South Orangetown Central School District

More than two dozen Tappan Zee High School seniors will be entering college this fall as “first-generation” students, thanks to their academic achievements, perseverance and the help of their school counselors, teachers and families.

The college search and application process can be particularly challenging for students whose parents either do not hold post-secondary degrees or did not attend college in the U.S. and may be unfamiliar with navigating the paths to American higher education. The TZHS Counseling Department is taking key steps to help first-generation college students and their families see higher education as an achievable goal.

“Where families have at least one parent with a four-year college degree, casual conversations about higher education tend to begin many years before the application process starts,” explained School Counseling Team Lead Kelly Keane. “First-generation students typically don’t benefit from that extended, informal transfer of knowledge, so we work closely with them to bridge that gap.”

School counselors are adding a question to the survey administered to ninth and tenth grade students this spring to aid in early identification of first generation students. And, they are in the planning phase of introducing a workshop for all families to cover college basics.

Age-appropriate instruction regarding college and career exploration now begins in elementary grades, in accordance with New York State Education Department guidance for comprehensive developmental school counseling/guidance programs, which went into effect in the 2019-20 school year. At TZHS, overall student demand for college preparation is skewing younger.

The TZHS Counseling Department launched a series of campus visits last fall to ensure that all students have opportunities to see first-hand what different institutions offer. “We noticed a significant gap this year with seniors who hadn’t done college visits and felt like we really needed to address this and get our students on campuses,” said Keane.

School counselors emphasize that valuable resources are available for first-generation college and/or economically-disadvantaged students. School Counselor Glenda Rivera noted, “The SUNY system’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) provides financial aid, academic support and access for academically-promising students from economically and historically disadvantaged backgrounds. Low-income students don’t have access to the same opportunities as some of their peers for private test preparation, tutoring and talent development–and they may have to forgo participation in extracurriculars to work. These programs offer qualified students the option of gaining admission to higher level schools that they may not have otherwise gotten into.”

Similar to EOP, which pertains to SUNY schools, the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) expands access to private institutions. In addition, economically-disadvantaged students may qualify for the New York State Excelsior Scholarship, which covers tuition for eligible SUNY and CUNY students. Applying to these programs is time-consuming and requires additional paperwork, including extensive financial documentation, for eligible students to complete. But they don’t have to do it alone: school counselors are prepared to help.

Finding new ways to expand students’ access to college has contributed to school counselors’ professional growth, as well. “Financial aid is a complex process that can be very overwhelming for students and their families,” said School Counselor Jaime Holzer. “With most students, my role is letting them know how to access tools and resources–and following up with reminders. With our first-generation students, we need to walk through each step. But, in doing so, I have been so impressed by my students’ drive and initiative.”

Rivera has advice for first generation–and economically disadvantaged–students: “Disclose your obstacles up front,” Rivera advised. “Some students shut out the possibility of college without a meaningful conversation because of how they perceive their circumstances. But we can help with solutions. Post-high school education should be a reality for all who wish to pursue it.”

Group photo of TZHS Counseling Department