Youth Leaders Fill in the Cracks

Kristina Erskine
College Access: Research & Action (CARA)

Every year, thousands of students apply to college, yet the number of those who actually end up attending is far fewer. Somewhere between the Department of Education’s handbooks and various guidance counselors, we lose students along the way between high school and college. Youth Leaders bridge the gap between students and educators, and help pick up the students that are seeping through the cracks that were otherwise unnoticeable to adults. Youth Leaders increase communication and awareness amongst students about college planning, and decrease the fear and anxiety students feel when applying to college.

At the Academy for Environmental Leadership, the student body is predominantly Latino/a and many students are immigrants lacking confidence in their ability to communicate with others in English because Spanish is their first language.

Alejo was one of these students. I knew Alejo since we shared the same classes and I knew that he was doing very well. He approached me after school one day to chat about his college applications. After asking about the status of his SUNY and CUNY applications, he simply replied that they were fine. I decided to check on his SUNY application with him anyway, since many seniors had only just started their application. Sure enough, his personal statement was missing.

“Have you started your personal statement in Senior Seminar?”
“Yes, but… I don’t think it will be good enough.” he sighed.
“What makes you think that? There is no completely right or wrong essay; it’s your experience or what you want colleges to know about you.”
“It’s not that; it’s the way it sounds. I don’t want to sound stupid.”
“But everyone has a different writing style. If it’s grammar you’re worried about, I can look over it and then you can get an English teacher to check it again.”
“It’s so hard though. It’s like I know what I want to say but I can’t express it exactly…You wouldn’t get it. You’re good at English.”
“I get where you’re coming from though. I cannot translate my thoughts eloquently in
trigonometry, yet you can!”
“But that’s different though…”

That’s the thing. Where so many of my peers dreaded writing, I loved and embraced it. I never found it to be a burden, which always shocked my classmates. I decided to convince Alejo that expressing himself through an essay was similar to expressing an answer in math.

We first “set up the equation.” I told him his first draft would be like setting up what he was trying to get the reader to find. The answer to be found is his point, his thesis. He “solved” (provided details) and “simplified” (made his point clear) until he felt comfortable with the outcome. Immediately, he became inspired and completed a first draft at home by himself.

From that point forward, we went over his draft together numerous times and once he went over it with a teacher in the final stages, he was ready to send it off in only three days. He had spent more days worrying about writing than he actually did completing the task. He thanked me for my efforts and said, “It’s crazy. You are just a student but you helped me so much. I would not have thought to ask you before an adult, but you put this in a way that no adult ever did.” Yet that was the key to helping him from the start. My role as a Youth Leader was vital to helping Alejo build confidence, and there are so many reasons why I was able to help him so well.

Unlike most adults in schools, Youth Leaders are moldable. They are constantly learning not only what they are being taught, but learning through personal experience and their peers’ responses as they experience the same things. Even if some adults can connect to youth, Youth Leaders have a direct connection to their friends. The fact that YLs are familiar to their peers allows them to relate to the youth more than an adult could. Youth Leaders are able to adjust to their peers’ needs in a way that adults are not able to.

Youth Leaders also understand the unique challenges of the students in their school. Schools do not always have consistency across guidance counselors and their support teams. What one counselor may be doing that works so well for some students, or at one school, may not work for all students in other schools. Each generation of students in a high school brings new challenges that are unique to its students. This is why YLs are so important. They are flexible enough to cover broad topics, while addressing challenges that are specific to their peers.

Whereas adult educators often become like bricks, Youth Leaders are like smooth moldable cement, filling the cracks and solidifying in areas otherwise overlooked by adults who are not growing or changing along with the school. Youth Leaders change along with the very students that need help, helping to ensure that students have the information they need. Oftentimes, Youth Leaders are able to help students more than an adult might because they are able to uncover an unknown personal challenge that is interfering with the college application process.

My role as a Youth Leader has allowed me to embrace my communication skills and realize that I had skills that I did not know I had, and that I could share my knowledge and help with other students. I enjoy using writing as form of communication, and I enjoy helping other students in my school to express themselves. Being able to help Alejo, who still does not yet feel comfortable expressing his thoughts in English, has shown me that the position of a Youth Leader requires skill and knowledge through training. It also requires personal time, effort, friendship, and encouragement that students cannot get anywhere else in the school. Another student may have an incredible skill to share and they may not even know it until they become a Youth Leader.