When Michaela Appah started at Capital Community College, she had nobody to help her pick a major, select classes, apply for financial aid or fill out the numerous forms that are part of the college experience. So, when she heard about a job with Achieve Hartford as an outreach specialist, she jumped at the chance to help incoming first-year students have an easier transition into college than she had had.
Having worked for the past two years in the counseling and advising office at CCC, the East Hartford resident knew the system and the people to contact when her mentees had a question.
“My parents were always working. I had to figure out stuff on my own,” says Appah, whose parents are from Ghana and whose mother still lives there. “Honestly, I think it’s a good idea to provide this service. If I had someone to help me the way we’re helping these students, it wouldn’t have been as hard a transition. Transitioning to college is overwhelming.”
Appah graduated this spring from Capital with an associate’s degree in Health, Science and Liberal Arts, and plans to study public relations and marketing at Central Connecticut State University this fall. She is one of five outreach specialists hired through the ALL IN! Coalition’s Summer Transition Program.
Working closely with CCC staff, Achieve Hartford Director of Programs Chris Marcelli oversaw the hiring and training of outreach specialists, who started working with graduating seniors from the Hartford Public Schools in late May.
“We hope that by reaching out to students when they are still in high school, we’re more apt to get their attention and allow them to see the value of working with the outreach specialists,” Marcelli says. “Of course, this year is very unusual, as the students were not physically in the schools. Still, we wanted our staff to start before the end of the school year to give Hartford Schools graduates the help they need to seek financial aid and start college.”
Appah helped about 20 of the 60 students assigned to her because the majority were not planning to start college this fall for two primary reasons. Some were undocumented, so they didn’t qualify for financial aid and couldn’t afford do attend without it. Others opted to postpone college because COVID-19 restrictions meant that all classes for the fall would be online.
Outreach specialists informed graduates of Hartford Public Schools about the Pledge to Advance Connecticut (PACT,) the state’s new free community college program offered this fall to first-year college students from Connecticut. Full-time community college students are eligible for up to three years free of mandatory tuition and fees. Students had to apply by July 15 to be eligible, and that’s where information, reminders and guidance from Appah really helped. Students who already have their institutional costs covered by an existing financial aid package would be eligible for a $250 minimum award each semester.
The deadline “did put a little bit of pressure on the kids to finish up with their financial aid applications,” she says. “I tried to let my students be aware of it. Who doesn’t want free tuition?”
When she first started calling her mentees, many hung up on her or didn’t answer because they suspected a spam caller. “It was a struggle at first. I had to be persistent.”
She made templates with the information they needed to send to the college with their application, such as their transcript and SAT scores, and the deadline. She emailed each student with the information and instructions and told them she was available 24/7 to answer questions.
Some of the students she served had provided their parents’ cellphone numbers, and those parents expressed gratitude, she says. Appah advised students about opportunities, such as work study, offered to students if and when the campus opens. She showed students how to log in to the college website and navigate their way around. While she video-chatted with students who faced snags, “we went through step-by-step while they were on the computer,” she says. “It was way faster and way easier.”
If students worried that once they left HPS they wouldn’t have access to the Internet, she let them know that Capital gave all students desktops and Internet access through hotspots. Since most Capital students are first-generation college students, their parents may be as confused by the college process as they are. Appah says the fact that she and her peers were Capital students and graduates cut through the confusion and frustration. She could tell her mentees who to contact for each problem to get quicker results. She suggested they use her name if they had a hard time, and sometimes she contacted a college staff person directly to enlist their help.