Lean on me


Pushy parents are often integral in the process of students applying to colleges, and they can be crucial for students who want to transfer from a two- to a four-year institution.

But what about students who don’t have that family support, or who — especially in the case of first-generation college students — lack the know-how in terms of choosing the right schools, filling out applications and visiting campuses?

Nine years ago, LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, New York, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, launched a program called “Pushy Moms” that paired volunteers ages 50 and older who have experience in shepherding their own children through the application process to help low-income, first-generation students — many of them immigrants and some here without family.

The program, which has since been renamed “Launch!” and also includes some pushy dads, began with five mentors and eight students. It now has 13 mentors (there have been a total of 25) and has collectively helped more than 135 LaGuardia students transfer to a four-year college, more than 90% of whom have graduated or are still enrolled. Some have matriculated to elite universities such as Brown, Cornell and Georgetown, while many others have transferred to local city and state schools, where 88% of LaGuardia’s transfers typically go.

An extra hand

The mentors don’t replace students’ guidance counselors or campus transfer offices, rather they fill the role of experienced, supportive advisers who listen to students’ stories, help them triage their options, guide them to resources, fine-tune their application essays, get them organized to meet deadlines, and help them think through their acceptance endgame.

“The basics of how you prepare, how you choose to go to school, they haven’t had any of these tools to support them,” says program creator Karen Dubinsky, chief engagement officer at LaGuardia. “One of the things we talk about with the advisers is to realize that you have to start at the very beginning — just talk to people about what they’re interested in, and why they want to go to certain schools. They haven’t done the research. We have to take it very slowly, especially at the beginning, to really understand what’s best for the student.”

At the outset, Dubinsky says she was focused primarily on recruiting students who wanted to transfer to a private college or university, given the articulations in place with CUNY’s senior colleges.

“Lately, I’ve been finding that even the students who transfer to CUNY love to have someone to talk to about it,” she says. “Just having someone to talk to about what’s on your mind, helping to decide which of those schools you should go to, what they should major in — there are so many questions on a student’s mind when they’re transferring.”

While city and state schools are usually the goal, selective private universities have been making adjustments in recent years to attract and support nontraditional students, Dubinsky says.

Among the students who have gone through the Launch! program are: A Smith College graduate who works in human resources for the National Basketball Association; a Stanford University alum who works for Charles Schwab in the tech field; a Columbia University grad (one of many) who is now with Accenture; and another Columbia alum who is pursuing a doctorate in physics at Fordham University.

Start small

Dubinsky advises other schools that are mulling a similar program to pick a segment of students to start with, rather than throwing it open to the entire student body. She runs a group called the President’s Society founded 10 years ago that comprises between 25 and 50 students each year who have a certain grade-point average, and who have filed applications and gone through interviews.

Those students are taught job-search skills like how to write a cover letter, network and do a job interview, and they’re introduced to people in business, education, the arts and other fields to help them see many of the opportunities for their careers, she says.

A volunteer from the start

Melanie Rose, a magazine publisher whose daughter has an MBA from Columbia, got involved at the outset of the program and has worked with two or three students each year.

“I was looking for ways to get involved in my passion, education,” she says. “I worked on helping my daughter through the process of college applications, and I thought, ‘Gee, I could do that.’”

Launch! mentor Melanie Rose with a former student mentee at LaGuardia Community College. (Photo: LaGuardia)

Rose does not meet with students’ counselors but knows people in LaGuardia’s transfer office and often points her mentees in that direction when she can’t answer certain questions.

“I talk to students about what they want to do, what major, whether they think about graduate school,” she says. “They typically have a list of schools they’re interested in, schools they have found through talking with family and friends. Very often, I add to that list, and vet the list and see what makes sense and what doesn’t. And then we start with the application process.”

Rose goes on college tours to nearby places like Columbia and helps to edit their application essays, although she believes those need to stay in the student’s voice.

“If English is a second language, I’m not going to make them sound like a professor,” she says. “It’s not who they are. … We will have, depending on the student, far-reaching conversations that also include career [possibilities], and what it might take to get there.”

The opportunity to give back has been very gratifying, Rose says.

“I say all the time, ‘I am not Bill Gates, and I cannot throw money to eradicate malaria. What I can do is help one student at a time,’” she says. “I am impacting their life, and that is incredible. These students, they have goals, they have dreams, and I’m just kind of helping them get there.”

A student’s journey

One of Rose’s current students is Mobin Hajjafari, an Iranian émigré who came to the U.S. in 2021 at age 18 and is now an electrical engineering major at LaGuardia, with hopes to transfer somewhere nearby — Cooper Union, Columbia and Cornell are on his shortlist. With a 3.98 GPA, he was hopeful but still waiting to hear results when contacted in late March.

Hajjafari said he applied to LaGuardia initially, in part, because he arrived in the country after four-year universities’ deadline applications had passed for the subsequent fall, and he also hadn’t taken the SAT or an equivalent. He applied for the President’s Society upon enrolling when a friend who was accepted to Cornell for business urged him to do so. The same friend also recommended the Launch! program.

So Hajjafari listened and was paired with Rose, whom he’s found to be extremely dedicated. She has also joined him on several college campus tours.

“For a person like me, who had not done anything related to college, I was so unfamiliar with any of the aspects — the essays, when to fill it out, how to fill it out,” he says. “How should I follow them up? Should I check with them? Should I call them? Should I go to the college? With all of these aspects, my pushy mom helped. With her own child, she had gone through the same procedures. She knew all the aspects of how to do these things.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.