February 10, 2021

Supporting First-Gen Students' College Goals Through Aspire Program

The Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies (DAUS) is fortunate to have direct and meaningful links to the NYU SPS Aspire Program, a two-year college preparatory and mentoring program for rising high school juniors and seniors from underrepresented communities who will be first-generation college students. Working with these students are NYU SPS Dean’s Scholars, outstanding undergraduate and graduate students who are selected through a competitive application process. 

Fiona Jaramillo, NYU SPS Chief of Staff, who oversees high school offerings at SPS, including Aspire, relates why this relationship of mentor and mentee is important:

“As mentors, the Scholars help students with their college essays, resumes, applications, financial aid forms, scholarships, and college research, to name just a few areas. There is currently a large college enrollment gap for underrepresented, first generation students. Our mission is to help close that gap by providing students with critical assistance during the college application process and with comprehensive support through mentorship.”

Two such scholars/mentors, Rochelle Hestnas and Christopher Stevenson, are DAUS students. 

Rochelle is a junior politics major who transferred into the BA program from DAUS’s Associate program last year. “I feel pure joy working with my mentees. I know students are submitting impressive college applications that clearly demonstrate the support they receive because of Aspire. Each of their college acceptances makes me want to celebrate!!  And this work has solidified for me that the issues with which I am most concerned, such as economic inequality, really matter, and that a future in public service is exactly the right thing for me.”

Likewise, Christopher Stevenson (BA’21 Social Science, Media Studies concentration),  who is only a few years older than his mentees, feels he can empathize with them and understand their needs. Being a mentor has helped Christopher to reflect on his high school years and where life has taken him. In doing this, he thinks he can better understand how to guide his mentees. “I am more capable of giving better advice and of reflecting on the good steps to take when you're graduating high school, looking to go to college, and getting out into the working world. That's a great feeling, which I believe is mutual on both sides.” 

In addition, DAUS faculty are intricately connected with this program. April Krassner is Clinical Associate Professor of Writing at DAUS and also serves as faculty mentor in the Aspire program: 

“I began my teaching career as a high school English teacher. Becoming a part of the Aspire team meant returning to my original student population. What made the Aspire program even more enticing to me is that as a mentor I would be helping the Aspire students create a pathway to college for themselves.The heart of Aspire is recognizing that first generation students often need support and guidance in navigating the college application process which can be quite overwhelming. The students accepted into the program are keen to attend college, but may not have the resources they need to navigate the journey on their own.” 

Indeed, mentoring young students as they navigate higher education has the potential to make a profound difference. As Ms. Jaramillo reflects, “Help with the FAFSA means students can get financial aid to go to college; guidance with college research means they are matched with the right school for them; assistance with a scholarship application can make the difference between attending their dream school or not; a supportive conversation from someone who cares might be just what a student needs to get them through a difficult time. All of this work matters profoundly and our Scholars take great pride in serving in their role as mentors.”

For Prof. Krassner, what makes the program deeply meaningful “are the opportunities I have to work with the students to help them tell their stories and to participate with them as they develop leadership and self-advocacy skills.” Echoing Rochelle and Christopher’s sentiments, Prof. Krassner also recognizes that this program is transformative and reciprocal for both the mentors and the mentees. In this way, the line between mentor and mentee becomes blurred. Aspire ultimately represents a setting in which the participants can learn and grow together. 


Rochelle Hestnas

Christopher Stevenson

April Krassner

Fiona Jaramillo

Related Articles