“McKenzie Geneva Watson, Bachelors of Social Work, Magna Cum Laude.”
Those words ring through my ears as I walk across the stage at graduation and hear the cheers of my family and friends for my greatest accomplishments. It was supposed to be one of the most memorable days of my life; but it felt so insignificant because he was not there. My dad, who was my best friend and biggest supporter, passed away unexpectedly in March of 2022 just a few months before I was to graduate. He was the one that pushed me to follow my dreams and pursue my education. Without him at graduation it felt pointless… at the time. Now that it has been a year since he passed, I see how much I have grown as an individual, both professionally and personally.
I remember when I heard about the College Advising Corps. I told my dad that I wanted to apply for it and work with high school students. He thought I was crazy for wanting to work with teenagers. I told him that they needed someone to help them pursue their dreams like he did for me. He never got to see me actively in my role as a college adviser, but I know he is beaming over the hard work I have done.
Being an adviser means going above and beyond for your students. It is more than just asking students, “Where do you want to go? What do you want to be?” It is knowing your students on more than a superficial level. These conversations are not easy to have, but they are important. Understanding the students as a whole person makes the connection with them stronger; it can make the college application process go smoother. When going through the college application process, an adviser quickly learns it is more than submitting grades and writing essays. Determining in-state tuition and completing financial aid involves knowing what is going on at a student’s home. For some students this is a breeze, but for others it is a daunting task that they dread. This is where vulnerability comes in for the adviser and the student. Being transparent and sharing common lived experiences with students is conducive to them being more open during the application process. For me, it has been important to share with students about the passing of my dad. Students have told me that just by sharing this piece of me they felt more comfortable telling me what was going on in their lives.
I have a student who I was able to connect with through the sharing of our common experiences. This student came to me at the beginning of the year with their Common App essay, which was about their father who passed away. Like my dad, their father was their biggest supporter and told this student to always do their best. We connected through the pain of losing our father’s at a young age and built a trusting relationship that proved helpful in the college application process. This student, unfortunately, had a lot more going on than the passing of their father. This caused barriers in the residency and financial aid process. Showing empathy and understanding what the student had been through allowed them to see that I was a trusted resource in a difficult and frustrating process.
I will be honest, I was naïve going into this career. I thought there would be a small pool of students who would have unique family circumstances, but that was far from the truth. It felt as though almost every other student had unprecedented circumstances that would make either residency determination or financial aid a challenge. As an adviser I cannot back down from challenges. Through compassion, empathy, and advocacy, the students and I have fought for their access to education.
Being a college adviser has changed my perspectives professionally and personally. Professionally, I have learned that it is okay to be honest with students. When you are honest about the realities of the world after high school, students trust you and seek guidance. Personally, I have found a way to pursue my passion of helping others in the education system. School is the only place I have ever felt normal, loved, and supported, and I hope to be that person for one of my students.
My dad instilled a lot of his character traits in me. He was compassionate, funny, friendly, but most importantly, he taught me perseverance. He taught me to never give up even when it feels like a losing battle. That is what I teach my students everyday. I am his legacy and I know I continuously make him proud.
Written by Geneva Watson, adviser at Wilkes Central High School