The Ripple Effect of College Education Access

Duke College Advising Corps Partners to Improve College Access

by Sarah Martin

As high school seniors reenter school corridors and classrooms after more than a year of remote learning, questions about post-graduation life loom with a newfound sense of urgency. For students already facing inequalities within the education system, the pandemic makes college access feel more challenging than ever. In fact, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released a report revealing undergraduate enrollment is down 3.2 percent. Thankfully, college advisers and college access teams are working tirelessly to ensure that students’ dreams are not put on hold due to the pandemic.

Meghana Giri headshot in cac shirt

Meghana Giri, a college adviser at Knightdale High School for Duke University College Advising Corps (CAC), believes that education can change individual and community trajectories. Giri went to a small, rural high school in Anniston, Alabama, with a graduating class of only 34 students. Attending Duke University, a school with a daunting acceptance rate of only 9.9 percent during the 2017-2018 admissions cycle, seemed unlikely; however, Giri experienced firsthand the power of an invested college adviser, who took time to know each students’ personal stories before knowing their post-graduation plans. For Giri, her dreams are now her story. In May 2021, she graduated with a degree in biology with minors in global health and chemistry, with plans to attend medical school in 2022. During her gap year, Giri chose to serve in the full-time, paid position as a CAC college adviser to ensure that others have the same chance to pursue their dreams. Giri emphasizes that student access to educational literacy resources matters.

“Education is at the root of every inequality and every disparity we see – in health and income – in everything. I wanted to work at the root of these disparities to drive real change.”

college adviser, Meghana giri

The Duke CAC partners with 18 schools, like Knightdale H.S., across North Carolina to improve college access for students who hope to pursue post-secondary education. Elaine Madison, the Durham Office of Community Affairs’ Assistant Vice President for Education and Workforce Partnerships who oversees Duke CAC, views the work of the advisors as a thread in the “greater tapestry of college access work.” The Duke CAC’s affiliation with the National College Advising Corps and AmeriCorps ensures that both advisors and students have resources to maximize success.

Now, as Giri walks through the hallways of Knightdale H.S., followed by friendly greetings of “Hi, Ms. Giri,” she is paving the way for the next generation of students, walking them through the entire college application process from start to finish. This includes helping students choose which schools are best suited for them, editing college essays, and providing direction for financial aid applications. When asked why she chose to become a CAC college adviser, Giri explained that, in addition to her firsthand experiences with advising, a summer 2019 trip with Duke Engage Boston instilled a passion for targeting education inequality. She expounded, “Education is at the root of every inequality and every disparity we see—in health and income—in everything. I wanted to work at the root of those disparities to drive real change.” Her CAC and Knightdale H.S. teams collaborate to do just that.

College Adviser Meghana Giri in front of Knightdale High School.

However, students’ needs at the high school are complex. With an enrollment exceeding 1,600 students, Knightdale H.S. is a Title 1 school with over 50 percent of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunches. During the pandemic, several students picked up additional jobs and provided care for younger siblings all the while fighting to keep Grade Point Averages (GPA) up in an online school format that no one had anticipated.

Erica Clarkson, the Dean of Students and Head of the Student Service Department at Knightdale H.S., personally understands the challenges of pursuing post-secondary dreams in the midst of limited resources. Clarkson, raised in a single-parent household as well as a first-generation college graduate, said she sees a reflection of her own story in many of her bright-eyed students, “I see myself in a lot of the students I speak to; they want to go to school; they just may not have someone at home who can help them navigate that process to go to college.” Clarkson and her team of advisers, including Giri, stand in that gap to ensure that no student falls through the cracks in the education system, whether that is pursing college, the military, or the workforce after graduation. She attempts to leave each student that walks into her office with a message of encouragement: “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”

The CAC advising experience impacts the advisers as much as the students. The program can provide a launch pad for Duke graduates to pursue careers in diverse areas of interest while making a difference for individuals and communities. For Giri, this position has inspired her passion for pursuing education equality in medicine: “My biggest goal is to work in traditionally underserved communities and focus on health literacy and health education outreach, creating… health education programs in middle school and high schools.” The Duke CAC’s application for advisers for the 2022-2023 school year is currently open.

Madison sums up the outcome of CAC as a “ripple effect,” leaving an “impact on the high school, an impact on the students advised, and an impact on the adviser.” While the pandemic has changed the game for many individuals, the CAC team believes that, with better access, students’ dreams, like those at Knightdale H.S., are only the beginning of even brighter futures that await.

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