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ACCESS still helping college-bound students

During a time of uncertainty and disappointment for a lot of high school seniors, the ACCESS College Foundation wants students to know it’s still available to serve them.

Bonnie Sutton, president and chief executive officer of the ACCESS College Foundation, said the organization’s advisors are still working from home and helping students and their families remotely. They’re handling things like interpreting financial aid award letters, filing applications for federal aid, resolving college application issues and more.

The Foundation has 25 advisors serving 33 high schools in the Hampton Roads area, including King’s Fork, Lakeland and Nansemond River high schools. There are even some advisors in middle schools throughout the area, and the organization has college success advisors as well to help ACCESS scholars who have already made it to the next level.

These advisors are available to give an extra boost to students who want to go to college but may feel like they are not able to due to circumstances beyond their control, like finances or family dynamics.

The advisors typically work in schools with students, but their work has shifted online in the last few weeks.

Sutton said the Foundation decided its advisors would work remotely on March 12, the day before Gov. Ralph Northam announced a two-week closure of all schools in the state. That closure was later extended to the remainder of the academic year.

“That gave us Friday to quickly adapt to what they would need to take home,” Sutton said. “We had at least one day advance notice to pre-plan and gather up some things.

“At that moment, we still had no idea how we would adapt from largely present, face-to-face meetings and advising to a new virtual advising environment,” she said.

Sutton said she anticipated there would be a learning curve, but she quickly realized the advisors and their students were adaptable. Advisors have come up with many creative ways to connect with their students virtually.

In addition to helping with the seemingly endless paperwork involved in applying to college, receiving financial aid and more, Sutton said the advisors are helping seniors get through this time emotionally as well.

“It’s partially a way to allay the fears and uncertainty of this time that the seniors are feeling,” Sutton said. “A lot of the things they were looking forward to that might seem frivolous to us as adults, it was important to them. They have a process of grieving over these things, but they are also afraid all this paperwork … may not get done.”

Shawn Foster, who is the advisor for Lakeland High School, said she has been using email, the Remind app, Instagram, Google Classroom and Google Voice to connect with her students.

“I think they’re adjusting pretty well,” she said. “For everybody, it’s still kind of fairly new.”

Foster said she had helped a student complete a college application completely over the phone. She also has helped some of them with their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA, and is helping students keep track of any college deadlines that may be changing as a result of the pandemic.

Foster said she is also is encouraging students to apply for scholarships through the ACCESS College Foundation. The combined deadline for those scholarships is now May 4, and applications can be done entirely online.

Sutton said the usual scholarship awards ceremony has been canceled, but students can still get the money they need.

“We will not be awarding them in the same traditional way, but they’ll still get just as much money,” she said. “We want to make sure everyone who needs that scholarship has the opportunity to apply for it.

“We are still here to serve students. We’re more necessary than ever, more needed than ever.”