When Nathan Herring ’06 started writing college application essays in the fall of his senior year of high school, his father gave him a choice: Stop applying to college and get back to work for the family logging business, or leave the house.
Herring, whose upbringing in rural Vermont disdained higher education and emphasized the importance of hard work, eventually finished his applications in a neighboring barn. Now a Yale graduate taking a year off before studying at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, Herring is fulfilling his life-long dream of educating low-income students about college through his new nonprofit organization, College Outreach.
The group hopes to establish chapters on college campuses around the nation and use student volunteers to familiarize local high-school students with the process of applying to, paying for and benefiting from college. College Outreach, which has several Yale administrators on its board of directors, is in the process of recruiting members at Yale to aid in the national effort.
Herring said he realized as a child that the way to elevate himself from his rural background was education, an idea that inspired him to assist students from similar backgrounds.
“It didn’t seem fair to me that my siblings and I had to work so hard while kids from families down the road didn’t,” he said. “The difference was education — their parents were educated and mine were not.”
Herring attended the University of Miami for two years before transferring to Yale, where he worked with mentally disturbed youth and developed an outdoor challenge and therapy program for troubled teenagers. After a neck injury prevented him from commencing his studies at Oxford immediately after graduation, Herring decided, along with two friends, to start College Outreach. The nonprofit has already received $10,000 in donations, and the board is in the process of establishing chapters on 16 college campuses.
The goal for the first year is to establish 10 chapters, Herring said. One chapter is already in existence at Louisiana State University and another will soon be running at Middlebury University.
Students involved in College Outreach programs at their schools will primarily visit nearby high schools, Herring said, but will ideally also visit schools when they return home for vacations. Their visits will cover a range of topics, including different higher education options, how to prepare for college, how the admissions process works, financing options and post-graduate opportunities. Undergraduates may also serve as mentors to students, assisting them in narrowing down their college choices and possibly helping with application essays.
Herring said he thinks low-income high-school students will feel comfortable receiving guidance from college volunteers.
“High-school kids are automatically more receptive to the thoughts and ideas of others who are closer to their age range, that’s one benefit [of the program],” he said. “A second benefit is that the individuals who speak to these students will have, in most cases, been raised in a similar area, or perhaps even gone to the same high school where they’re speaking, so they will be identify with them right off the bat.”
Liz Koenig ’08, who plans to volunteer with College Outreach, said she appreciates the organization’s philosophy that all students can use help deciding what to do after high school, not just those who might come to the Ivy League. She is also part of the Yale Admission Office’s Student Ambassadors program, which sends students to visit high schools — typically with low-income but high-achieving student bodies — around their hometowns over vacations. But College Outreach is better suited to make a difference because of its broader focus on students who, perhaps, do not have the academic potential to succeed at Yale but would still benefit from learning about all their options, she said.
“I felt kind of bad going back to my high school and talking to kids about Yale,” Koenig said. “Even of the ones who were more qualified, they would probably come here and have a similar experience to me, spending all of freshman year catching up, so it was really hard to say that Yale is great and you should apply.”
Meg Evans ’10, who is also planning to work with College Outreach, said changing the plans of even just a few students would make the effort worthwhile. She said her experiences of working with pregnant teens and tutoring low-income third-grade students during high school highlighted the disparities that a lack of education can cause.
“If you can change just one or two kids’ minds from not considering college to presenting it to them as a reasonable, manageable and realistic goal so that they might have a chance to apply to college, that is the ultimate goal,” Evans said.
Some students said they applauded the organization’s targeting of low-income students, but expressed doubt that the undergraduates could overcome the effects of financial hardship.
“I think it might have an effect to influence students who might be on the verge of deciding whether or not they should apply,” Marco Garcia ’09 said. “But I think family upbringing and the student’s personal history are definitely the main determining factors when they’re deciding whether to go to college or not, and I think the economic prospects are also a big issue whenever they decide — a lot of students who might really want to come to college may not be able to pay the tuition.”
But Koenig said working with students for an extended period of time, as College Outreach mentors would, can significantly shape their perception of higher education.
“If you’re telling these kids from middle school that there’s no reason you should not go to college, it really makes a difference,” she said.