Lauren Katz, Director of CA Next Talks About What it Takes to Succeed in College

Before starting WhereWeGo, Leah and I both spent years working with Collegiate Academies in New Orleans. Collegiate Academies has some incredible programs to support diverse learners at all stages of their high school careers. CA Next is one of those programs. Lauren sat down with us and gave us some cool insights on the challenges students from Collegiate Academies face in their search for the right school and throughout their path to graduation.

What is your job, and what does that entail?

LK: I am the Senior Director of College Success at Collegiate Academies, which means I lead our college persistence and alumni support program called CA Next and I do some other projects and things to support college readiness, access, and persistence at all our schools and program. A lot of my day is actually just supporting people who do important work, mostly our alumni advisors who work directly with alumni to help them through college or their most rigorous post-secondary program. I also support when they build new programs for our alumni like our Next Friends mentorship program, our mental health programming, our FAFSA pushes, etc.

What are two things you wish every high school student knew before they applied to college?

Finding the right fit is paramount.

LK: College is a means, not an end. You'll finish college in your early 20s and then have your whole life ahead of you! College is your stepping stone to accomplishing whatever career and life goals you have -- it alone is not the goal. Knowing your passion and purpose behind attending college is so key, especially for students who are first-gen and low-income. All students hit a wall and struggle at some point -- what matters most is what you do when you hit that wall. If a student is clear on why they are attending college and what they want to do afterward, they are more likely to push through that obstacle....they have a reason to persist! If there is no deep and personal reason to attend college, then there is no reason to work through that struggle.

Finding the right fit is paramount...and complex! There are so many factors that go into finding the right fit college -- distance from your home, size, extracurricular activities, and so much more. There are also key factors that go into finding the right match -- graduation rates, likelihood of admission, rigor, major offerings, and of course cost. Each student needs to figure out what the most important criteria is for them and do tons of research and ask tons of questions. For students who are low-income, first-generation and people of color, I think it's important for a student's criteria to include: graduation rates for students of color, academic/social/financial supports for first-gen students, and full cost.

What are some common struggles first generation and low income students run into once they are in college?

LK: Similar to above, all students struggle in college, even students who have lots of money and family members who attended college. One major struggle that arises is not recognizing that everyone struggles. Social belonging can be a major asset or barrier -- when you start to struggle, you might think you're the only one going through that and so you could feel like you don't belong there (imposter syndrome). If you realized that everyone struggles in college, you will know that struggling actually means that you're just like everyone else there (social belonging).

Along the lines of social belonging, some students attend campuses where they do not get involved in the community there, perhaps because they're shy or perhaps because they don't look like the majority of the students on their campus. There are things that a student can do to boost their sense of belonging (e.g., attend study groups, join a club, talk to professors after class), but it's also good to try to find schools that will create a supportive environment that fosters belonging. When doing research, I recommend checking out if a school has an office for retention or first-gen students or multiculturalism -- that is often a first good sign!

What is some advice you would give a person in a similar role as yours? Someone who has to support and advise students in college?

LK: Use your experience to build connections with students, not to make decisions about them. It is so great to tell students that studying abroad changed your life, or that attending an HBCU was the first time you felt accepted, or that Pitzer's Psych program was a perfect fit -- you are expanding their knowledge of college and can build their college-going identity through vicarious experience with you. But none of that means that the student in front of you must study abroad, attend an HBCU, and/or go to Pitzer's Psych program. If you're supporting students in college, you need to do your research and understand the human in front of you, and your advice needs to be based on them, not you.

What kinds of supports do you look for at colleges when exploring with students?

LK: We love colleges that have supports such as:

TRiO/Student Support Services -- because they provide tutoring, advising, grants and so much more!

Retention/First-Gen Program -- because that means they are focusing on keeping students at their schools

Black Student Union, Gay-Straight Alliance, and other affinity groups -- because we want all our students to feel like they belong

Writing Centers, Math Labs, and Other Tutoring/Academic Support Offices -- because everyone can use extra help and this needs to be normalized

Career Services -- that help you build resumes, find internships, do career counseling

Academic Advising -- not all academic advising offices were created equally, but strong academic advising can have a huge impact on credit accumulation and progress towards degree (and therefore persistence and graduation)

Ben Ifshin