Monday, October 26, 2020
The Space, Others Lend Hand to Aspiring College Students
Bags Brokaw advices Leo Lukins about how to navigate the college admissions process. COURTESY: Sun Valley Community School
Monday, October 12, 2020


 Denise Salinas dreams of attending Occidental College, one of the oldest liberal arts college on the West Coast, to study critical theory, social justice and Latin American studies.

 But the Wood River High School senior and aspiring first-generation college student knew she has a tremendous learning curve to sort out the college application process.

 Traditionally, she--like many of her peers--would have relied totally on high school counselors to guide her through the hundreds of colleges out there to find the best fit based on her academic profile and financial capacity. She would have relied on them to help her contact the college’s admissions office and write the perfect application essay.

 But, with a hundred students assigned to one WRHS guidance counselor, she decided it best to seek additional expertise. She found it in Millie Reidy, co-founder and college and career counselor at The Space. 

 The Space, a nonprofit organization, was created recently to close the equity gap in education. It offers tutoring, college prep counseling, test prep, even support once the students have advanced to college.

 “Millie almost helped me with everything,” said Salinas. “She made me start by completing a college match calculator to see what my family could afford, then evaluated my test scores and GPA to match possible college destinations. I knew exactly what to search for at that point and received a list specific to my financial and personal requirements.

 “Millie also counseled me on the best way to contact Occidental College, which ended up being great as I was able to meet the Assistant Dean of Occidental College through a campus visit organized by WRHS,” Salinas added.

 Students and families, experienced and new to the college-bound journey, are seeking private educational counseling services to help with the college application process and beyond. 

 The class of 2021 WRHS senior class is composed of approximately 200 students and two dedicated, hard-working college counselors who have a monumental task to assist the graduating student group with securing their post-secondary education.

Liz Clark works with a third of the WRHS students, as well as Carey and Silver Creek students and Wood River Middle School students. Kristen Swafford, college and career counselor at WRHS, works with the other two-thirds of the WRHS students. 

The WRHS college and career counseling staff also receive support from teachers and community mentors who step into unofficial roles as student and college advisors. Teachers such as Michel Sewell and community mentors like Bob Knoebel are part of the mentorship ecosystem, which has produced numerous success stories.

 Kristen Swafford said she and Clark are currently working with seniors on college lists, applications and essays.

“We run workshops for application completion, writing essays, and financial aid assistance and help students organize their application due dates and collect materials needed to make their applications shine,” she added.

However, even with the network of professionals and committed community members working in official and unofficial capacities, Jose Serrano--a parent of a Wood River High School senior—says there’s such a large chasm between the staff-student ratio that it may not be reasonable to expect that each student receives quality attention for post-secondary education guidance. 

 Gretchen Gorham, who has had three children attend Wood River High School over the past 10 years, believes college and post-secondary education guidance is an under-resourced area for the school. It is not a priority for the WRHS administration, she said.

 “Although the counseling office does an excellent job with the limited resources they are given, there is just no way they can be completely effective given counselor to student ratio,” she added. “There’s an overwhelming amount of information to present to get from point A to point B, and it is impossible to meet all the needs of the student and parents. I am aware of what it takes to put together a competitive and robust college application packet, and it is very time consuming to present a child in the best possible light. One or two college counselors just can't do that for every student.”   

 The Wood River Valley’s independent college counselor Bayard “Bags” Brokaw operates as Blackfly College Counseling, LLC, and assisted Gretchen’s children. He says that WRHS offers an excellent team of counselors, even though it’s stretched thin. But, he noted, that nationally the deficit of resources for public school college counselors is even worse with one college prep staff member for every 450 students. 

Unlike high school counselors, who have significant caseloads and are constantly juggling the demands of their myriad responsibilities every day, independent college counselors have the luxury of more time, said Brokaw: “We have the bandwidth to help every student one on one to the extent that is needed.” 

 For example, said Brokaw, the college essay process for each senior demands thinking and pre-writing time. The questions ask that seniors ponder the qualities and traits that they wish to communicate about themselves in response to a particular topic.

 “Often that necessitates conversations with seniors to help them dig deeper into their personal narratives and the "why" the topic is important to them. In addition, our services often don’t stop at the point of applying and ultimately being admitted to college. We have equally significant and consequential conversations with families beyond the point of college admission. “

 The students with the biggest challenge typically live in a low socioeconomic household, often where neither parent attended college.

 “The table is not leveled for those who are not acquainted with the system or who lack money,” said Reidy. “What we do is similar to showing them the different trails to reach the top of Baldy.  We empower them with the information so they may choose a trail. Eventually, the path chosen must fit financially as well as academically.” 

 Jose Serrano says he’s happy to seek out additional support, like that of The Space for his son.

“There’s only so much that I may help my son with throughout the college preparation process. I’m well aware that I don’t have the experience of attending college experience so it’s important to seek out additional support,” he said.

 His son—WRHS Senior Jason Serrano—is grateful.

 “My Dad never went to college and this stuff isn’t familiar territory for him,” he said. “I had no idea what to be looking for in college or how to search for financial aid and scholarships. The Space with Millie is currently helping me. I feel so much more confident in this process. I wish these services were more known to everyone.”

 Reidy beams when she talks about how rewarding it is to “level the playing field.”

 “The work needs to be done, not only here but all over the country,” she added.  

 The Space and BlackFly College Counseling strive to be affordable. The Space offers a sliding scale, starting with free services for families that earn under $60,000 and heavily discounted services for families with incomes up to $130,000. BlackFly College Counseling offers pro bono work for first-generation students or parents who reach out directly. 

 In addition, there are a number of community organizations that work with students at WRHS, said Swafford: “Support for kids is always a plus. When those lines of communication stay open, it can greatly benefit the student.  Depending on the services offered, outside organizations can sometimes provide services that are not possible on a larger scale.”

 To learn more about The Space, visit To learn more about Blackfly College Counseling, visit:



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