Growing up in rural northern Pennsylvania was critical to my social and emotional development. So much so, I wrote my college essay about growing up in a town with more cows than people. The climax of that essay was how excited I was to get away from and out of the small-town mindset.
Attending college was not common in my hometown, where roughly 40 percent of my high school classmates would seek a college education. After graduation, many would work on the farm.
I often think back to these years and wonder how my life would have been different… if I didn’t have a mother who instilled in me the importance of seeking opportunities outside our town.
Throughout my middle school years, mom spent countless hours volunteering with our school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and was often engaged in difficult conversations as she sought to have a positive impact on the school—and on me. My mom didn’t go to college but knew that if she was going to help me reach that goal, she needed to engage with my high school community to stay current on ways to help support my academic pursuits after high school.
As the father of a newborn, I hope I can be as good a role model to my baby girl as my mother was to me. You won’t be surprised that I’ve also been thinking constantly about how humans advocate for their needs. Newborns know quite well how to advocate for their next meal, a fresh diaper, or snuggles!
Everyday advocacy is instinctive, but somewhere in our maturation process, many of us lose the willingness to speak up for ourselves and for the common good.
The good news is that advocacy opportunities abound, and you can build on them. For example, as my mother showed me, we all have critical roles to play in our communities. While you can run for office, write or visit your congressional representatives, and vote in every election, it’s just as essential to volunteer in your local school district, fundraise for the fire department, or spend some extra time with a student who needs help understanding the college admission process.
Advocacy comes in many shapes and sizes. As college admission professionals, we are frequently presented with opportunities to advocate for our students. Our everyday stories and basic routines are ones that should be important to our elected officials. NACAC’s Hill Day is a chance to take those stories to them, or at least their offices, in person.
I encourage you to attend this event. The more our elected representatives hear from us, the better chance we have of making an impact.
Can’t get to Washington, DC in early March? You can still make your voice heard. Many online resources allow us to continue to speak up for ourselves, our students, and to call out injustice. For example, NACAC and its affiliates often share Action Alerts, asking for support from members as we communicate higher education priorities to Congress.
Working with like-minded, goal-oriented professional groups has never been easier. Volunteer for committee service. Join one of NACAC’s Special Interest Groups that revolve around special issues or student groups. Facebook groups like ACCEPT (Admissions Community Cultivating Equity & Peace Today), Wonder Women, College Admissions Counselors, and the Rural Student Access Network allow us to stay connected, build our knowledge base, and strategize much-needed change.
Each of us plays a critical role in helping to shape the future for our students—even beyond the work we do in a counseling setting. Seek and take opportunities to help your communities—this can be as simple as clicking “share,” signing a petition, or starting a conversation. Students need us to own the role of advocate every day, for the betterment of our schools, our communities, and our country.
Ian Harkness is director of college counseling at Malvern Preparatory School (PA).