Austin Buchan was “bit by the education bug” long before he worked at College Forward in his home state. After college, the Texas native moved to Nicaragua, and while there, launched an education bridge program for high school students. These students were forced to paddle from island to island to attend class, and prior to Buchan’s organization, they had no access to college preparation resources of any kind.
“I think education is the closest thing to a silver bullet we have for solving a lot of social inequities,” Buchan said.
That is why he wanted to work at College Forward when he returned to Texas in 2010. Buchan is now the company’s CEO. The Austinbased nonprofit pairs low-income, first-generation high school students with a peer coach who has recently graduated from a two- or four-year college or university. The coach and student build a relationship and set goals centered on applying to, enrolling in, and completing a college degree. To help their students attain those goals, College Forward also provides weeknight and weekend programming including essay workshops; college visits; and specialized programs on college selection, application, admission, and financial aid. The organization began adding these additional services just two years after its inception and created bilingual programming for parents in 2006.
Currently, College Forward partners with 11 Texas high schools, all of which are in the Austin or San Antonio areas. Students qualify if they are juniors attending one of these partner schools, are in the top 60 percent of their high school class, and either qualify for the National School Lunch Program or will represent the first generation of their family to graduate from college. College Forward students attend after-school classes twice a week, participate in the aforementioned evening and weekend workshops, and partner with their coaches to perform community service during their junior and senior years of high school.
Former board member Hank Ewert, a college counseling and admission veteran based in Texas, remembers being moved by the mission and scope of College Forward.
“They were doing a lot of what other nonprofits do now well before some of their peers,” Ewert said. “There are a lot of great organizations out there, but I really see College Forward as a trailblazer.”
The organization has also played a significant role in motivating talented college access professionals to stay in the profession.
Patrick Firme, now a college counselor in New Mexico, got his introduction to the college admission profession as a coach at College Forward.
“It was incredibly rewarding,” Firme said. “The relationships you build as a coach are special, and it showed me how capable I am of not just being a great mentor, but of being a great college counselor.”
Firme had 35 students on his caseload, a number that the organization strives to keep small to allow for closer relationships between each coach and their students.
“We’re accessible three days a week, and when we’re at their school, we’re present,” Firme said. “So a lot of the time, we were as much a positive influence in their day-to-day lives as we were in their college search.”
College coaches often help students manage the stress of balancing responsibilities at home, at school, and with their college search, Firme said. Roughly one-fourth of his students were recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a scenario that is not abnormal for College Forward coaches.
“These students have so much on their plates, that oftentimes they just need someone to talk to,” Firme said. “That was one of the most special parts of the job.”
Firme has kept in touch with a few of his students and recently watched one graduate from college.
“Seeing how happy and proud their family is makes all of the work in the world worth it,” he said. “You can’t beat that.”
Tyler Hicks is the director of communications at Austin College (TX) and the Communications Committee chair for the Texas Association for College Admission Counseling.