College & Beyond: Building a culture that supports every student’s success

by Jennifer Quaye, Manager, Post High School Planning & Recruitment
Joel Tolman, Director of Impact & Engagement

This week, Common Ground’s first college acceptances of the year rolled in: Brianna, Jenny, and Janerry were admitted to Lincoln University, a historically black college in western Pennsylvania. If the last five years are a guide, before the members of the class of ‘16 graduate, nearly every one will be accepted to college and poised to matriculate in the fall.

The good news from Lincoln University came just days after our big annual College Spirit Week. While only a small piece of the puzzle, this jam-packed, all-college-all-the-time week is a microcosm of Common Ground’s larger approach to college success.

Day 1: Build a community of support for families as well as students

Last monday — the first day of college spirit week — nearly all of our seniors’ families gathered at Common Ground. Parents and students came with lots of questions — about the FAFSA, New Haven Promise scholarships, and the college financial aid process in general.

Common Ground staff and representatives from New Haven Promise were on hand to answer these questions — but many of the most valuable answers came from exchanges among the families present. Parents shared lessons learned about from helping older students try to navigate college, and about their own experiences returning to college as adults. The conversation was about aid forms, but also about how to build better relationships with children as they apply to and head off to college. The evening was full of laughter and camaraderie, as well as hard questions — a space for honest, important conversations.

The lesson: Families need good advice and support — and some of the best advice and support comes from other families who are also navigating the process.

Day 2: Get all students out into deep experiences on college campuses


Common Ground freshmen take a tour of Yale’s campus.

 On Tuesday — college spirit week day two — nearly every student left Common Ground to spend a full day on a college campus. Upperclassmen headed just down the street for Common Ground’s annual Southern Connecticut State University takeover. Freshmen went downtown, taking tours of both Gateway Community College and Yale.

Some upperclassmen and teachers wondered if they could stay back to do schoolwork — arguing that since they’d been to Southern before, why visit again? Our response: there are good reasons to re-visit the same college multiple times, even if you are clear it’s not the right school for you. For one, the more you are on college campuses, the more you are familiar with what college feels like, and the more likely you are to succeed once you get there. Second, even if you aren’t planning to go to SCSU, visiting that school lets you know what questions to ask, and what you are looking for in a college. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll begin to notice colleges are different every time you set foot on campus — and you’ll begin to realize how dynamic, multi-faceted college campuses are.

Back on campus, students have begun to debrief and make meaning of their experiences. In one freshman guidance group, for instance, students shared their first impressions of Yale and Gateway. They identified responses in three categories — positive, neutral, and nervous — and then came up with examples and experiences that backed up their impressions. One student said that she felt really mature and confident. She interacted with adults and current students on campus, and could see herself in their shoes. Another student had the opposite experience — she felt uncomfortable, snubbed when she tried to be friendly with college students they met.

For us, honest conversations like these — in which student name their experiences, talk about how they felt, legitimize and compare those experiences — are a powerful way to build a community of support for future college students.

Day 3: Bring college to Common Ground — and engage all staff in building college culture


Students jam into the cafeteria for an all-school college fair.

On Wednesday of last week, more than a dozen schools showed up for an on-site college fair at Common Ground. Students explored options from the Army to pacifist-founded Earlham College, from large state schools like the University of Connecticut to tiny, private Sterling College in Vermont. These quick exposures to lots of colleges were certainly less meaningful than the deep exposures the day before. But especially for freshmen and sophomores, this college fair provided a low-risk environment to ask questions, learn how to interact with college admissions staff, and see the full menu of college possibilities. And for all students, seeing the cafeteria fill up with colleges set an important message: you are college material, and there is a college for you.

Later on Wednesday, during our weekly faculty meeting, Common Ground’s staff took a careful look back at what happened during the Tuesday’s visits to Southern, Gateway, and Yale. Teachers shared honest feedback: Some of our students weren’t prepared for this experience, and hadn’t represented themselves or their school well. Staff found themselves policing behavior rather than supporting learning. We talked about how things can be different next time: Involve teachers in the planning from the start. Organize activities in guidance that get students ready. Co-plan the day with our university partners.

This, too, is a critical lesson on building a college-going culture: It takes every adult in the building, not just a single college counselor, to get students on the path to college success.

Day 4: Drive home that college is a step along the path, not the destination.  


Julian Reid shares his experience as an undergraduate at Yale during an all-school POWER assembly.

On Thursday, the day ended with a POWER assembly — a Common Ground tradition, focused on celebrating community members and Common Ground students who exemplify POWERful leadership (Pride, Ownership, Wonder, Effort, and Respect). Because it was college spirit week, our POWER speaker — Julian Reid — shared his experience of coming to Yale after growing up in Chicago. He described overcoming his initial feeling that he didn’t belong at college — coming to own his place at Yale, find other young leaders of color on that campus, recognize that he had earned the opportunities available there, and take full advantage of what that school had to offer. 

Julian also spoke about finding his passion, and balancing his chosen vocation — banking — with his passion for jazz music. Julian drove home a point we are often trying to make to our students: College is an amazing experience, but it is not the destination. It’s a step along the path to building a life full of meaning. Similarly, the college application process is the easy part, and in many ways the least important part of the college-going process. Knowing what you love, and finding the college that’s going to let you explore and get on a path to that passion, is the important part.

Day 5: Celebrate our successes — and keep on moving

College spirit week ended on Friday with balloons, a DJ in the cafeteria at lunch, and what we hope will be a new Halloween tradition: teachers wearing their college graduation robes and other university gear to school for the day. What is college spirit week, after all, without a chance to celebrate?  

The reality, of course, is that college spirit week is just a tiny piece of what it takes to grow a culture that supports students’ success in college and beyond. We were back at it this week. We began editing together videos that our alumni sent us last week, providing virtual tours of their college campuses. Johnetta Elzie, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, spoke with students about setting aside college to pursue activism — and then returning to school with new focus and energy. Students tested out potential careers through their Green Jobs Cops placements — so that they know more about the work they love and don’t enjoy when they are thinking about college options. Staff celebrated SungIn Johnson — CG ‘12 and a junior chemistry major at UConn — who was recognized as New Haven Promise’s Scholar of the Month, and Arianna Pina ‘14, who successfully passed her exams to become a certified massage therapist. We honed students’ research and writing skills, poured over SAT results, and counseled alumni who are trying to get enrolled in January.

And, as we said at the start of this post, Lincoln University showed up for an information session with our students. They were so impressed by Common Ground’s seniors that they accepted three of them on the spot.


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