The following was originally published by Newswise.

Newswise — When Hannah Ackerman gives campus tours to prospective Paul Smith’s students, she often sees young people that remind her of when she first visited the college in 2008. Hailing from tiny Milford, NY, near Cooperstown, she knows firsthand the obstacles rural students face, especially those who become the first in their families to attend college.

“I let them know they are college material,” says Ackerman, now director of admissions at Paul Smith’s. “Whenever I say I’m from Milford people from the area come up after and ask me questions. It helps to see someone from where you come from.”

The 43 students in Ackerman’s graduating class at Milford Central are having successful careers both locally and nationally. They include a veterinarian, geologist, physician assistant, corrections officer, police officer, IT specialist, dental nutritionist, business owner, teacher, therapeutic specialist working with disabled veterans, and other successful professionals.

“Our class had a collective drive,” she says. “We all worked together and pushed each other to further our education so we could get out there and really do something with our lives.”

Ackerman attributes the success of her class to a mix of hard work, seeing their parents struggle to make ends meet, Clark Scholarship support and leadership opportunities with CFES Brilliant Pathways. “Milford is not a wealthy area,” she says. “I can remember my mother writing a check for lunch hoping there was enough money in the account. That makes me appreciate what my parents went through for us.”

Ackerman’s younger sister Emily, who is disabled,  also received a Clark scholarship. “She’s in a wheelchair and has had some hardships along her disability journey, but has managed to overcome them,” says Hannah. “She’s doing postdoctoral research at Harvard Medical School to understand how cancer cells behave and repair themselves during different treatments.” Before that, Emily earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

Back in high school, Ackerman was chosen by her guidance counselor to serve as a student leader for CFES Brilliant Pathways along with two friends. They attended trainings, served as CFES mentors and participated at the CFES national conference. “CFES helped us become leaders and to think about how we can set good examples for other students.”

Today, Ackerman uses her own college and career pathway to help students navigate their postsecondary journey. Convinced she wanted to be a musician, she applied to four colleges that required auditions of aspiring music majors. By the time she got to her third audition at Ithaca College along with 30 other flutists vying for one spot, she “knew it wasn’t for her.”

Fortunately, Ackerman had a backup plan to work in the hospitality industry based on her experience at a local lodge. She had already gotten into Paul Smith’s highly regarded Hotel, Resort and Tourism Management program and decided to take a visit.

“As soon as I drove on campus, I knew it was the place for me,” says Ackerman, who credits a scholarship from the Clark Foundation, a major supporter of CFES work in area schools, for making it possible. “I wanted out of Milford to go somewhere big, but it turned out to be smaller. Paul Smith’s that felt like home.”

With 21 AP credits from high school, Ackerman graduated in three years and took a job at Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake Inn. After five years there, she decided to take a job in admissions at Paul Smith’s.

Ackerman has come full circle. She is helping students from rural communities realize they can succeed in college and she’s involved with CFES again. “Schools in Malone and Ausable and others are very engaged in CFES: giving students the opportunity to see college campuses and meet people who look like them. It’s great to see that CFES is exposing rural youth to these opportunities.”

That relationship has become significantly larger, spurred by a $1.23m Rural Postsecondary and Economic Development grant from the Department of Education, that will allow CFES to help 4,000 more students in Northeastern NY become college and career.

“Paul Smith’s is joining nine other college partners that will open up their campuses to students, provide mentors and myriad other support.  Not only will area youth become more college ready, the program will create economic development in the region by ensuring that North Country youth are prepared for high-wage jobs,” said Rick Dalton, CFES president and CEO.

“I love helping people who aren’t college bound or think they aren’t college material,” says Ackerman. “I tell them that it’s all about putting yourself out there and trying something new. If a major you thought you liked doesn’t work out, try something else. Don’t regret not knowing what could have been.”