Awesome People: Simon Moore - College Visions


Originally appeared in The Phoenix

The story of Janelle Williams is an all-too familiar one: a bright, young woman perfectly capable of going to college, but like so many of her friends, she couldn't help but feel like the deck was stacked against her. She was shut-off-the-gas-poor, attending an underperforming high school ("it sure isn't Classical") and despite living in a crowded household, she had no one she could really turn to for advice.

And then she came to College Visions, the seven-year-old advising program founded by Simon Moore that helps low-income and first-generation college-bound students navigate the treacherous waters of the college application process, from selecting the right schools, to filling out the dreaded financial aid forms, to making the final decision.

Moore grew up in Providence (he went to Classical and played basketball for a year at Brown) and other than the couple of years he spent working in Harlem and the Bronx, "I haven't gone outside of a two-mile radius."

He started College Visions because he saw a clear void when it comes to college advising in Providence public schools. Most schools don't have someone focusing solely on those who need help applying and guidance counselors simply don't have the capacity to meet with students more than a handful of times during their junior and senior years.

That's where College Visions comes in. Funded through private sponsorships and the AmeriCorps VISTA program, the nonprofit's full-time staff of five recruits students for its College Access Program during their junior year. The program is completely free for the students, who meet one-on-one with their adviser every couple of weeks (often much more) to discuss taking the SAT or ACT, filling out applications, writing the essay, and understanding financial aid packages.

It's not all fluffy "you can be whatever you want" or "we'll find a way to pay for it" advising either. As one struggling statistics student found out, staffers have no problem giving it to you straight.

"You need to make a decision," an adviser told the student. "You need to pick a day every week to get extra help. Colleges don't like Ds."

It's that level of honesty and open dialogue that had a half-dozen or so students hanging out in the College Visions office in the Mercantile Block Building on Washington Street well after 6 pm on the Friday night before April vacation. They trust Moore. They trust the staff. They trust the process.

"I wasn't thinking about college at all," Janelle said as she sat in a room lined with school pennants sent in as gifts from College Visions alumni. "I didn't even want to apply. I didn't have any money. But then I started meeting with my adviser here. Now I'm going to show my little brothers they can do it too."

Now Janelle has a decision to make. She has to choose between Salem College and Guilford College, two North Carolina schools well-known for providing maximum financial aid packages, and the University of Rhode Island.

But the support won't end there. College Visions also offers a College Success Program, which helps alumni make the successful transition to college. College Visions advisors mentor students, serve as financial aid advocates, and make sure their charges are able to find work.

The goal of this program, according to Moore, is to help address the most underreported crisis in American education today: the college dropout rate. Research from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education suggests one in three low-income students will enroll in college; just 11 percent of those graduate within six years.

"There are huge consequences for starting college and not finishing," Moore said. "We want our alumni to graduate because it will expand their access to everything. We commit to ensuring they complete college."

They've been wildly successful compared with the national numbers. The first class of College Visions graduates completed the program in 2005. It had ten members. Seven have graduated from college. Two are still enrolled.

This year, Janelle is one of 70 students enrolled in the College Access Program. As a group, they've been accepted to dozens of schools including URI, Rhode Island College, St. John's, and Holy Cross. Another 140 alumni remain active in the College Success Program, which has students at Brown, Boston College, Clark, and George Washington University.

The future for College Visions is as bright as it is for its alumni. Moore said the demand to join the program continues to rise, but while he's open to expansion, he wants to make sure all of his students continue to receive the constant one-on-one advising they deserve.

It always goes back to the students. And for someone who has barely left Providence, Moore has opened doors for so many.

Just ask Janelle.


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