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For the most part, the young advisors of the Carolina College Advising Corps spend their days focused on how to get students to college. As part of the national College Advising Corps, these recent UNC graduates are placed in high-need schools across North Carolina, guiding students in college searches, SAT signups, and applications for admission and financial aid.

That leaves precious little time for tackling an even more fundamental question: why go to college?

“A lot of the time, when I speak to students and I’m trying to help them plan what they want to do and find out what their interests are, I get blank stares,” said Alex Lucas, the Advising Corps representative at Dalton L. McMichael High School in Mayodan, North Carolina.

That gels with national research that shows many low-income and first-generation students don’t have a clear sense of how a college degree relates to personal goals or career aspirations.

“I just know that if I can connect them, start a budding interest in some area, I know they’ll push themselves that much harder to complete high school, to attend a community college, or go on to a four-year degree, or aspire to something they never imagined, like a graduate degree,” Lucas said.

And last month, she tackled that challenge in a big way. After nearly a year of planning, Lucas hosted a school-wide symposium on career and college options. The entire student body of McMichael High School, from freshmen to seniors, took part.

The idea was straightforward: give students the chance to learn about the working world directly from school alumni, local businesspeople, and civic leaders from Rockingham County.

“My starting point was finding out what my students were interested in,” Lucas said. “I surveyed the whole school and found the careers that had the highest level of interest, and then began recruiting my professionals.”

To pull off a school-wide event, Lucas had to recruit more than fifty people across a range of career fields, almost all with some connection to the school or the local community. Most traveled to Mayodan to meet with students in person; a few spoke and took questions through internet video chats.

Every student in school had the chance to sign up for multiple sessions, allowing students to match up with speakers who shared their interests.

In one room, a McMichael High alum who now works for Cary-based SAS talked about the perks of a software engineering career. Down the hall, the local sheriff explained why many law enforcement personnel are required to have a college degree. And a Mayodan photographer talked about all of the behind-the-scenes work — from marketing to accounting — required to run a studio.

“We wanted to get people the kids could relate to,” said school principal Duane Whitaker. “People who are in our community, invested in our community.”

The goal, Lucas stressed, was to make the future a little more tangible for students who have a hard time picturing life after high school.

“When you look at the titles of these professional people — like a broadcast journalist or a computer engineer — you think they’re going to be someone big and important that you could never talk to,” Lucas said. “But I want students to see that they’re just a person — a person who was once in high school, just like them. If they follow the educational path they need to follow to be successful, they can get there, too.”

As students hustled between career workshops at the end of the day, that message seemed to be resonating.

“This is awesome!” screamed 11th-grader Lexi Blackard, running up to Lucas during a break. “This is such a great opportunity for everyone. Thank you for caring!”

By Eric Johnson, Office of Scholarships and Student Aid

Published April 20, 2015.