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College Planning: Mid-Junior-Year Check-In

College Planning: Mid-Junior-Year Check-In

By Mir Kamin

Hello, February. For most of us, January—with its shiny new year and resolutions and such—feels like a new chapter. I’m not saying I didn’t feel that way, necessarily, but it didn’t feel like a huge change. But February… February with a high school junior feels like a major shift.

The seniors are doing interviews, applying for scholarships, and starting to get their college acceptance and rejection letters. They’re figuring out where they’re headed in the fall. And juniors like my daughter are taking notice.

Our original plan was to do some college touring over the summer, between junior and senior years. Several parents of seniors, though, had mentioned to me that they wished they’d done it earlier, both to experience campuses while they were teeming with students, and to have longer to process what they saw/learned. I’m beginning to see the wisdom of that suggestion, and so we’re planning to start doing campus visits over spring break (which is next month).

When I first wrote about our early college planning with my daughter, the focus (both of the piece and life) was on—for lack of a better way to put it—financial logic. What can we afford? What’s the financial aid landscape likely to offer? What’s the limiting scope, here? College applications are expensive, and you can’t put a price on crushed hopes, either; the idea was to head off any pie-in-the-sky desires that would simply be financially unfeasible. So maybe it hadn’t even occurred to her, but hey, let’s just stipulate that no, kid, you’re not going to head to, say, Sarah Lawrence or another college with a $65k+ price tag. Not only is that money we don’t have, I don’t believe anyone needs to spend that kind of money to get a good education. I did such a good job of driving this point home to my child that I recently discovered she had no plans to even apply to any non-public, out-of-state university. And that’s when the needle scratched across the record, for me. That wasn’t what I’d meant to do. And soon it became clear that I’d approached this all wrong.

Practical vs. Allowing Yourself To Dream

I stand by my assertion that no one needs to bankrupt themselves to get a good college education. But at the same time… if there’s a school that doesn’t fall into the narrow band of affordable options my daughter is viewing but offers something unique that matters to her, heck yeah, I want her to apply. There’s all kinds of financial aid out there. Who knows? Sure, I don’t want her applying only to schools we can ill afford, but I don’t want her ruling out options based on money, necessarily. You just never know what financial aid might be offered. So now I’m trying to revise her stance into something that looks more like, “Make sure you have schools on there which appeal to you and we know we can afford, but don’t be afraid to consider a few reaches, too. Let’s just see.” It’s an ongoing conversation, because this will, ultimately, be a huge decision, and money is definitely part of it. But only part.

Program of Study

My daughter has friends who already know, without a shadow of a doubt, what they want to study in college. Although she would never admit it, I think she feels some envy, viewing these kids who are certain they know where they’re going and how to get there. This one wants to be an architect, and that one is going pre-med, etc. My daughter’s interests are diverse, and while she suspects she’ll end up in one of two or three special interest areas, she’s really not sure, yet. As someone who majored in one field, then picked up a second major, then went to grad school, switched fields multiple times, and am now working in a career for which I never went to school, this stuff… doesn’t worry me a whole lot. You can always make a change. But for a teen surrounded by other teens proclaiming to know their optimal life path already, it can feel like a lot of pressure. Given that we know “something in liberal arts” is the likely goal, and also knowing that she may want to explore, some, that means we should look for schools with a strong liberal arts core and lots of options.

In addition, it means we have to do this delicate dance with her of “explore now” without making it feel like she has to make a hard-and-fast decision. Example: a great opportunity came up for my daughter to do a lab internship at our local university this summer. She might want to pursue a career in science, though she’s not positive. We supported her in the application process and now we wait with crossed fingers to find out if she’s won a placement. If she does, that’s some fabulous real-world experience for her to either realize she loves it or doesn’t. If she doesn’t get this internship, well, we’re already talking about what else might make sense for her this summer; she wants to make some money, but will bagging groceries help her with her college decision? Or are there other similar internship-type opportunities which may be more useful, if potentially less actual cash?

Student Life

This is the area where I feel like we’ve really let my daughter down, and part of the reason we’ll hit the road next month to start checking out schools. With this extreme focus on “what do you want to be?” and “what can you afford?” I feel like my daughter has all but forgotten to consider perhaps the most important question of them all: What sort of life do you want to have for the first four years of your adulthood? This encompasses so much—where do you want to live, what sort of student body composition do you think will work for you, what kind of fellow students’ motivation will best match your own, etc. It recently became clear that my kiddo was looking only at giant public universities, and somehow it had never occurred to her that, environment-wise, that might be all wrong for her. (Spoiler: That would probably be all wrong for her. Between her learning disability and personality/learning style, giant lecture halls are not going to be her friend.) Marching band has been such an important part of her life in high school, she was looking at schools with big football teams and bands. But… she’s not planning to major in music, and while band would be great, what about everything else?

It turns out that there’s a small college not too far from here where the student body (at least from what we’ve been able to learn) is composed of young people who sound a lot like my kid—smart, engaged, diverse in their interests, and passionate about their choices. The average class size is 20 students. They offer a wide variety of majors and a tight-knit community on a beautiful campus. I don’t know, yet, if we’d be able to afford it, or even if she’ll get in… but the more we dig, the more it becomes apparent that this has to be a school she checks out. And—beyond that—it’s clear she has to start really thinking beyond marching band or where “everyone else” is applying. She has to find the school that fits her.

It’s all starting to feel really real, and it’s scary, but it’s also really exciting.

Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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Comments

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  • Come to Milwaukee – Marquette University. We are one of the “better values” among private, liberal arts universities. Ninety-some percent of our students receive some sort of financial aid, and our average aid package runs around 40%. Very high level of volunteerism in our students, diverse student body (don’t let the “Catholic, Jesuit” scare you off – we are nothing if not inclusive). Down side: no marching band. Up side: very active pep band, as well as several other special interest music options. Marquette.edu.

    Disclaimer: I do indeed work for them, but in the Finance (not financial aid) office 🙂

  • Jen R

    Don’t forget about drum & bugle corps… all the marching band fun without the football games. There are community options all over the country. (Bonus: no college marching band 6:30 am practices)

  • Jennifer Joyner

    Great info for those of us who will face this in the not-so-distant future. I do believe everybody should bag groceries or wait tables or work a cash register at least once in their lives–invaluable life experience, plus it teaches them to appreciate the benefits of a good education!

    • Oh, absolutely! I’m with you. (Right now she babysits a lot….) Not saying that’s not a worthy job or a good experience in and of itself, but just challenging her to explore some of her maybe-majors a bit more.

  • Ally

    I mostly agree with what you are saying regarding the price tag, but some degrees it does make a huge difference and the expensive schools are worth it. My husband is a pretty specialized engineer and there are only a handful of schools that really offer what is needed. The price tag was steep, but it was worth it. 

    • For specialized fields I agree, Ally, but if we’re talking something in general liberal arts or something where you’d have to go on for another degree, I don’t think your undergrad institution matters all that much.

  • As someone who’s 2 years further along in the process, let me just say, you’re doing it right. Go, Chickie!

  • Becky

    Huntingdon in AL is great – loved my time there and the small classes. Several friends went to Davidson in NC and some to Brenau in GA. We all agree that going to a small liberal arts college was great, learned a lot, made good friends of students and professors alike (still in touch after 20 some years) and basically grew up…. good luck to Chickie, and know it is ok to transfer colleges as well!!!!

  • Wendy E

    We took our first college tour the summer before junior year. I decided to do this more to convince her that she needed to get, and keep, her grades up. It worked, she got them up, and kept them up. She is now a Freshman at that college we toured way back when. We tried to convince her to attend others, mostly for the reasons you mentioned about smaller class sizes, but she would have none of it. She is loving every minute of it and thriving. We get to see her often enough since she is three hours away, but it is definitely different.

  • Niki

    My mom was the one who told us not to discount private colleges for our youngest daughter, that they would look at financial need, and that it could make it affordable for her to go out of state.  She did apply to two state schools, 2 in DC, and 2 in Minnesota (where she visits twice yearly).  One of the Minnesota schools promptly started calling her (she does NOT talk on the phone) and throwing money at her like crazy.  It was an all-girls Catholic college, and wasn’t her first choice, but it was an option.  She got into 1 state school but not the other, she got waitlisted at one DC school (which has become infamous for waitlisting kids who need financial aid),and she got into her #1 choice pie in the sky school, and they offered her enough of a grant that we are paying less than we would have at at state school.  She had a rough adjustment the first year, and didn’t want to go back for second semester, but I told her she had to kick this thing’s butt and at least finished.  She applied to 2 schools to transfer, but neither would give her aid.  Once she realized she wasn’t going anywhere else, she got involved, found her people, and found herself.  She’s happy there.  That is all I can want for her.  I hope that Chickie finds that school that does that for her.

  • amanda

    I had a friend who attended Oglethorpe and was extremely happy there. Has she considered that?

  • Jen_A

    My friend Jane has 2 kids in college and 1 in high school. She’s done the college thing so much that she blogged heavily about the search, admissions, financial aid, etc. for her 2 that are already in school, and I think that blog is a veritable font of knowledge. Worth checking out: https://drstrangecollege.wordpress.com/

    • What a great resource! Thanks, Jen… I bookmarked it and sent it to my daughter, too.

  • Duchessbelle

    I’m definitely sensitive to the issue of the college price tag. My (absolutely well-intentioned) parents said work hard, apply, let’s see (crazy expensive $70k aside). I did, got in some great places, toured, picked and after the financial aid came back at so very little thanks to the family ‘ability to pay’ {parents hysterical on the floor laughing since, no} it was too late to go back to my other schools and having seen what I could have had it did make it difficult at a lower tier school. Don’t get me wrong, I got a great education and career (and still student loans to pay till 2027 :/) but especially as a teenager/young adult there was a lot of frustration and hurdles beyond the life lesson of sometimes things just don’t work out but make what you can work.

  • Nelson’s Mama

    My daughter IS a senior and has been accepted at four liberal arts schools and the scholarship song and dance has begun.  She’ll have to get some decent money or she will have to pick one of the state schools that she’s also applied to.

    I’ve been overwhelmed at this process (and still am, frankly).  My oldest knew which state school she wanted to attend, applied and went…she’s now doing her MBA there.  Early Decision I, Early Decision II, Early Action…damn.

  • Alice

    Doing college trips this spring, while school’s still in session, is a great idea! And good on you all for recognizing that Chickie’s probably a good fit for a smaller place, and not one of the giant state schools. I went to one of the UCs for undergrad, and in some ways I loved the hugeness – I majored in two rather weird programs that don’t exist at most schools, and got to experience a fantastic variety of people, events and academic approaches. But now I work at a small, public liberal arts college, and I see how the teeny-ness can be a real asset, especially for kids with personalities different than mine. 

  • Erin

    Caveat: I’m a professor at a small, private, liberal arts college in Texas…I’ve also got a BA from a small, private, liberal arts college in Ohio…so…I’ve definitely got a dog in this fight.

    BUT!  😉

    Please DO check out smaller schools!  We have higher price tags, but the value for the money is incredible.  Small classes, close communities, lots of face-time with professors who genuinely care about students as human beings (not just repositories for knowledge).  AND–as you say–most SLACs these days offer huuuuuge “discount rates” off the sticker price of our education. Virtually all students at my college are here on substantial financial aid in addition to the discounted price.

    I’m obviously a firm, firm believer in the value and benefit of a liberal arts education–and it sounds like you already know how great it can be (for many students, anyway).  Don’t let the sticker price scare you away!!!

    • Erin

      ALSO–if you’re going while classes are in session, ask for Chickie to sit in on a class.  She’ll get a sense of how classes “feel,” and hopefully she’ll also be able to talk to a professor.  And you can talk to the prof, too–get a sense of the kind of experience Chickie would have with her faculty, etc.  I LOVE talking with prospective students, and I think it really helps them (and their families) to have a stronger sense of what the college really FEELS like and what it would be like to be a member of that community.

  • Emily

    It sounds to me like you are doing a great job considering the many different aspects involved in picking a college. 🙂 It does get overwhelming. Certainly do lots of in-person visits & tours, and take advantage of opportunities like sitting in on a class and speaking to current students. Some schools even allow overnight stays for prospective students.

    I definitely think that student life is a big factor – take a look at things like the different clubs/societies that each school offers. And consider stats such as how many of the students commute vs. live on campus or nearby (and do they guarantee housing?). In addition, I actually ruled out all schools that had greek life because I wanted to go to a smaller school and felt they were too exclusive for me, but my husband joined a laid-back fraternity at his larger school and loved it as it allowed for a built-in social life.

    Regarding courses, take a look at course catalogs to see their actual courses & descriptions, particularly in fields Chickie is interested in. Also note any requirements (2 years of foreign language, 1 year of STEM, etc.) as well as the flexibility allowed (are the requirements such that you won’t be able to take things like Art History or Shakespeare or Womens Studies just because they interest you?). You may also want to confirm what their policy is regarding accepting AP courses as credit.

    Good luck!! 🙂

    • Cheryl

      Along with looking at the course catalog, ask how often classes are offered. It is very frustrating to have classes that would be great for you, only to not have the chance to take them.

      You also want to evaluate the school’s calendar. I do much better in a semester system because quarters feel rushed. My husband does better with quarters because he gets bored around week 8 or 9. A lot of people don’t consider that and it can make a huge difference.

  • when visiting see who actually teaches the classes.  i went to an ivy league school and many of the introductory courses in english, science and math were taught by graduate students NOT professors. moreover, many of my engineering, science, math and premed friends wound up failing or dropping their major in the early years because the graduate student teachers were so awful at actually teaching.  It was a hot mess.   

    • Yes! See, that’s part of the small-school lure, as well. Research institutions are often more about research than teaching, with the problems you describe (and others).

  • Karen

    First of all – the kids who know “exactly” what they want to be when they grow up…well, good for them.  But the reality is that many of them will change course in college.  I would bet that only a small fraction will end up where they think they’re going to end up right now.  

    And second, having seen the financial aid process at work…yes, you never know.  My stepson had good grades and applied to a number of very competitive (and expensive) schools.  I was very skeptical.  The different aid packages at the ones to which he was accepted was fascinating…one gave none and another gave a HUGE amount of scholarship/grant money…his out of pocket was less than $10k/yr (some of that was loans, but not much!).  You just don’t know what a school is looking to attract in terms of a student body, which can lead to wildly different and very generous aid packages.

  • Jessica

    I work in the college counseling office at a high school, and you’re doing it right. Do some visits now to help narrow down (at the very least) fit and size, if possible. We also highly recommend applying to small, privates in addition to state schools, because you often get a ton more aid at the small, private colleges. When shopping around, private (and, let’s be clear, non-profit) colleges are more likely to be willing and able to raise your financial aid if you go to them and say, “My daughter got this financial aid packet at College B, but she really wants to attend your college, College A. Is there any way you can match or even come close [or sometimes do even better!] to this better financial packet?”

    Although the system is a LOT different than even when I was applying, I applied to state and to privates, and I ended up going to a private college because they gave me a lot more aid. I actually received full-tuition scholarships at two small, private schools that I applied to, so the decision ended up being between those two. I had worked my tail off, because I knew my parents wouldn’t be able to help me with ANY money, so my goal was to hopefully get a full-tuition scholarship and that was a HUGE relief. (I probably wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise.)

    If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask! If there are any questions I can help with, I’m willing to do anything I can to help make the process as easy to understand as I can for students and their parents. 🙂

    • Nelson’s Mama

      Wish you were the counselor at here – I feel that we’re feeling our way in the dark!

      We have found that the small privates have HUGE endowments and are offering some money up front, then my daughter has been invited to Scholarship Day to interview.  Also, there is money available for music major/minors and she has auditions lined up there too…that’s something Chickie may what to pursue.

      Some of these of schools are in your neck of the woods, Mir.  Email me if you’d like details.

      • Jessica

        My HS counselor was worthless, so I feel you. There are some great counselors out there, but if you’re somewhere that (a) doesn’t have a good counselor or (b) has a good counselor that just has too big of a caseload, then it makes the entire process harder.

    • Thanks for your offer to help, Jessica! Really appreciate it.

      • Jessica

        You’re very welcome! The whole point is to demystify the process. It’s overwhelming enough these days for kids who are trying to figure out how to get to college.

    • Careful what you ask for, Jessica. Imma coming to pick your brain soon. 😀

      • Jessica

        I love helping people with this type of stuff! My boss is the real expert, but she also loves passing knowledge along, so I’ve learned so much about the process from her and from helping the past several years’ worth of kids along with their own searches. I still can’t get over how different the entire process is from even 10 years ago!

        One thing that I forgot to mention, but it’s related: check around your town and/or county for any local foundations that have endowed scholarships. We have a few in our area, and local scholarships are great opportunities for students. We help our parents and students with the process, but a lot of people don’t even know that there are local scholarship foundations. Don’t assume that they are all academically related, because there are a bunch that are given for other reasons (music, community involvement/service, or even because the family thinks that the person who endowed the scholarship would most connect with that student for some reason — seriously, we have a local scholarship that is chosen based on whether they think the patriarch, for whom the scholarship is named, would enjoy sitting down for a meal with that student). Start researching for scholarships now, even though it seems too early. Some scholarships are specified for juniors only!

  • Meri

    my brothers went to Williams and they both loved it. The younger one graduated about a decade ago and they’re both still super-enthusiastic about the school and are still friends with lots of people from college. Oh, he says to avoid UC-Berkeley for undergrad, much better for grad school.

    I went to an Ivy and also loved it. I knew I wanted to do science and it was great to start working in a lab sophomore year. I only had one bad class with a TA teaching it. A lot of it is what you make of it, what you get involved with, where you find your friends.

  • Sheila

    As I have mentioned before, we are living somewhat parallel lives. My kid is waffling between science and music, with no clear career goals, just a strong interest in one and some above average gifts in the other. So, liberal arts it is. While my husband is busy making spreadsheets with criteria like four-year graduation rates (which makes a difference in some state schools, as it’s sometimes unlikely to graduate in less than five years) and percentage of undergrad to graduate students, my daughter is adding columns such as “award winning a cappella group?” and filling in the cells with the school’s team colors.

    Me? I’m kind of burying my head in the sand about it all, although we are spending Spring Break this year visiting colleges.

    Good luck narrowing it down and finding the right fit. Can’t wait to hear where she lands. Oh, and if Chickie does end up at Marquette, I can bring her homemade cookies once in a while!

  • Leanne

    Back in the dark ages, I absolutely had no clue where I wanted to go. I did know that I wanted a small private college. I spent my first semester at my local JC college taking my GE classes that I knew would transfer. The upside I found a school that I loved and transferred to. The down side I found the JC to be entirely too similar to high school. However it was great motivation to transfer to a 4 year as quickly as I could. Between my grades and music scholarships I paid very little for college & my parents paid nothing.

  • Felicity

    I’ve done this twice as a parent. it’s an interesting cultural experience As a parent, try to be cool. Hang in the back of the tour with the one other cool parent. There will only be one….the rest will be annoying and asking questions. Only the prospective students should be asking questions.If engaged by the powers that be, your response should be, “I’m just the chauffeur.” If you can contain yourself, you will be rewarded when you return to the car. Your child will open up with her opinions about the annoying parents, which will then lead to an unforced discussion about the rest of the tour. 

  • Elizabeth

    Definitely check out some smaller schools! And FYI, some smaller schools have agreements with larger nearby universities that will allow their students to participate in activities such as marching band. I know for sure that here in NC a small all girls school Meredith allows their students to participate in NC State’s marching band. I know that my college experience would have been vastly different without marching band as an activity. It kept me focused, around good people, and I got to travel to some AWESOME places. So if that’s a concern for your daughter, its something to keep in mind!

  • Carrie

    In addition the small schools, there might be programs at the big state schools that offer the balance of small classes/tight cohort and amenities of big schools like marching band. I ended up at the University of Texas, at that time the second largest public school in the country, because of their interdisciplinary liberal arts program. My freshman English class had 12 students in it, and between that program and using placement tests and summers to knock out the government/history/etc general requirements I never had one of those dreaded 300 person classes that most people have. I’m sure some other schools have such programs too – Chickie would have fit right in as a Plan II student at UT!

  • Lucinda

    I will be following this closely. I’m sure Chickadee will end up exactly where she needs to be with your support.  My kids are a few years behind you but all the things you have talked about are very reflective of how my husband and I feel about college. However, we mostly want the choices our children make to be suited to who they are.  We also have the advantage of living within a few blocks of a small state university so my children are literally growing up practically on campus. It gives them a clearer eye of what college can be than I ever had at their age.

    I figure my job is to let them lead while I make small suggestions here and there. It’s working so far.  We will see if I’m still this calm in another 3-4 years.

  • Kay

    Definitely don’t rule out small private colleges! Often their endowment is bigger than public schools and/or they have more control over administering aid. I ended up going to a private college for under $10K a year, when my state school offered no aid and would have cost over $15K annually. Now I work at a large public university and see the same thing, parents shell-shocked by the cost because they assumed the state school would be cheaper. This is incredibly confusing, especially for middle-class parents and I’d imagine borderline inconceivable to most 17-year-olds. I’m glad someone steered me in that direction or I’d have $20K more debt to go to the “cheap” school!

  • Autumn

    Decide what level of financial support you can realistically provide for college expenses.  When I was shopping and did the FAFSA, it said my very middle class parents who liked so save for retirement and generally live below their means, could afford 30K/year for my tuition.  Umm, no.  That was more than my mom earned a year, over half my dad’s salary.  Not going to happen

    We came to an arrangement where they would finance up to the cost of the Big state school (Wisconsin) where they met, and if I wanted to go elsewhere, it was up to me to earn the scholarships to cover the cost.  Loans for undergrad were not an option (I was 17 when I graduated high school, had to play by their rules but I knew looking at grad school prices I would need in my field they were right)

  • Catherine

    I agree with Carrie; a large school can feel small if you seek out the right groups/classes.  I also attended the University of Texas, but found my home within the marching band.  It made all the difference to me to have the opportunity to continue to participate in the activity that had enveloped my high school years.  Longhorn Band was 300+ members large at the time, but my section mates became my family.  Also, it was not the norm that marching band members to be music majors.  I think when I was there the music majors only comprised about 20% of total band membership.  I am now a mechanical engineer and music is still a huge part of my life.

  • Heidi

    Here’s another plug for the small liberal arts college–and not just because they often end up being surprisingly affordable due to endowments that lead to big scholarship dollars. I’m a graduate of a Minnesota SLAC and have that to contrast with my experience as a grad student and asst. prof. at large state universities. I love the way that small colleges allow students to indulge diverse interests and provide the individualized guidance that helps students to find their own paths. For instance, you’re right that it might be counterproductive (or even impossible) to participate in marching band at the university level if you’re not a music major. But liberal arts schools foster multiple avocations–the first-chair violinist in the school orchestra might be a Russian major, and the lead in the theater production is just as likely to be a math as a theater major. My nephew attended the same institution as a chem major–later getting a PhD in the same area–and participated in intramural athletics, film society, a political organization, as well as having a weekly show on the campus radio station. You can DO that at a liberal arts college. And I LOVE the idea of visiting places this spring. I’d encourage you to sit in on a class WITH Chickie, so you can form your own impression and discuss it together. So often, only the college-bound student experiences these particulars of a campus visit, but you need to know, too.

  • Julie Cunningham

    Be sure to check out “Colleges That Change Lives” by Loren Pope.  These are all excellent liberal arts schools, most with high admit rates.  One of my clients went to Lynchburg and another is considering Emory and Henry.  I suggest using the College Board’s search function to identify schools based on interests and preferences.  It provides a wealth of information on everything from housing options to unique facilities on campus.  It’s a great way to compile a list of schools before mining individual college web sites for information and planning tours. During campus visits, make certain to inquire about services for students with disabilities, which vary from school to school, and begin now helping your daughter understand the importance of self-advocacy in obtaining the assistance she needs in college. Good luck!