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College Ambassadors Club earns North Lenoir state award

North Lenoir High School is a winner of a 2021 First in FAFSA Innovation Grant from myFutureNC, one of just five schools in the state recognized for programs that encourage students to prepare for college and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other forms that give them access to grants, scholarships, work-study programs and loans.

North Lenoir and the other four winners will each receive a $500 grant from myFutureNC to expand college access programs and “to create a culture that believes all students can pursue a postsecondary education,” according to the organization’s website.

Three female 12th graders talk while a female teacher videos with an iPad.The local high school, Lenoir County’s largest, earned the award by creating a College Ambassadors Club to leverage personal connections among students and the help student leaders can give their classmates in preparing for college.

“Working at North Lenoir, I found out very quickly that word of mouth travels significantly faster than any email or message I could send to any student,” said Liz Price, who create the College Ambassadors Club last school year when she worked as North Lenoir’s college advisor.

The concept, she said in a telephone interview, originated with Leah Daniel, the college adviser assigned to North Lenoir by Carolina College Advising Corps two years ago. Price took Daniel’s notes and ran with the idea.

“My college ambassadors were talking about FAFSA all the time. I got a lot of FAFSA done by reaching out to students, who reached out to other students and held them accountable and made sure they were doing what they needed to do,” said Price, who has since moved on to teach elementary school in Washington County.

myFutureNC recognized North Lenoir for establishing this peer mentoring program, for creating an atmosphere in which students felt comfortable asking questions about college preparation and for increasing the number of conversations about FAFSA.

“There was a lot of brainstorming,” Price remembered. “We did a lot of presentations – how does GPA work, how to send a formal email requesting more information. For students who don’t have a parent who’s been to college, it’s vital information that maybe they didn’t feel they were in the know about.”

North Lenoir awarded diplomas to 200 seniors last May. Eighty-two percent of them said they planned to attend college. The FAFSA completion rate for the class was 52.6 percent.

“I think what made it so spectacular was we were working in this Covid year and those first couple months as a college advisor, I was totally virtually,” Price said. “The students really didn’t know me, really didn’t see me, until December and FAFSA had already been open. By the end of last year, we were really high-tailing it to get some FAFSAs done. I’m really proud of them and that number, being the year that it was.”

Despite Price’s departure, the College Ambassadors Club remains active, particularly this month. FAFSA applications opened Oct. 1 and October is designated as NC Countdown to College. College Application Week is Oct. 18-22, when assisting students with online applications will become the top priority for school counselors at all LCPS high schools. That week, many colleges and universities waive applications fees.

Lenoir Community College is hosting a drive-in FAFSA Day on Oct. 23, when financial advisors will be available in the parking lot to help students and their parents with the application. At a Nov. 3 college fair at Kinston Community Center, representatives of the College Fund of North Carolina will provide information on financial assistance.

“The next few weeks we do have a lot of events planned countywide. The high school counselors across the district have worked and planned together,” Rachel Hewett, one of the school counselors at North Lenoir who is guiding the College Ambassadors Club.

This month club members expect to use everything from social media to the North Lenoir’s morning announcements to create awareness about North Carolina colleges and the opportunities they offer. At the same time, they hope to grow the award-winning club. “We are working on recruiting,” Hewett said. “We’re going to try to get other grade levels involved so that we can instill that college-going culture and promote that awareness of what you can do and what you need to do.”

Hannah Hemby, a senior and student leader at North Lenoir, already has some advice for her classmates about what they need to do about FAFSA and college applications.

“When in doubt, just start,” Hemby said after a planning meeting with Hewitt and fellow seniors Noura Zayyad and Dynaija Paris. “I know for me, seeing everything that had to be done, I felt super unprepared; but just start. If you don’t, you never will. Just pick a time to do it. Our counselors are hands-on with us and are more there for us than I ever imagined.”

Photo caption:

North Lenoir High School counselor Rachel Hewett and seniors, from left, Hannah Hemby, Noura Zayyad and Dynaija Paris experiment with a video the College Ambassadors Club could use to encourage students to complete the FAFSA application that opens the door to grants, scholarships and other financial assistance. North Lenoir was one of five high schools in the state honored with the 2021 First in FAFSA Innovation Grant from myFutureNC for its work with the College Ambassadors Club.