In some Michigan communities, getting a post-secondary education feels like a distant dream. That's why more than 50 recent college graduates are working in high schools across the state to help those students reach their goal.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
It’s one of the first questions virtually every adult asks us when we’re little. For most of us, the answer changes a lot between toddler and teenager.
Leah Fast found hers during her senior year in college.
“I kind of liked teaching; I liked making that impact on people,” Fast says. “And, when I found this program, I was like, ‘wow…that’s like what I want to do with my life! That’s so awesome.”
After graduating from Grand Valley State University in 2018, Fast trained to become a college advisor through the Michigan College Access Network, or “MCAN.” The program places recent graduates as counselors in schools with historically low college application rates.
Fast is from Eaton Rapids. Both her parents went to college, and it was always expected that she would too. But that wasn’t the case for many kids she grew up with in that small manufacturing town.
“A lot of my peers either were going straight into the workforce, a few of them did go into the military,” she says. “When we think of college at Eaton Rapids, we thought of, you're going to a university; a big four-year institution. And that's just not really attainable for most students, where I'm from.”
This year, MCAN dispatched college advisors to 72 high schools. They work side by side with staff guidance counselors whose caseloads average around 700 students apiece.
“Their plates are just way too full,” says MCAN Advise Michigan director Melissa Steward. She says her program is designed to take some of the burden off the counselors.
“While they're focused on that social emotional piece that they're trained for that is so important, our college advisors are able to be hyper focused on college advising one on one with students,” says Steward.
Leah Fast splits her time between two schools. Three days a week, she works at Maple Valley Junior-Senior High in Eaton County. In this rural community near Vermontville, it’s common for students to go back to the family farm after graduation.
Fast understands that culture. She realizes not everyone is bound for a large four-year institution, so she makes sure her students know all their options. It might be an associate’s degree or a skilled trades certification. Virtually every profession is going hi-tech, Fast says…including agriculture.
“Driving a tractor is not as easy as you may think,” she notes. “The more advanced tractors get, it's like a computer. So having to understand, how do you work something like that is something you really need that post-secondary education for.”
Maple Valley students don’t have to travel far for an example.
A few miles away, Tina Venkovsky manages her family’s dairy farm. “Moo-Ville” is a local attraction known for its homemade ice cream. Gone are the days of hand milking the herd of 175 cows. Moo-Ville has a robotic milking machine.
Technology is central to Moo-Ville’s success. Early on, Venkovsky realized how vital it was to learn the techniques of 21st century farming.
“I went to Olivet College and graduated with a four year degree, but I still came back to the family business,” she says. “So education is important.”
So important that she decided to take the very same route Leah Fast did. Tina Venkovsky was the first MCAN college adviser at Maple Valley High, back in 2015.
“So, it was still fresh in my mind of how to explain everything: college debt, college courses, how many credits to take,” Venkovsky recalls. “It’s a fantastic program. I’m glad they have given it to our school system. It’s very helpful.”
In addition to Maple Valley, Leah Fast is also working this year at Relevant Academy in Grand Ledge. It’s a place for students on an alternative course. Some are considered at-risk; others have medical or other personal issues that make Relevant Academy a more conducive learning environment.
Executive director Jennifer Varney admires Leah’s relatability to her students.
“Students are seeing her; she's visible, and they're comfortable walking up to her and talking to her,” says Varney.
But Fast’s youth isn’t always an asset. She says it can be challenging to get her fellow teachers to recognize her as another staff member.
“That’s understandable,” Fast admits. “I look like a kid; I get it. But I think with the kids, they have to remember you have to make up those boundaries because you're still a staff member. But also a young staff member!”
Leah Fast is looking forward to her new career as a college adviser. Next week, she’ll be there to help her students take a big step towards the future.
The application period for federal student aid begins October 1.