How did you get the role of college counselor?
In 2009, another school counselor was doing the high school grades at my school and I was doing the middle school grades. Most of the students, even the top kids, were going to community colleges. I wanted to change that. I was motivated to take college counseling classes, and then I came back and implemented the things I learned. Everything started changing then. Now every year I have at least one or two kids who get into NYU, or Fordham, or the top SUNY schools.
What changes did you implement?
We have a college-going culture in the whole school. I have a plan for the whole year — every month I have something. In May, I go to the middle school and teach them vocabulary words like transcript, rank, SATs. For juniors, the work starts in June; I call it June for Juniors. They work on their essays. We have schoolwide activities like College Signing Day and Career Day. We celebrate everything. In front of my office, I have a TV with a PowerPoint that right now shows a picture of the kid who got the highest SAT score ever in the history of our school, a 1400 — all the kids are seeing that.
How do you help students navigate the application process?
Everyone gets a folder with their transcript, scores, information about the federal student aid form, college fairs, deadlines, information about all the SUNY and CUNY schools. I tell them to look at each school’s profile of what they want from students. I explain to them, “Don’t be too far from the profile.” They know they should be looking for match, reach and safe schools. Around February when they’re nervously waiting for their acceptance letters, I prepare them: You’ll be denied to some schools, and that is normal. It’s part of the process.
What about the financial aspects of college?
I’m emailing my students constantly every time I hear about a scholarship. Our top kids who have gotten into NYU and Fordham have gotten full rides — they don’t have to pay anything. Most of our kids, who are low-income, get waivers and don’t have to pay the application fees or the fees to take the SATs. The problem is for the prep classes, which are very expensive. Our kid with the highest SAT score paid $700 over the summer for a prep class.
Do you ever encounter students who are undocumented?
In every class, we have one or two students who are undocumented. Before, I would advise them to get Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. I even had two kids get their green cards through me — they came before the age of 13 and I made an appointment for them with the Legal Aid Society and in a year they had green cards. Now that DACA is not available, I’m lost. If a kid is undocumented with good grades, it’s not a problem; they can get a scholarship that doesn’t require documents. It’s the money — how to pay for college — that’s the problem. It’s hard.
What does it feel like for you when students get into college?
In April, when we’re on spring break, sometimes I’m away and kids will send me an email: “Ms. Caba, I got in!” I’m telling you, I jump up and down! I feel overwhelmed with happiness. It feels like they are my kids, my real children. One of the students from my first graduating class went to NYU, got a scholarship to dental school and became a dentist. I wouldn’t say I’m responsible, but I think I helped somehow to make that happen. I feel like I would do this job for free.
Why is it so important for you that your students feel motivated to go to college?
Most of our kids live in poverty. No more than two or three kids have parents who went to college. I always tell them that the only way to get out of poverty is with an education. For kids who feel like they cannot do college work, I say, “That’s fine, let’s find you a trade. Let’s look at a certificate program that will help you get a good job with better pay.” To get out of poverty you need to cross the bridge. Higher education is that bridge.