Higher Education

Volunteer ‘Pushy Moms’ help community college students transfer to four-year schools

They’re veterans of the application process and passing on hard-won wisdom

Eren Ozsar and Melanie Rose meet at Starbucks just before Christmas.

NEW YORK — On a rainy December afternoon, Eren Ozsar sat hunched over his laptop in a crowded Starbucks on the Upper East Side. He peered intently at the screen as he clicked through the admissions office site for Columbia University’s School of General Studies.

“Is there any way to determine what your odds are of getting in?” the woman across the table from him asked.

After a few minutes, Ozsar shook his head. “Not that I know of,” he replied.

The woman, Melanie Rose, delivered some tough news.

“That is a reach school,” she said. “You need some safeties.”

Rose, a 61-year-old former magazine publisher and chocolatier, is one of the “Pushy Moms,” a group of about a half-dozen women helping LaGuardia Community College students like Ozsar, 22, make the leap to four-year schools and bachelors’ degrees.

All of the women have helped their own children apply and are using their hard-won experience to guide the LaGuardia students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college.

When Rose’s daughter, Maris, was applying a decade ago, “I was the college-in-chief person,” Rose said. “I have been through it.” Maris didn’t get into her first-choice school, Rose said, but was very happy at New York University. She’s 27 now, working for a market research company. Ozsar, who came to the United States from Turkey three years ago to get an education, expects to graduate from LaGuardia this spring with an associate’s degree in writing and literature and is thinking about becoming a lawyer. His parents are still in Turkey, where his father lost his job as a jeweler after Ozsar left home. Ozsar now lives with his 19-year-old brother, also a LaGuardia student.

The pair meet at a Starbucks near Rose’s home and email in between sessions to make sure Ozsar is on track for all his deadlines, which extend through the spring. “As parents, we were here to help our kids through the process,” Rose said. “That’s basically the function I am serving for Eren.”

Pushy Moms is the brainchild of Karen Dubinsky, LaGuardia’s chief engagement officer and a marketing consultant. She’s on a mission to get more people involved in the community college, which annually enrolls 48,000 students from more than 150 countries. The group is one of eight Dubinsky has helped to start at the Queens school in the last few years, she said. Volunteers also help with career workshops or take students to lunch.

Dubinsky was introduced to the school in 2013, when a friend on the school’s board of directors brought her to its first-ever benefit, she recalled. She was so impressed when students talked about how much LaGuardia meant to them that she offered to volunteer. A year later, she was working at the college full time.

Related: Community colleges join the fundraising game

The Pushy Moms are all Dubinsky’s friends from Manhattan. She describes them as “women in New York who have spent a lot of time and energy getting their kids into college” and now have free time to help others.

Dubinsky got the idea for Pushy Moms after realizing that many LaGuardia students don’t have family members who could help with the complex transfer process. At the same time, she saw that her friends didn’t know much about community colleges and didn’t understand why she was spending so much time at LaGuardia.

That inspired her to put the students and the mothers together. The group, now in its second application season, has worked so far with about two dozen students, all of whom were members of the President’s Society, a select group of high-performing students at LaGuardia that Dubinsky also helped create. Many of the students go on to attend CUNY schools but last year, Dubinsky said, graduates also went to private institutions like Amherst College and Syracuse University, among others.

Community college students around the country face many obstacles to getting a four-year degree. According to a recent report from Teachers College, Columbia University, 80 percent of entering community college students say they intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about a quarter actually make the transfer and 17 percent eventually get that degree.

Transfer applications are often daunting to students unfamiliar with the process. Family income also plays a role: According to the report, low-income students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions are significantly less likely to graduate than students from middle-class or wealthy families.

Related: Community colleges try innovative ways to improve retention, completion and transfer rates

The Pushy Moms can’t solve every problem but they can make the transfer process easier for the students they work with.

When Dubinsky first organized her friends, she called them the College Advisory Board. But the women were informally calling themselves Pushy Moms and that was the title that stuck. Dubinsky said she told the women: “You know how your kids wouldn’t listen to you? Well, these kids will listen to you. They will take notes on everything you say.”

Many of the mothers were initially nervous because they thought they didn’t know enough to help. Dubinsky reassured them by explaining that they weren’t expected to be guidance counselors. “Their role is to support,” she said.

That can take many forms. Rose, for instance, urges the students she works with to create a spreadsheet tracking application and test deadlines. At the start of one late December meeting, she immediately asked to see Ozsar’s spreadsheet. He didn’t have it ready.

“Just so you know,” she told him, looking grim, “that’s not good.”

She then spent a few difficult minutes trying to convince Ozsar to focus more on his applications to CUNY colleges like Queens and Hunter, where he might have a better shot than at Columbia. “You have a lot of applications to do, and Columbia is a big, time-consuming application,” she told him.

He nodded and then said, “I actually visited the school last week.”

“And what did you think?” she asked.

“I didn’t want to leave.”

Rose urged him to call the General Studies admissions office and ask for the statistical profile of accepted students. “You need to know,” she told him.

They spent the next hour discussing all the tests that Ozsar has to take, including one gauging his ability to speak English, which he has made a top priority. He spent his first nine months in New York taking English as a Second Language courses at Queens College and now speaks with just a slight accent.
Next it was on to the essays.

“When are you going to have a first draft?” Rose asked.

“Can I say in two weeks?”

They agreed on a date. “Answer the questions honestly, from your heart,” she told him. “Be succinct. Be specific. It’s the precision of thought that is more important than anything else.”

She also advised him once again to get the spreadsheet ready. “The key is creating tools to make your life easier,” Rose said. “I want to see that spreadsheet.”

Related: How often do community college students who transfer get bachelor’s degrees?

Rose works with two students a semester. Last year, she helped Min Kyung Shin, now 24, make the transition from LaGuardia to Queens College, where she is a biology major. Shin came to New York in 2013 from Korea, where she had been studying radiological science. Her father is an MRI specialist, and she was just following in his footsteps. “I didn’t have a passion for it,” she said. She wanted to take a break from radiology and learn English at LaGuardia. “I was supposed to be here for one year,” she said. “The plan changed.”

By the time she started working with Rose, Shin had decided to get a biology degree from LaGuardia and then move on to a four-year school. But, she says, she had “zero” knowledge of the college process. There was a lot of paperwork, Shin said. “It was kind of overwhelming.”

That’s where Rose came in. She helped Shin research colleges that were good for biology majors and reviewed the admissions requirements. She accompanied her to a Barnard open house for transfer students. Rose attended Shin’s graduation last spring and afterwards took her to lunch along with Rose’s daughter and a cousin of Shin’s who lives in New York.

They’ve stayed in touch even though Shin is no longer at LaGuardia. “She’s more than my mentor,” Shin said. “She’s like my mom in New York. If I hadn’t met her, I might be in Korea.”

Shin hopes to someday get a Ph.D. and become a cancer researcher. She would also like to see more Pushy Moms for LaGuardia students. “They have a lot of potential,” she said. “They need mentors. Even if we are from different countries, we all have a common goal, to get educated and be successful.”

Back at Starbucks in early January, Ozsar finally had his spreadsheet ready for Rose.

“What is your visual takeaway?” Rose asked.

“Some things are missing,” Ozsar said.

By the end of the month, he had submitted applications to three CUNY schools — Hunter, John Jay and Queens — and was working on essays for Columbia and Fordham.

“I am tough,” Rose told him.

Ozsar smiled. “I actually appreciate it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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Barbara Kantrowitz

Barbara Kantrowitz, a senior editor, is an award-winning magazine editor and writer. She worked at Newsweek for nearly 25 years in the magazine’s society section,… See Archive