Transition points in our education system—particularly from high school to college—are rarely seamless. Add abrupt campus closures, byzantine and shifting application and financial aid processes, and a year of unknowns, and the class of 2020 has faced a rare mix of emotional upheaval and tactical challenges. Like many aspects of the pandemic, these challenges may weigh especially heavily on low-income students who are far more likely than their more affluent peers to face financial pressures to work rather than enroll in college. And even those who do enroll must now contemplate entering college without a roadmap for the year ahead. 

Enter Matriculate, a nonprofit that supports high-achieving, low-income high school students in navigating the college application and matriculation process through a personalized student support system. Earlier this summer, we profiled its model in our growing collection of case studies highlighting organizations investing in students’ social capital. Matriculate’s model is particularly compelling in the era of social distancing because it builds relationships with students online, matching high schoolers with virtual, near-peer advisors. I sat down with Matriculate’s CEO and Co-Founder Madeline Kerner to hear about how the organization is responding—and adapting—in the face of COVID-19.

Julia: Matriculate has been offering virtual mentorship and advising to students since long before COVID-19. What prompted you to build a virtual tool in the first place?

Madeline: When we started out, we developed virtual advising and mentorship because it was important to us that our support could reach students in locations without access to strong in-person advising. Many of our students live in rural or suburban communities without access to regular support from a counselor or outside organization; one of our high school seniors hails from Watseka, IL, a county with a student-to-counselor ratio over 1000:1. 

We prioritized building meaningful virtual relationships that were accessible and flexible, so a student could reach out and hear from an advisor in a form and frequency that suited them.  We’ve since learned that many students actually prefer to engage virtually. In our experience, the keys to virtual interactions with students are the same as those in person—intentionality, consistency, and empathy. Of course, in these difficult days, we all crave real connection. With these touchstones, we’ve seen that genuine virtual connection is really possible. When our world returns to normal, virtual advising will continue to be, for some students, one of the only pathways for advising and mentorship, providing allyship wherever, whenever they need it. 

Julia: When high school campuses closed this spring, what were some of the major challenges that graduating seniors faced? What changes have you had to make to your approach to address those challenges? 

Madeline: Our students were stressed, anxious, uncertain, and didn’t always have access to the supportive adults they might have been able to count on inside their school buildings. There are layers to the disparity in student support; while students across the board are dealing with the destabilizing effects of COVID-19, many are faced yet again with racial inequities, this country’s longest-standing pandemic. 

Matriculate’s near-peer advisors stepped up–maintaining regular contact, conducting more financial aid appeals than ever before, partnering with students to get fee waivers for applications and standardized tests, connecting students to a wider community of Matriculate alumni, and, in many cases, extending the duration of advising support. We needed to address the institutional barriers students were facing, but in many ways, the more important work was ensuring that students had the validation and allyship to move through these challenges and uncertainties and create their own structure where there was none.

Julia: You’re a near-peer model, which means that you connect students who are close in age. How does that shape the kind of support that advising fellows offer? And how are advising fellows themselves weathering this season of unknowns?

Madeline: College students know what it means to persist. They know the ins-and-outs of attending a high graduation rate institution, the everyday nuances of campus and academic life, and, these days, the overwhelming uncertainty of going to college during COVID-19. The near-peer model leverages both institutional knowledge and personal experience. 

One recent Matriculate student from Douglasville, GA observed that his advisor was knowledgeable about the on-the-ground college application experience in a way that someone older could not have been. We consistently hear from our high school students that it is refreshing—and necessary—to build connections with those who can closely relate to both the bureaucracy and red tape as well as the emotional experience of the college application process. Advisors engage in organic, informal information-sharing that brings college to life more than a university-branded website ever could. 

Our advisors are also examples of resilience in the face of uncertainty. They know how to compare financial aid packages, develop compelling personal statements, and build resumes. But they haven’t forgotten the human being behind the forms. They commiserate and share advice on everything from developing friendships and strategizing for course registration to building the courage to go to a professor’s office hours. 

To enable those conversations, our advisors create an environment of trust—where students don’t feel like they have to come in with everything figured out. The near-peer model really opens a space for students to ask anything, and we’re noticing that the relationship itself has been a healing and empowering force for advisors, too. The coming school year still presents a world of unknowns, but our advisors and students are moving forward together.

Julia: Many of those same graduating seniors are now heading to college, but it’s not totally clear what “college” means. A lot of our research focuses on the fact that relationships—or social capital—are a buffer against unknowns. What might supports for incoming freshmen need to look like to mitigate uncertainty and keep students on track?

Madeline: In light of how difficult this summer has been for students and the challenges we’re all anticipating this fall, we believe that many incoming first-years, particularly those who will be the first college-goers in their family, would benefit from a designated, trained advisor who “shows up” persistently via phone, text, email, or video to check in on them. 

Advising relationships are best when they are relevant and accessible. We believe that when advisors go beyond the academic dimension of the student experience to “real talk,” students feel prepared for the transition to college. This fall is going to put students through even more stress; building resilience in the face of these new obstacles will take a caring, consistent, and open connection.

At Matriculate, we’re trying to provide that buffer with what we call a Student Support Team, composed of veteran advisors who are personally connecting with the Class of 2020 as they transition to college—in whatever form that takes—this fall. 

Students know by now that colleges don’t always have all the answers, let alone a consolidated plan in the face of a pandemic. When it comes to boosting student confidence, we believe an adaptive, compassionate undergraduate mentor is a living demonstration that it’s possible to create a meaningful college experience, even during COVID-19.

Julia: There’s an understandable skepticism about forging connections online, especially between students and people they’ve never even met before. But now many schools, colleges, and student support organizations are going to have to build relationships with new cohorts of students from scratch, online. In your experience, what are some of the ways that your virtual advising fellows go about forging trust with students?

Madeline: First and foremost, we let young people lead. Our advisors are terrific at asking insightful questions (open- and closed-ended) that give students the opportunity to examine their thinking process and feel empowered to co-create action plans that best serve their needs. What we see here is that our advisors are provoking thought rather than compliance. Students then feel that they can count on their advisors to be supportive and curious rather than judgmental, and what ensues is that they feel safe being themselves. We’ve also learned the following lessons over the years about fostering connection online:

Practice creativity in multiple modalities. When one communication platform doesn’t seem to resonate, advisors must find a new avenue to connect with their students. Advisors should also be intentional when using text, email, phone, and video call—for example, committing to weekly video calls for substantive conversations, using email as a means of storing follow-up communication or relevant articles, and texting students to maintain connection through casual check-ins and hellos.

Build a community of experts—advisors and students included. Our advisors complete more than 70 hours of rigorous training for this role. The training—comprised of webinars, synchronous group meetings, and mock advising session evaluations—strengthens mentorship skills, including the ability to acknowledge when they don’t know something and conduct research accordingly. That research often includes contacting other advisors well-versed in the area of interest, which helps advisors and students build social capital. When high school students see how extensive our community is, and how many opportunities they have to engage with professionals and peers alike, they feel excited and motivated to engage online. The effect of this network outlasts the college application process and sets students up for confidence and growth in their personal and professional lives.

Consistency—in both task management and celebration—is key. High school seniors are constantly challenged to move onto the “next big thing” and to do it well—an upcoming standardized test, their personal statement, their resume, their classes. It’s not often that they have time to pause, reflect on their work, and feel pride in what they’ve accomplished. That’s another place where our advisors step in. In addition to checking in on student task completion each week, advisors give students the space to celebrate throughout the entire process. Happy birthday wishes, a warm message during the holidays, asking about how that tournament went, praising the student’s ability to reflect on their life experience—it all makes a difference and humanizes the online space.

Honor both pride and frustration. While our advisors tend to be really excited about their own college campuses, they don’t exist to provide a glossy image of the university student experience. They talk about the nitty-gritty; from the annoyances of course registration to the loneliness, and from the imposter syndrome to the anxiousness that sometimes accompanies a scale-up in academic rigor, our advisors and students have the space to discuss it all. The most frustrating, scary aspects of college life can come out from under the rug and become manageable things that students and advisors can tackle together. 

Having meaningful, authentic relationships strengthen students’ self-advocacy. When students feel heard in a weekly video chat or even a text, they know that they have a voice—a voice they can use to transform their own lives and the lives of others.


  • Julia Freeland Fisher
    Julia Freeland Fisher

    Julia Freeland Fisher leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres through its research.