Melissa Moreland ’09
College advisor focuses on low-income, first-generation students
by George Fitting ’10
June 15, 2010
Melissa Moreland ’09 helps low-income high-school students successfully transition to college.
As a first-generation student attending a four-year college, Melissa Moreland ’09 was keenly aware of how challenging the transition into a college community can be. “I went to high school in Adams County, Pa.,” she said. “It’s not different geographically, only culturally. It was hard to fit in.”
Moreland, a sociology major, focused her honors thesis on the “dual estrangement” that first-generation students often experience after coming to college, where they feel alienated both at school and at home when they return on breaks. “Working-class students didn’t feel like they had a space to talk about their transition. They felt like they were the only ones who didn’t come from an affluent background,” she said. “I wanted to talk to them about it, about socioeconomic diversity.”
Part of her research involved interviewing students about their personal experiences at Dickinson. “Some people automatically think of Posse Foundation scholars when they hear about working-class, lower-income or first-generation students, but most of the people I interviewed for my thesis were not Posse members,” Moreland said. “They were white, black and Hispanic, and they came from both urban and rural areas.”
One problem, she noted, is that applications for college admission don’t have a financial-aid section; there is only a separate financial-aid application, which goes to a different office. “However,” said Moreland, “it can be helpful for an admissions office to know what resources were or were not available to applicants at home, at high school or in their community.”
This would let admissions counselors make more informed decisions about student potential by taking into account the things that applicants have achieved under challenging circumstances, such as living with a foster family or living without access to a computer and the Internet. Moreland suggests that students be given a chance to explain these circumstances in a personal statement or interview.
As a senior, Moreland noticed an advertisement for the National College Advising Corps (NCAC) in Dickinson’s Career Center and applied for a job. The NCAC sends recent college graduates to act as advisors in the guidance departments of high schools in low-income areas. “My job is to demystify the college application process by introducing students to different kinds of colleges, programs and careers; helping them communicate their strengths and goals; and figuring out which forms they need to fill out,” said Moreland.
“I remembered how hard it was trying to get information about applying for college when I was in high school,” she said. “It was something I was really interested in with my background, especially after working in the financial-aid office at Dickinson.”
Moreland is now an NCAC advisor at Mount Union and Juniata Valley high schools in Huntingdon County, Pa. She recently organized Mount Union’s first Decision Day that recognized the postgraduate plans of high-school seniors with events including a raffle of college paraphernalia, a make-your-own-sundae bar and a skit by teachers on how to behave (and how not to behave) at college.
“The reason I’m there is because guidance counselors are so overwhelmed with other tasks that they need someone who can just focus on college advising. I think the fact that I’m a little closer to the students’ age makes me more approachable,” Moreland said.
Moreland’s NCAC position will last two years, after which she is considering either continuing to study sociology at the graduate level or pursuing a master of social work degree.