MINT HILL – Years of hard work are paying off for Gina Coque, a recent Rocky River High School graduate attending her first semester at Yale University.
Gina aggressively pursued scholarships, because she did not want to put herself or her parents in debt from having to pay for college. Gina had her heart set on attending Columbia University for about a year, but she learned two weeks before the May deadline that she would have to pay $2,000 more a year than she originally thought.
So, she switched to Yale, an Ivy League school that offered her a better financial aid package.
“The prestige does play a factor for me,” Gina said. “As someone who doesn’t have generational wealth or family connections, Yale is a school that offers more opportunities that I can take advantage of.”
Gina credits CollegePoint for helping her through the college application process. CollegePoint provides free virtual advising to high-achieving high school seniors from low- to moderate-income homes.
Gina learned about CollegePoint through a pamphlet she received in the mail touting its free advising. The idea sounded appealing – almost too good to be true. She Googled the organization to see if it was a scam before signing up.
Soon, she was matched up with a Sarah Alford Nollenberger, an advisor based in North Carolina.
“Gina was really self-motivated,” Alford Nollenberger said. “I feel like I had very little to do with her success. She went after it.”
Low-income students face challenges when it comes to applying for colleges. Alford Nollenberger describes the process as long and complex.
“When you are a first-generation college student and don’t have that direct knowledge and experience within your family, you have to find that from other places,” Alford Nollenberger said.
Even if a student is lucky enough to attend a high school with a knowledgeable guidance counselor, Alford Nollenberger said the counselor could be overwhelmed with a caseload of hundreds of students.
“It’s just really overwhelming to even know where to start,” Alford Nollenberger said. “It’s also really difficult to go through the process without a guide.”
Finances are another barrier. Students may not have the resources to pay for a tutor who can help them with classes or pay for that course to better prepare them for the SAT or ACT. They may not have time to get involved in extracurricular activities or commit to internships because they are working to support their families or taking care of younger siblings.
Alford Nollenberger generally begins working with students the summer before their senior year.
Her goal is to talk with students monthly. She’ll focus five core meetings throughout the year around key points in the college application process. She’s also available for questions in between those sessions.
“We have shown that virtual advising is not only doable but it’s scalable,” program lead Nick Watson said, pointing to the use of technology as part of CollegePoint’s foundation. The program provides advising via video conferencing, phone calls, text messages, social media and chatbots.
“All of our advising, at the end of the day, is about meeting the student where they are at,” Watson said.
CollegePoint works with students across the country who have at least a 3.5 grade point average and score in the 90th percentile of the PSAT, SAT or ACT. They also come from families with incomes of $80,000 or less.
Gina earned the distinction of being valedictorian of Rocky River’s most recent graduating class.
She gained an appreciation for reading and writing while taking an Advanced Placement World History course at Rocky River. She wants to continue learning more about the power that words have. She understands that knowledge is power.
“The more you can learn about things and the more you can spread it to make information accessible, maybe some more change can happen,” Gina said. “Sometimes people don’t know why they are in certain circumstances and they don’t know there are solutions around it.”
Gina also has an interest in political science. She is particularly passionate about immigration reform. While immigration reform is often thought of as a hot-button topic for many, Gina can attach names and faces to the issue.
“For me, these are my friends and people I know,” Gina said.
As the daughter of immigrants, Gina enjoyed listening to the stories her parents told about their family in Colombia. The Charlotte native feels a connection to those relatives despite only seeing them twice.
Gina has also heard stories about how friends of the family overcame struggles to integrate themselves within American society. She supports immigration reform not only because of who she is but also because she believes it is right.
“Growing up and having to listen to politicians label people I know and love as criminals is a horrible, horrible thing,” Gina said. “I want to reverse that.”