Rutgers University-Camden Hill Family Center for College Access: An interview with Anthony Jones and Alexa Peña

Posted by on June 30, 2016

By Caitlin Fritz

Anthony Jones is the Program Coordinator at the Hill Family Center for College Access in the Office of Civic Engagement at Rutgers University-Camden. Anthony has worked for over ten years in community-based college access programs. Prior to his work in Camden, he was at Columbia University’s Double Discovery Center, which was founded by Columbia undergraduates to address the glaring disparities between the elite institution and the surrounding underserved and underperforming schools. At Columbia, Anthony worked to expose New York City students to the rigor of an Ivy League education. He also worked with high school students in Trenton and Newark through New Jersey Seeds. I interviewed Anthony and Alexa Peña, a student at Rutgers-Camden, to find out more about their college access work. Alexa works in the Hill Family Center as a College Ambassador, and just finished her freshman year as a Health Sciences major.

Caitlin: First, can you tell me a bit about the Hill Family Center for College Access?

Anthony: The Hill Family Center was founded by two brothers, Washington and George Hill, who grew up in Camden and wanted to assist Camden students in their awareness of, preparation for, and ultimately placement into college. The Center provides a range of services to ensure that any student, eight to 80 years old, is aware of their post-secondary options, equipped to navigate the college access process, and informed of financial aid opportunities. We work with students of all grades, elementary to high school, because early exposure to post-secondary opportunities can be critical. With the younger grades it is important to focus on familiarity with college terminology and academics. With high schoolers, we get more specific, discussing the FAFSA, SAT, ACT, and college application process. We also engage parents to answer their questions about the college application process. This work is important in a city such as Camden, which has seen a demographic shift with an influx of families who are interacting with the American education system for the first time.

Caitlin: What specific programs and services does the Hill Family Center provide?

Anthony: We have at any given time eight to 12 “College Ambassadors,” who are primarily work-study students through the Office of Civic Engagement. The College Ambassadors visit K-12 Camden City public schools as well as assist with events and workshops on campus. Camden students can also drop in to our office after school to get help with any of their college access needs. Between October and May, we also bring in student groups for specific workshops. During the summer, we have a program for rising 11th and 12th graders that features guest speakers, college tours, and workshops. A big piece of the work we do involves building trust with the students and their families around the college process, and the Ambassadors play a major role in this.

Caitlin: Who generally are your College Ambassadors?

Anthony: We recruit the ambassadors as college freshman or rising sophomores, and provide training as well as mentorship from junior and senior ambassadors. They are a mix of Rutgers Future Scholars (RFS), graduates of Camden City public schools, or just students who are interested in giving back. RFS is a pre-college program, beginning in the summer before 8th grade, and provides scholarships to those who successfully complete the program and are admitted to Rutgers. Ninety percent of our College Ambassadors either have a personal connection to Camden or RFS.

Caitlin: Based on your work in college access, what do you think are the greatest needs of students?

Anthony: I think there is a great need to start the conversation about college earlier with students. Many students know about college, but are unsure about the pieces involved. There are many moving parts to the college process, and it can be overwhelming, especially, for first generation and immigrant students. We need to give students the tools to become advocates for themselves. In addition, guidance counselors, especially in a city like Camden, are dealing with students experiencing the impact of trauma and urban poverty, and therefore have less time to focus on college and career counseling. There is also a need to think more strategically and collaboratively, so we work with the Camden College Access Network that includes Camden County Community College and Rowan University. We work together to increase college access and collect and share data in order to better coordinate and align our efforts.

Caitlin: How did you become involved as a College Ambassador?

Alexa: I got involved because I wanted to make a difference the way the RFS program did for me as I was transitioning from high school to college. Even when I was in high school, I would stop by the RFS office to just say hi. Everyone that works there was so welcoming and really friendly. I want to recreate this experience for students here in Camden.

Caitlin: What kind of work do you specifically do as a College Ambassador?

Alexa: I go to the schools and work with mainly 11th and 12th graders. I help them with their college and scholarship applications, tutoring, and mentoring. On the first Saturdays of the month we host college prep workshops. This upcoming Saturday I will be helping students register for the SAT and talking about other important upcoming college deadlines.

Caitlin: Are there any challenges you face working with the students?

Alexa: It can be difficult to find the balance between establishing a sense of respect and building trust when working with the students. I have to be conscious of the boundary between being friendly and joking around too much to the point where they might not take me seriously. I can’t necessarily talk to the students like I do my peers. For example, sometimes when students are rowdy at workshops, it is hard to get their attention. It’s important to keep the students on track but I don’t want to be mean about it, so I have to work to find the right balance.

Caitlin: From your experiences, both as a RFS and working with students as a College Ambassador, what advice to you have to young people who are looking to go to college?

Alexa: Time management is really important.  You need to know upcoming deadlines for college applications, SATs, and scholarships.  This way you can always be prepared to take advantage of an opportunity.  Just recently I was able to help a student find a $200 scholarship to help her go to a Step competition.  You always have to be ready when opportunities like this come along.

Caitlin: What impact has being a College Ambassador had on your own personal growth and development?

Alexa: As a first generation college student, I really didn’t know what to expect when I got to college. Learning alongside my peers that are other College Ambassadors and RFS has helped me in my studies and in learning how to manage my time. There are also many upperclassman ambassadors who have been with the program since their freshmen year and their mentoring has helped a lot as well. I also really enjoy working with the students and being able to give back to others. This has been a very meaningful experience and I look forward to continuing to work with the program over the summer.

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