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Columbia student reaches out to Philly seniors with college essay help

By the Notebook on Sep 25, 2013 08:24 PM

by Isaac Riddle

Applying to college, especially writing a compelling essay that will catch the eye of admissions officials, can be an intimidating process for many high school seniors.

This year, students in Philadelphia's District-run high schools have it even harder due to a critical shortage of counselors. So Marilyn He, a senior at Columbia University, decided to do something about it.

He, who grew up on the Main Line, said she has organized a network of 300 volunteer readers to help city students with their essays.

“With few counselors and so many other deficits, these students must be feeling lost in the college application process,” He said. “We want them to know we're here to support them in the only way we can.”

He, who attended Conestoga High School in the well-funded Tredyffrin-Easttown School District in Delaware County, said, “It was surreal to imagine that anyone would be going to schools under these circumstances.”

The idea for the service, said He, came when she read about the loss of counseling positions in Philadelphia schools. Nearly half of Philadelphia’s 50 high schools now lack a full-time counselor. Facing a huge budget shortfall, officials laid off all 270 counselors in June and, based on current revenue estimates, have hired back just 126. So far, only schools with enrollments over 600 have been allotted a full-time counselor.

Students can submit their essays for review by emailing Volunteers can apply to be readers by submitting an application.

To protect the privacy of the students, only He and a few others have access to identifying email addresses. They will act as intermediaries between the volunteer readers and the students.

Remembering her own experience with the complicated application process, He decided to act. Despite living in New York City, 100 miles away from Philadelphia, she was determined not to be limited by geography. She reached out to friends on Facebook to gauge the interest of her friends in volunteering. The response she got surprised her.

Spreading the word, He has established collaborations with the Philadelphia Student Union and PhillyGoes2College, a college-resource initiative run through the mayor’s office. She has even called high schools directly to inform them of this service.

Kensington CAPA, an arts-themed school with 415 students, went from having two counselors last year to one "roving" counselor who divides time between KCAPA and seven other high schools.

“When will that counselor have time to help? It is a lot for one person,” said Nicole Brown, one of the laid-off counselors who worked at the school for seven years. Told of the program, Brown said she acknowledged the need for help, but lamented the fact that the need existed at all.

“It is sad that someone from another state has to pioneer a way to help local students,” Brown said. 

On the group's Facebook page, He acknowledges that the service is not of professional level. But the point, she writes, is to make a difference. 

"These kids need the opportunity to apply to college. We need to refuse to let them be victimized by some idiot bureaucrat who took away their only source of advice."

Isaac Riddle is an intern at the Notebook.

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Comments (20)

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2013 9:50 pm
Taking the place of a professional is not giving back. It means that the school district can get away with not bringing counselors back. If you do someone's job, you are taking their job.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2013 9:32 pm
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 2:36 am
Thanks for typical union "not in my job description" attitude, typical failing organizations and lazy people. Because maintaining jobs is the ultimate role of the school system. We all agree the counselors should be back. But when they are, this is still a great resource to have available. In successful schools, everyone tries to help in the application process.
Submitted by Joan Taylor on September 26, 2013 6:22 am
I think you are too harsh. This is a great resource to have available, and I am heartened to read about a young adult who is willing to work on this, but... We've just been burned on all the neighborhood patrols who were going to keep our kids safe as they walked back and forth to school. That idea didn't survive day 1. I bet this kid will do a better job than the School District of Philadelphia did at managing volunteerism--after all, who could do worse? But in light of seeing how much hype surrounded the safe streets initiative, and how little resulted (with apologies to some volunteers, who are on the job), you can't blame those of us who work in the schools for caring that as a society, we have become comfortable letting the needs of those who are most dependent on us be met through the kindness of strangers. I am glad Marilyn He has such an active social conscience. I wish our political and corporate leaders shared it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 1:01 pm
EXACTLY. Free labor, scabs, what's the difference. These are people who don't have a union mentality which is to fight for positions not replace them with free services. But "what about the children" you ask? Hire back some guidance counselors who are now unemployed. How disgraceful is this?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 25, 2013 10:43 pm
The overwhelming majority of #phillyeducation HS seniors apply to colleges where an essay is not required, and if submitted, probably not even read. I would think this service would be for the top students applying to Ivy League and Ivy League like schools.
Submitted by linda (not verified) on September 26, 2013 9:28 am
Well, on the plus side it is like having additional tutoring in English. On the negative side, it makes the job of counselor seem limited to just college apps. I mean really, who is going to help the child with HIV,divorce, malnutrituon, abuse, trama, homelessness etc? What about those kids without any at the seven schools where there is just one roving counselor? I have no answers. Linda K.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 3:42 pm
Yes you have answers Linda, you just stated them. Seriously now, does Dr. HIte and the SDP care how and if these issues are addessed? Apparently not, I never hear him address them and this is what we should be asking. " On the negative side, it makes the job of counselor seem limited to just college apps. I mean really, who is going to help the child with HIV,divorce, malnutrituon, abuse, trama, homelessness etc" ?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 11:08 am
I believe that these student understand their aid is no way a "replacement" for actual counselors and advisors. I also hope that the school district understands this also. Many students who have resources and support while applying for college still could appreciate one extra young person to help, so imagine not having that support network. The bottom-line fact is that while counselors, administrators, and school district officials are talking about ways the fix the situation, many students are failing to receive the support that they need and deserve. This is not a new issue. For many high schools, this has always been an issue. It is just now that so many more students have the same problem that it has become a "serious" problem. What are the students graduating this year?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 26, 2013 2:34 pm
Does it look like the SDP understands this? What a non statement, "more students now need help."
Submitted by John Carson (not verified) on September 29, 2013 12:34 pm
I don't think that a college student can take the place of a counselor but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate what they are doing. For students with no others resources this seems like a great program. The school system shouldn't be falling back on the volunteers instead of hiring new counselors but in the interim this program is helping students in need. As much as you might disagree with aspects of the program or the effects, He saw a problem and took the initiative to make it better, not many people would have had such a response after reading about counselors being laid off states away. A great story.
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