The following was originally published in the Adirondack Almanack.
When Rowan Arquette chats up Beekmantown Central School students about college, he sees younger versions of himself.
“I gravitate toward kids who are teetering on the edge,” said Rowan, a College and Career Readiness Fellow for CFES GEAR UP. “I like to see them thrive and soar.”
As part of a seven-year grant awarded to CFES in 2018, the GEAR UP (“Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs”) program has teamed up with seven school districts – AuSable Valley, Beekmantown, Crown Point, Malone, Moriah, Ticonderoga, and Willsboro – in New York’s rural North Country to prepare low-income students for college.
There was a time not that long ago when Rowan, 23, could not have imagined himself holding degrees in English and criminal justice and serving as an advocate for foster children.
A foster kid himself of Native American heritage, Rowan had given little thought to his future as graduation approached—until an advisor made it clear that, despite his checkered high school experience, he was indeed college material.
Coming from a low-income family with no tradition of higher education, Rowan hadn’t considered college a possibility.
“It wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I walked across the graduation stage in 2018,” he said. “My adviser called me in and asked if I’d taken the SAT. I said ‘What’s an SAT?’”
After taking a free online PSAT and discovering that colleges were indeed receptive, Rowan enrolled at SUNY-Plattsburgh and began the process of turning “a pretty interesting and colorful rap sheet” in high school into an impressive record of achievement in college. He discovered skills that he didn’t realize he had, such as organization and leadership, and found that he liked helping incoming students find their way around campus and helping them with their studies.
So Rowan was a natural fit for CFES GEAR UP. The program provides comprehensive college and career readiness support for 2,457 students, helping them navigate a course towards rewarding post-secondary education and ensuing careers that match their strengths and interests.
“CFES has been perfect for me,” Rowan said. “It’s been super rewarding.” Many students he encounters are unfamiliar with the fundamentals of college applications, financial aid, and resume writing. Some see college as a waste of money and time, having seen young people on social media claiming to have gotten rich through schemes such as trading in crypto. Others tend to take what they perceive to be a less risky route by joining the military or taking a job straight out of high school for the security of an immediate paycheck.
Rowan doesn’t argue with them. He had worked at Stewart’s Shops and enjoyed it, but asks students if that’s what they see themselves doing the rest of their lives. He also mentions that, unlike the military, college allows young people to take charge of their own lives and lifestyles.
Beyond that, Rowan explains that college is possible even for those who don’t have money or exceptional grades. He can point to his own life experiences as an example of this. “We’re close enough in age that I’m relatable to them,” he said.
And he continues to advocate for policies to remove roadblocks to higher education. “They need stability,” he said of his students. “They should be thinking about books, not about where their next meal is going to come from.”
At Beekmantown, Rowan has held 3,332 meetings with students in grades 6-12, totaling more than 3,000 hours. Last year CFES GEAR UP provided 27,000 hours of support throughout the North Country, with each student receiving an average of 12 hours of help.
The CFES GEAR UP program also trained more than 450 teachers, educators, high school and college students, and family members, who were certified by the University of Vermont as College and Career Readiness Advisors. These advisors, including 75 students in education programs at SUNY Plattsburgh and SUNY Potsdam, are now mentoring students across the seven districts.
Rowan reports that our students are excited to learn that they can go to school to find their life’s calling and help others. “They didn’t know the world could be like this,” he said. “They didn’t realize that life could have so many ‘ands’ in it.”
“Our goal is to prepare students for meaningful careers and provide a pathway to achieve it,” said Ron Rix, who directs the CFES GEAR UP program. “This changes young people’s life trajectories so they are not just living to work, but are engaged in a career that can give them a better quality of life.”
The CFES GEAR UP program serves to raise aspirations for college and postsecondary training among high school students to benefit not just individual students such as Rowan, but regional economic development as well.
For more information on CFES Brilliant Pathways and CFES GEAR UP, visit https://brilliantpathways.org/.