother and my guidance counselor. The first told me I’d graduate from college. The other made it happen.

We often talk about education reform and the assets that can provide students with the preparation they need. But we rarely talk about guidance counselors. It’s time to start: They’re an untapped resource we should no longer be willing to ignore.

As an eighth grader at KIPP Academy, a public charter school in The Bronx, I was assigned a college counselor named Mr. Weeks. Little did I know that, a decade later, Mr. Weeks would still be by my side as I accepted my diploma from Syracuse.

Nationally, the guidance-counselor-to-student ratio is roughly 500 to 1, meaning most students — and particularly those with the highest needs — receive minimal support when they apply to college.

But from the get-go, Mr. Weeks made it clear he, my mom and I were on a path to and through college together.

My mom cared a lot about my education, so when I struggled in my classes, he would touch base with her and then sit me down to talk it through. Whenever he saw an extracurricular opportunity that he thought would be a good fit, he pushed me to apply myself.

And he wasn’t just focused on my academics. In high school, knowing I was good at math, Mr. Weeks connected me to a local financial-literacy program where I could learn some of the ins and outs of financial management, inspiring me to study finance in college.

When it came time to apply to colleges, Mr. Weeks was my North Star.

I can’t describe the number of times I felt like crumbling in frustration. But every time, Mr. Weeks would just keep asking me if I trusted him. That reminder was enough to keep me going.

Ultimately, I was accepted into seven schools, including Syracuse, my first choice.

College brought a new set of challenges. Heading to a huge school like Syracuse was tough academically and emotionally. I left home for a place where I knew nothing and no one.

But I wasn’t alone. During my freshman fall semester, Mr. Weeks trekked up to Syracuse to visit. He took me to lunch, and asked me how my classes were going. I know people who dropped out of school from loneliness — Mr. Weeks was willing to literally go the extra mile to ensure that didn’t happen to me.

That doesn’t mean that there weren’t times I wanted to pack it in and give up. I came close during my senior year, when I couldn’t break a D in one course.

Mr. Weeks reminded me that I had come too far to quit and he even found some free tutoring for me on campus. It turned out that extra help was all that I needed — I ended up getting a B, a feat that seemed impossible just a few weeks earlier.

I think of my peers who didn’t have a Mr. Weeks in their lives. Roughly half of the kids in my neighborhood didn’t make it to college or dropped out because they didn’t have the safety net of a guide and mentor.

But here is one thing that gives me hope. My success doesn’t have to be an anomaly. All it takes to bridge the gap to college graduation is making sure that students like me have help when they need it from someone who cares.

KIPP has a wall of scholars, with pennants from every alum who went on to graduate from college. I’m up there now — and that’s because I had Mr. Weeks. He was able to see all along what I could be, even when I could not.