Young counselor helping teens go to college, one student at a time

Shirley Giraldo is on a mission.  The 24-year-old Dominican-American counselor does whatever it takes to help the students in her Brooklyn, New York high school pursue an education after high school.  For some, that will be attending community college. But Giraldo also wants her students to think the “unthinkable” – to go “away” to school in upstate New York, at either a state university or a private college.  

“I will spend many hours before and after school, at lunch, on weekends, working with each student who wants to apply away for college,” says Giraldo, a counselor for the Student Success Center at Multicultural High School in Brooklyn. 

In more affluent schools around the country, a counselor meets a few times with a high school student and helps the teen identify colleges, apply on time, and makes sure all the paperwork and transcripts are in order. But for most of the students at Multicultural High School, a small, relatively new high school in a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn, a “college experience” is completely uncharted territory.

“Our young people have only been in the country for 3 years,” says counselor Giraldo’s supervisor, Elizabeth Kahn. Ninety-nine percent of the student body is Hispanic, and 90 percent take English as a Second language classes (ESL). According to the school’s statistics, only about 2 percent of the student population is currently “college ready,” and half do not graduate on time, mainly because the language barrier makes it hard for them to pass the state test, known as the Regents.

So Giraldo’s job entails basically explaining the whole “world” of college to a student and his or her family. She will have dinner with the teen’s parents.  She will explain the importance of what classes to take in high school and how standardized tests like the SAT works. Giraldo will enroll the students in free SAT prep classes and help them understand forms. She will use her own credit card when teens have to fill out an online application – they give her the cash. She will teach students to make follow-up calls to colleges and keep track of their application process. 

Just as important, she “shows” them what their future could look like. Giraldo takes students on college trips, the first time these teens will be on a college campus. She tells her Latino students what to expect in college – the different cultures, the harder classes, and the “normalcy” of feeling homesick or lonely.          

“Giraldo gives students the skills to prepare them for success in life,” says the counselor’s supervisor, Elizabeth Kahn. 

Seventeen-year-old Javier Franco arrived from Ecuador only a few years ago. He was a motivated student, but he and his family did not know how the system worked. “I would come almost every day and meet with Miss Shirley,” explains Javier, who is an honor student. The meetings paid off.  Javier has been accepted to a private college as well as a few upstate New York state university campuses. 

Getting students like Javier to go beyond community college is extremely important to Giraldo.  She explains that immigrant students with lower SAT scores may have a harder time getting accepted to city colleges, which increasingly have limited capacity, but they can sometimes get into four-year state universities or private colleges, and can receive aid, if the students are willing to leave home. This is not always easy.  ”They do not want to live away from their families, or they feel a real sense of responsibility to stay home and help. It’s almost like telling them to go to China.” 

Since Giraldo herself left her immigrant family to pursue her college dream, students see in her, a Latina only a few years older than them, the way it could be. Last year, with Giraldo’s help, five students out of 55 who graduated applied to go away to college. This year, 13 have already applied and 11 have already been accepted, including Javier. One student even had an interview with Princeton University.    

Giraldo works for the Student Success Center, which is based at Multicultural High School, though it is funded and run by a local community-based organization, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation.  The center also receives federal grants and corporate donations. There are only three Student Success Centers in New York City, even though in a New York City schools survey, students identified the lack of college counseling as one of the major obstacles in continuing their education.

The lack of hands-on college counseling programs like the Student Success Center is very troubling, according to Marcelo Suárez Orozco, the Courtney Sale Ross Professor of Globalization and Education at New York University.   

“For the first time in the history of our country, all of our roads moving forward – over 80 percent of our demographic growth – will be citizen children of immigrants,” says Orozco, who co-wrote a landmark study and a subsequent book on immigrant students in American Society. “We are sleepwalking here into a future where our demography is very different and we are not ready for that,” Orozco says.

Orozco, who co-founded the Harvard Immigration Project at Harvard University, is concerned that as he travels around the country, especially across the Sunbelt, most of the schools and non-profits he sees do not have programs or personnel in place to help Latino immigrant youth transition from high school to college. Places like the Student Success Center, says Orozco, are crucial.  

Last year, another one of Giraldo’s students, Nicolmari Salvador, expressed an interest in eyes and vision. Giraldo helped her find a vision technology program at a local community college, and more importantly, helped Nicolmari chart a path.  ”Now I am thinking of studying math after this program,” says Salvador, “and perhaps go to optometry school.” 

How did her counselor help her? “She gave me a lot of options, and told me about things I just did not know. Sometimes you need a little push.” 

Giraldo says she always knew what she wanted to do.  ”My whole thing is I wanted to change society,” she says.  ”There is so much inequality.”

“I know education can change that,” the young counselor says, adding “if my students know how to get there, it will change their future.”   




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