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NEW YORK — Countless ideas about getting students to and through college have come from policymakers, lawmakers and any number of advocacy groups. But what if a solution comes from students themselves?

A new campaign launching this week will urge students to share stories of how they’ve struggled to get into college – and to overcome obstacles once they do. It was set for a session at SXSW EDU, the sprawling education-focused conference that was cancelled last week because of coronavirus concerns.

The “WeBelonginCollege” campaign stems from the film “Personal Statement,” which follows three New York City public high school seniors on a challenging journey to navigate college admissions while simultaneously working to help their peers to do the same. The campaign includes powerful, short videos from the film’s new partnership with Get Schooled, a free digital college and job adviser. The Hechinger Report has also been partnering with the film, which was shown at SXSW EDU last year.

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An accompanying curriculum and hashtag encourages students to share stories about times when they questioned whether they belonged in college or struggled to stay there, and touches on a key issue for The Hechinger Report: how to equalize access to higher education, at a time of rising costs and unmanageable student debt.

Filmmaker Juliane Dressner, John Branam of Get Schooled and college senior Enoch Jemmott, whose story is featured in the film, are casting a wide net to encourage students to share their voices. The campaign includes an offer of free copies of the film, along with 25 $1,000 scholarships for the most inspiring stories shared on social media. It’s funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is also among The Hechinger Report’s many donors.

access to college
Enoch Jemmott, one of the main characters from the film Personal Statement, talks about how he struggled in college and encourages other students to share their stories.

Dwayne Britton, a school social worker in Staten Island who has used the new curriculum, said that it is helping students develop soft skills and get assistance applying to college. His students love being encouraged to make and share videos on social media, and also appreciate learning about common roadblocks in applying to college, Britton said during a webinar last week sponsored by the nonprofit National College Attainment Network.

“The curriculum broke down the process of applying, and for me, I like anything that gives students both soft skills and hard skills,” Britton said. One student who made the video, Britton said, “came to me and said, ‘I didn’t realize I had a voice in this.’ And the kids like making videos, they are all on Instagram, they are all on TikTok. I can’t stop raving about this process.”

“The curriculum broke down the process of applying, and for me, I like anything that gives students both soft skills and hard skills.’’

Another session planned for SXSW EDU would also have focusing on elevating student voices, this one around how colleges can create environments that are more supportive of underrepresented students. In lieu of the event, some of the students are sharing their stories in Forbes, said Eric Waldo, executive director of the Reach Higher campaign.

I had also been looking forward to hearing from experts including Sara Goldrick-Rab on how to help a big and oft-forgotten demographic go back to college: adults. Nearly 40 percent of all postsecondary students are 25 or older, and many are raising children, an issue I zeroed in on recently by spending a day in a childcare center at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

I’m hoping that some of the conversations planned for the conference will take place virtually, especially one on economic mobility in college, with a look at the many barriers confronting low-income students, and a talk on what kind of reforms are needed to keep first-generation students in college. I’m also sad to miss a powerful new film on another higher-education obstacle — food insecurity — with Rose Marie Arce of Soledad O’Brien Productions. The film follows four college students as they navigate food insecurity in their attempt to change their lives for the better.

Nearly 40 percent of all postsecondary students are 25 or older, and many are raising children.

Also, stay tuned for ways to carry on the conversation around “The Inequality Machine.” I had been scheduled to talk with author Paul Tough at SXSW EDU about his book “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.” Tough spent more than six years interviewing students, parents, professors and other experts to examine the perennial question of how much college matters, especially at a time of spiraling costs and new questions about the role money and privilege play in who gets admitted.

In the meantime, another student initiative aimed at elevating the voices of students launched this week: Student Voice Strategies. This group will partner with events, organizations and school districts to make sure student voices are always part of the conversation around equity in education.

Let’s keep these discussions going, and share solutions and ideas – even if we can’t meet face-to-face.

This story on access to college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for The Hechinger Report newsletter.

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