I felt out of place at my university. Now I help nontraditional college students find their way
Affordable childcare, financial stipends, transportation, and accessible mental health services can allow college students to achieve their academic goals.
I grew up in South Georgia in a town so small that my acceptance to the University of Georgia was worthy of an article in a local newspaper. In my hometown, one in five adults had a college degree. Graduating from high school, much less attending college, was an anomaly: In my senior class of 250 students, only 68 received their diplomas.
When I arrived at college, I learned that my achievement was hardly impressive or unusual in the eyes of my peers. For some, the University of Georgia had been their fallback school, the college many chose to attend after being rejected by even more prestigious institutions. Many of my fellow freshmen had attended elite private schools and affluent public schools with access to resources and opportunities beyond my wildest dreams.
Students are so often told that if they work hard, they will succeed. And if they fail, it’s because they didn’t put in the necessary effort or weren’t smart enough. In high school and even college, I had subscribed to this framework for success but began to realize that this perspective overlooks the invisible advantages and systemic inequalities faced by so many.
As I moved from one education milestone to another, earning my bachelor’s degree from UGA and attending law school at Duke University, I began to think about the factors beyond individual work that contribute to student success. With each personal goal achieved, I felt more like a fish out of water. Navigating higher education beyond the classroom required cultural capital and knowledge of unwritten rules. My classmates implicitly knew how to play and win a game, from the words they used to their choice in extracurricular activities, that I didn’t even know existed.
While in graduate school, I began to advise first-year students at North Carolina Central University. My official role involved supporting their academics, but I found myself serving as a catch-all mentor, advising on everything from course selection to existential questions about how to choose a career. For me, this work solidified the notion that consistent support from trusted confidants helped students develop the skills and resilience needed to navigate higher education with confidence.
My educational experience as well as the time I spent mentoring first-year college students led me to found Upswing, which provides wraparound services to nontraditional and online students. The goal is to help students navigate the unwritten rules of higher education, engage in their coursework, bolster their confidence, and stay in school.
With each personal goal achieved, I felt more like a fish out of water.
My life and work have taught me that success in school is not dependent on academic ability alone. Affordable childcare, financial stipends, transportation, and accessible mental health services, among so many other instructional and non-instructional resources, can be what allows students we work with to achieve their academic goals.
These services are most effective when they are on-demand, accessible 24/7, and accompanied by an awareness campaign that targets the communication tools students use every day, like text messages. One of the first questions I ask schools is how they communicate with their students, especially students who are not on campus regularly.
The value of having resources at their fingertips is particularly applicable to mental health services. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that in early 2021, nearly 57% of people ages 18 to 29 reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression within the past seven days. The acute need for mental health support and the challenge of conveying this need to higher education administrators has been a surprising element of our work.
When I founded Upswing in 2013, I assumed that the greatest barriers to student success were lack of access to academic support and mentors and that if we could just democratize access for all students, they would be successful, regardless of their socioeconomic background. The reality is a deeper and more complicated puzzle. But one view I had then has not changed: Student success is about so much more than an individual’s hard work.