This article was published in the Utica Observer-Dispatch on June 8, 2019

There was a time when Cole Bobnick, a sophomore at Richfield Springs High School, wasn’t necessarily expecting to go to college.

But then through a program at his school, he learned that going away to college and paying for it isn’t as hard as he thought, especially given the availability of scholarships, he said.

“It doesn’t all have to be what your family can afford,” Bobnick said.

And he found out that becoming a conservation officer isn’t the only career path for someone interested in “outdoorsy” things and that several colleges offer programs suited to his interests.

Pathways to college, career

Bobnick learned all this from programs offered by his school’s guidance counselor with help from CFES Brilliant Pathways, a nonprofit, founded in 1991 and based in rural Essex, in partnership with the Clark Foundation, of Cooperstown, which provides activity funding for local districts. In this area, the Owen D. Young, Mt. Markham and Cooperstown central school districts also participate.

The program used to be called College For Every Student, or CFES.

“We are the only national nonprofit that works on college and career readiness that is based in a rural community,” said President and CEO Rick Dalton.

About two-thirds of the students in the program live in urban areas, he said. “But the rural kids are up against it and losing ground to their urban counterparts. And we want to do everything that we can to help them,” Dalton said.

That’s because college degrees, including certificate programs, are more important than ever, he said.

“Just to have a shot at one of the new jobs that pay a decent wage, you need college. And college, again, is a very wide definition. We have to find ways so our kids know how to move down that pathway,” Dalton said.

The program helped cement Richfield Springs sophomore Damon Thomson’s desire to go to college. He now realizes there are ways to overcome logistical challenges, including cost, he said.

“I feel like I’ve learned more about what college entails and more on how it works because before I started my sophomore year, I had kind of a vague idea of what college was, more like what I got from watching TV,” he said.

How it works

Each school can implement the program in its own way. At Richfield Springs, students start visiting college campuses, with a goal of one a year, and getting career experiences in eighth grade, said grades 8-12 Counselor Jeff Busch.

But the program focuses on sophomores. The entire sophomore class visited Hamilton College and attended a sophomore summit for the program at SUNY Cobleskill this year, he said. And 11 sophomores took an overnight trip to Alfred University and Alfred State College of Technology.

They’ve also, for example, researched career pathways, written resumes, researched colleges and toured the BOCES Career Technical Education Center and FX Matt Brewery.

“We’ve grown by leaps and bounds by what they know,” Busch said. “They know what an associate’s degree is. They know what a bachelor degree is.”

And 95 percent of the sophomore class wants to get a post-secondary education, he said.

At Owen D. Young, high school students work on peer mentoring, essential skill building, and college and career pathways, as well as making college visits and listening to guest speakers and doing “anything to get our students exposed to the career and continuing education opportunities that are out there while at the same time building up our leadership skills and our confidence, said Alicia Soper, a grades K-12 school counselor.

“I think the kids feel inspired and excited to look forward in life,” she continued. “Kids that might not have ever considered college as an option for them, but they’re in sixth grade and they’re at a Utica College hockey game and eating in the cafeteria – it starts to become more real to them.”

Brilliant Pathways has given Mt. Markham students opportunities in community service, mentoring and college awareness, said Superintendent Paul Berry. That includes activities such as cleaning up a town park, having high school students mentor elementary school students and having students visit and hang out on college campuses, he said. It also means giving students the knowledge and skills they need to get into college, he said.

“CFES has provided awareness of college as an available option for our students,” he said in an email. “It has helped them realize these possibilities even in the face of the dramatic socioeconomic diversity of our district.”