We know how important it is to share working practices with the college counseling community and professionals working in related organizations. Through discussing these practices and the dedicated leaders behind them, we not only relate to their impact but stand to learn from them.
The Breakthrough Collaborative works around the globe, operating 24 sites in the U.S. and Hong Kong, to run summer and school-year programming to partner with students from under-resourced communities on their paths to college. In addition, they offer a teaching residency for college undergraduates under the guidance of professional teachers.
Kristin Tidwell is the Director of College Prep Programs for the Atlanta region, and joined us to discuss her story and her organization's work in Atlanta.
Channel CCR: What is Breakthrough’s mission?
Kristin: Breakthrough has a dual mission: The first part of the mission is to increase academic opportunity for highly motivated, underserved students and to get them into college and ready to succeed. The second part of our mission is to inspire and develop the next generation of teachers and educators.
Breakthrough is a national organization with 24 sites in the U.S. and one site in Hong Kong and our model is students teaching students, where college students have the opportunity to have an impact on the students that we serve.
Channel CCR: Tell me a little bit more about Breakthrough Atlanta. How long has it been around and how has it grown?
Kristin: We have been hosted at the Levitt School since 1996. In the very beginning there were 34 students, we now currently serve over 500 students each year in the program. When I first started we were hiring 32 teachers in the summer, this summer we are looking for 64 teachers so, certainly, the program has grown leaps and bounds in providing more opportunity for students in Atlanta.
We have also expanded to a second site. In the summer time we operate out of two sites now, that’s through the Levitt school and the Atlanta Youth academy which expands our reach throughout the Atlanta community and we can service more students on the south side of Atlanta.
Channel CCR: What programs and services do Breakthrough Atlanta offer?
Kristin: We provide summer and school-year educational programs for middle school students and 9th graders. Once students are in high school, we transition from an education program…and provide a comprehensive college prep program for students that includes getting knowledge of the college admissions process while also providing students opportunities outside their schools.
So, whether it’s a summer opportunity at a college or University to see what college life is like, or if it’s a semester school opportunity such as applying to schools at the High Mountain Institute in Colorado or the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in D.C. and doing that for a semester while they’re in high school to get into another type of learning environment.
Channel CCR: You mentioned Hong Kong. That's a long way from Atlanta! Can you tell me more about what you guys are doing in Hong Kong?
Kristin: It’s a 6-week summer program where college students have an opportunity to teach the course subjects to middle school students and then also a school-year program. Most sites have a Saturday program and others may have an additional weekly program after school.
Channel CCR: Let’s talk about the actual students that you guys work with throughout the year and also in the summer. How many students to you work with each year? What are some of the common challenges that are faced by your students?
Kristin: We impact over 500 students each year and for the high school component it’s a little over 300 this year that we are serving.
The profile of a Breakthrough student is typically a student who comes from a single-parent household, English spoken as a second language, a student who might be raised by someone other than a parent (like) a grandparent or guardian, and also students who comes from a lower income backgrounds.
Some of the common challenges that I see with the students, specifically with our high school students, is their transition to high school. Understanding time management or even the structure of high school and how it differs from middle school can be intimidating for some of the students; getting used to being in a large group but you have that one particular counselor.
Channel CCR: So, how can students navigate or become an advocate for their own education?
Kristin: We want to make sure our students are seen and visible in our community, and are confident in serving as advocates for their own education.
Channel CCR: What type of outreach do you continue to do with your students after high school?
Kristin: After high school we have an informal type of outreach for our students, once they’re in college we certainly invite them back for various visits that we have pertaining to the program. We circle back with them and try to recruit them to try to become teachers in our summer program. Last summer we had 9 Breakthrough student alums to come back and teach in the program and, from that, it kind of comes full circle and our students have an opportunity to give back but also serve as a role model for our current students.
Channel CCR: What would you say is one benefit that students get from Breakthrough?
Kristin: Just one? *Laughs* One benefit students receive is that they get an opportunity…to meet a college student who is going through the college process now. So, they have the opportunity to have that role model in the beginning and set that standard.
We had a teaching fellow from MIT teach in our summer program. (We had) a student say, “Wow, I really want to go to that particular school. He’s smart, I like him, he’s funny,” and made that his goal and that particular student did actually enroll in MIT.
So, we see it as an opportunity for students to see a role model who is fun, exciting, who would love school just as much as they do and they definitely set the bar for our students.
Channel CCR: Well, let’s change the topic a little bit, to Kristin Tidwell! I would love to hear your story. How did you get started college admissions and counseling?
Kristin: I attended Spelman college and graduated from there. My sophomore year I became a student ambassador and I also participated in the student orientation/leadership program.
I did that all throughout my stint at Spelman. Graduated May 2001 and started work in June 2001 in the admissions office. That definitely gave me an opportunity to spread the word about Spelman, what I loved about it, and why students should definitely attend. So, that’s how I started in college admissions.
As I started traveling across the country for seven years in the admission office, I began to realize that students didn’t really understand questions to ask an admission professional at a college fair. Students may be intimidated by someone standing behind the table and so they would ask questions like, “Does your school have psychology?”
I would just pull them in a little bit closer and say, “What is it that you really want to understand? Because every college in this college fair has psychology so let’s dig a little bit deeper into your question and make sure that we can find the best fit for you.”
I think that’s how my counseling hat began to show, and an opportunity became available at Breakthrough, so I had an opportunity to apply and serve in this capacity.
Channel CCR: Tell me one thing that motivates you to go to work every day.
Kristin: It’s interesting because as you meet people across the country they ask, “What do you do?” So, for me, I always say, “I make dreams come true.” I think that’s what motivates me every day.
There are students who think that college is such a far reach or they get shocked by the price of college per year, or families who think “maybe we can do it, but I don’t really think so.” It’s helping to make that family dream come true – and that’s a definite motivator for me every single day.
Doing what I can to make sure that they’re more comfortable about the process, understanding the process, and making those decisions to make sure that the student is successful.
Channel CCR: One of the common problems so many first-generation students now face is undermatching. Colleges are working very hard to overcome undermatching and I was wondering, what is your personal approach to help students not undermatch in the admissions process?
Kristin: Well, certainly, we provide one-on-one counseling for our students, they come to us in the summer for high school students who are rising seniors. I spend three hours with them one-on-one, no parents allowed. And it’s an opportunity for us to just sit down and talk and understand where they are in the process; what schools are their dreams? And how we can make that happen?
I think, for a lot of students, their confidence level may be a little lower when it comes to those competitive colleges and they just kind of self-select themselves out of applying. Also, encouraging them to know that they have the power. They have the power to do the research, to ask the hard questions of admissions professionals to make sure it’s an adequate fit.
If a school says they have a first-generation program, encouraging the students to ask, “What is the program? Is it every semester? Is it just a dinner or is it something that happens every single year? Do I get matched up with a professor?” Just learning a little bit more about the support in the wrap-around services for them to be successful.
And also having a family conversation about support. Making sure the family understands that if you send your child to this particular school which may be far away you are going to have to make sure you support them from afar and what...that looks like…to make sure the student is successful in achieving their goal of graduating.
Channel CCR: What is one thing that you see consistently *does* work for motivating students?
Kristin: A lot of students don’t realize all the good that they’ve done. So, sitting with them one-on-one, writing down all of the things they’ve done in high school. Even if they have been a babysitter for their sibling all throughout high school, letting them know that that counts. Or for those students who drive or ride 45 minutes one way to school, that’s important.
Getting them to understand that every single thing they’ve done in high school is important, writing it all down on paper, allowing them to see on paper and they’re like, “Oh, wow. I guess I am pretty special. Or I guess I am pretty unique in this application process.”
So that can help motivate them and frame their story as they communicate and talk with admissions professionals.
Channel CCR: One final question for you: I was wondering if you might have a student story that you might share with us, coming out of Breakthrough Atlanta.
Kristin: I do. I have two.
The first one is Jamal Hill. Jamal came to us as a Breakthrough student, Atlanta public school student, first-generation college student, and he went on through the Breakthrough program, (and) graduated high school. He actually went to Brown University, and he chose Brown because his teacher at Breakthrough went to Brown.
He graduated from Brown, went to University of Pennsylvania law school, and is currently practicing law in Philadelphia. He actually came back and was the keynote speaker for one of our development fund raising events which was able to net $250,000.
Jamal was definitely a great inspiration to our students. He also, when he was at Brown, came back as a teaching fellow, so he definitely had that full experience of Breakthrough.
The second story I’d like to share is about our student named Chris Lee.
Every year we host a high school options night…for our 7th and 8th grade families. We have a panel of experts that share their viewpoints from a variety of schools and organizations throughout the city. We don’t promote public or private school, but we want to make sure our families know their options.
Chris comes from a single-family household. His mom came and listened to the presentation from the gentlemen at McCauley which is an all-boys school in Chattanooga and said, “I think it would be good for him to go to an all-male environment.”
Chris applied, got accepted, (and) was still a Breakthrough student even though he was far away. Chris graduated from McCauley and went to Belmont University. He went to Belmont for music and singing, which is something he developed and learned more about at McCauley.
On a dare, another Breakthrough student named Tyree said, “Why don’t we try out for the musical?” They tried out, both got a part, (and) Chris moved on to Belmont University for vocal performance.
Now, Chris is traveling with Hamilton. He is one of the lead actors in Hamilton, so we are truly excited about his journey.
Channel CCR: Outside of Breakthrough, it’s always nice to hear about other organizations doing similar work. Are you aware of any other organizations or non-profits that do these types of programming?
Kristin: Sure! Here in the city of Atlanta there is Odyssey at Westminster and then there is Reach for Excellence at Marist. And there is also Horizons which is located at Woodward and at Holy Innocence.
Channel CCR: Kristin, thank you so much for your time. It’s always such a pleasure to connect!
Kristin: Thank you! It's always great to share more about our work.