Making Dreams a Reality

I always found pleasure in watching my students grow—hearing their dreams and witnessing the efforts to make those ideas a reality. As students excel and articulate their aspirations, I always saw this as a call for an even greater investment from me as a leader and college counselor within the schools I served. When it comes to future successes beyond secondary school, it is true that advisers have authentic and unique opportunities to inspire students to dream big. This role is complemented with advisers offering resources and experiences to assist students in the cultivation of their goals. I see the adviser’s role in supporting college preparation efforts as four-fold: exposure, research, networks, and advocacy.

1. Exposure: Precollege Experiences

Higher education scholars often write about the building blocks of student success in three dynamic spaces: before college, collegiate experience, and postcollege outcomes. The first, which is my focus here, includes what students bring with them to college, such as their identity (demographics), aptitude, and academic readiness, as well as their motivation to learn. Advisers can influence precollege experiences by creating opportunities for exposure to college life.

For example, connecting current students with recent alumni enrolled in college can contribute to peer support and provide insight into the college admission process. Advisers might also challenge students to think about the alignment among desired majors, extracurricular activities, and what type of environment would best fit each student. These points are further heightened when students can spend time on college campuses. So, if possible, connect with the student activities or student leadership divisions at local universities to provide exposure for students.

2. Research: Colleges and Scholarships

Exposure to the college setting is key to getting students to explore colleges and universities. Consider sharing your own experiences being involved on campus and emphasize just how important it is to be a well-rounded college applicant. The earlier students hear and understand the value of this message, the easier the search for college and scholarship opportunities becomes. Students at the middle level can learn about the various fields of study, as well as the numerous clubs and organizations at local universities. You can challenge students to think about the “best fit,” while also sharing useful strategies for how students can manage the application process. We know many student leaders have jam-packed schedules, so offer strategies for time management as early as possible. Allow students to practice and report back to you; offer feedback and watch students continue to grow.

3. Networks: The Importance of Social Capital

We often underestimate the power of our own personal networks. As students begin to share their future aspirations, consider the people you know and how they can encourage your students. I often invite guest speakers for brief presentations, or even make formal introductions that allow my students to ask questions of professionals in their desired career field. I have found each exchange truly fruitful, especially as the correspondent reiterates points I have made within the school. I would always act surprised when the student returned saying, “Dr. Mathis, your friend said the same things you always say … Wow, your friend is so smart.”

Even if you do not know of someone in the desired field, encourage your students to reach out to those who are in the roles they desire for themselves. If we continue to teach students to investigate dreams, create connections, and then contribute to the communities from which they come, we are investing in a rich legacy of leadership and service. Let your networks speak to students and inform dreams.

4. Be an Advocate: The Power of Your Voice and Vision

As an adviser, you equip student leaders with the tools to accomplish great things. Also in this role, you can demonstrate your support for students and their efforts by serving as an advocate. As students think about and prepare for college, you can demonstrate your support by connecting them to various external opportunities and by writing strong letters of recommendation. There are times when students need a pep talk to be reminded of just how accomplished they are and the wonderful things in store for their future. As you seek out opportunities to support student growth, voice your direct support and encourage their participation.

With each opportunity, you are investing in their future. When you think of students’ future successes, your insight offers a narrative that spans students’ academic achievements and contributions to community within schools. At the middle and high school levels, some colleges and universities offer unique summer opportunities that help shape students’ future aspirations and opportunities. Learn about those opportunities available nearby, then help students and families see the value and importance of these experiences.

As you encourage students’ participation, you may need to inquire about scholarship opportunities on their behalf. Remember, your role as adviser allows you to witness and report the potential of students, both inside the classroom and within the school community. Share this multifaceted vision with those who will assist your students, so they can maximize their college opportunities.

The four points I offer here are not in isolation. In fact, you can consider many of the results of these efforts in concert with those of school and college counselors in secondary schools. Leaders and teachers in secondary schools can appreciate the collegiate experience, and how it can further equip our students for a lifetime of success. The question I offer here is this: What can we do now to ensure thoughtful transitions from secondary to postsecondary education? Advisers who connect with students outside the classroom or in addition to instructional time have a lasting impact on the pursuit of college and future success. Encourage students to dream big, then create and support experiences where students can practice in the areas where they plan to excel. —

Sidebar: Intrapersonal Development

The intrapersonal development of students is key for a successful transition from secondary to postsecondary education. When we think about a lifetime of success—college, career, and otherwise—students need to develop into their own advocates and become individuals who are resilient and self-efficient. But how can we cultivate those noncognitive skills? Through cocurricular experiences, you can assist students’ development by first providing an example and helping students to unpack some of the challenges faced during the school year. It is important for students to find their voice and best represent interests for their needs, dreams, and future success. When students face a challenge, ask questions that allow them to reflect first, and then plan for solutions. I often ask students, “What will you need to do to address this challenge?” or “What information, resource, or experience can move you forward from this obstacle?” Within these conversations—sometimes one-on-one, other times in small groups—students find strength. As students continue to prepare for college, advisers’ support for intrapersonal development—especially the ability for students to envision themselves as successful and to articulate their needs and desire for success—is imperative.

Sidebar: Planning for College-Tips to Share with Middle Level Students:

  1. Successfully complete challenging classes
  2. Develop solid critical-thinking and study skills
  3. Practice time-management strategies
  4. Research colleges and universities
  5. Investigate career interests and their relationship to college majors
  6. Begin saving for visits to college campuses whenever possible

Jonathan D. Mathis, PhD, is director of the National Honor Societies at NASSP.