Direct Service

A Look at uAspire’s Afford & Succeed Programs

At uAspire we work to ensure that all young people have the financial information and resources necessary to find an affordable path to – and through – a postsecondary education. We strive to accomplish this goal through a variety of means: in-person andAllie Karen Holiday Party virtual (texting) advising with high school and postsecondary students, training guidance counselors and in-school practitioners, and through policy work.

Both Allie and Karen advise students virtually and in-person, but Allie works with high school students and Karen works with postsecondary students! Below they outline how they support students to and through postsecondary plans through their respective programs, Afford and Succeed:  

uAspire’s Afford Program 

College Affordability Advisors in the Afford Program work one-on-one with high school students to provide them with the tools to successfully navigate and manage the multi-step financial aid process. Rather than filling out a financial aid application, like the FAFSA, for students, we aim to empower them to be self-advocates and take ownership of their financial aid process and journey to postsecondary plans. In deciding upon postsecondary plans we encourage students to consider cost and affordability, in addition to other factors like program/ college fit. Deciding on postsecondary plans can sometimes be challenging, confusing, and overwhelming, we try to serve as sounding boards for students to consider their different options and think critically about next steps. Once seniors graduate from high school, we spend the summer months texting them through our Summer College Connect (SCC) program to ensure they are ready to start college in the fall!

uAspire’s Succeed Program

The Succeed Program serves students who have graduated from high school, whether they are enrolled in a college or not. Succeed students can be anywhere in the state or country, therefore our communication with them starts via text. We send out reminders and important financial aid deadlines every few weeks, and we respond to students to support them with their individual needs. Advisors also support students in-person or via phone calls. Because financial aid must be renewed every year and is subject to change based on factors such as student/family income and GPA requirements, affordability is a major factor in college persistence for many students.

Allie Negron is the FAO Schwarz Marketing & Communications Fellow at uAspire. In this role, she spreads awareness about uAspire’s work and college affordability news. In the other half of her role, she serves as a College Affordability Advisor, where she works with Boston Public School students to guide them through every step of the financial aid process.

Karen Wilber is the FAO Schwarz Succeed Fellow at uAspire. In her role, she is a member of the team that develops curriculum for the Succeed Program and is a College Affordability Advisor serving postsecondary students.


3 Ways the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellowship Made Me a Better Leader

Special Project: coordinating the annual Riverkeeper Sweep. For my special project in my first year at Riverkeeper I worked closely with the Director of Community Engagement to coordinate the 6th Annual Riverkeeper Sweep, our day of service for the Hudson River and its tributaries. Previously I had the opportunity to coordinate small straightforward events like campus film screenings, community rallies, and service projects, but had never organized an event on such a considerable scale. At first the prospect of coordinating an event of this scale felt impossible.

How would I keep track of 109 locations, over 100 registration pages, and ensure each Sweep Leader had the training, materials, skills, and volunteers necessary for a successful project?

Under the guidance of the Director of Community Engagement, Dana Gulley, I learned to manage moving parts such as tide dependent cleanup times, waivers, data management, Sweep Leader training, and successfully collaborating with 164 individual leaders. With Dana’s partnership and a strong plan with weekly deadlines, we achieved the most successful Riverkeeper Sweep yet, with 109 Sweep projects, and 2,200 volunteers across NYC and the Hudson Valley who removed 48 tons of debris and plant to maintain over 800 trees and shrubs.

Building on the skills I learned last year, I was the primary organizer of the 2017 Riverkeeper Sweep, which achieved a count of 101 projects from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks with over 1,300 participating volunteers.

Direct Service: supporting Riverkeeper campaigns. The drinking water contamination crisis in Newburgh, New York has allowed me to grow my skills as a community organizer, by developing a comprehensive outreach plan, building relationships with new partners, and executing strategic community education and outreach. These efforts have helped raise awareness about toxic chemical contamination to Newburgh’s drinking water supply, pressure the Department of Health to conduct blood testing, and to spread the word about the blood testing program. Working with communities such as Newburgh has taught me to think outside the box and find non-traditional partners, outreach methods, and the responsibility to amplify existing community voices. It’s easy to step into a situation and make your voice or the voice of your organization the center of attention. What’s instead needed, is to listen and learn from the community you are serving and amplify their concerns and goals.

Goal setting and prioritizing professionally AND personally. Since the start of my Fellowship at Riverkeeper my work schedule has included weekend events and night meetings across New York City and the Hudson Valley. In the beginning it was easy to orient my life around my job and the challenging expectations I was working to meet while unknowingly neglecting personal goals. Quickly I learned the value of prioritizing during work and personal time and having goals in both areas of my life. Last winter I set a goal to climb all 46 Adirondack high peaks over the next few summers while acquiring the necessary skills and gear. With this goal in mind, I’ve prioritized incorporating almost daily exercise and frequent weekend hikes into my weekly plan. Prioritizing exercise has allowed me to be more focused in the office, and I have climbed 9/46 peaks with 5-10 more planned for summer 2017.

Jen Benson is an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Riverkeeper. As the Education and Outreach Coordinator, she creates opportunities to increase youth environmental awareness and engagement with the Hudson River. She also works to support campaign and programmatic initiatives, and helps coordinate the Riverkeeper Sweep.

Why I Chose to Work For uAspire

I grew up in a household with a mother who was very on top of my college application and
financial aid processes- so much so that I didn’t have to do much more than log into my student portal and accept my financial aid package each year. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I started to understand allie-graduationthe time, commitment, and knowledge that goes into submitting financial aid forms.

Today, I realize just how fortunate I was to have this built-in mentor, my mother, guide me through the tedious, multi-step college application and financial aid processes. Due to the fact that I can now appreciate just how fortunate I was I also realize that there are many students that may not have a parent, legal guardian, older sibling, friend, etc. to serve as their guide towards reaching postsecondary education.

I decided to work for uAspire because I want to help students with dreams of going to college, reach their goals. But as many, if not all Americans know, post-secondary education does not come cheap. The realization that going to college can become very expensive is stressful in and of itself, and that coupled with trying to find a way to make it affordable can be extremely overwhelming, especially while juggling school work, applying to college, and a plethora of other responsibilities. I am by no means the only person that can or will help a student make it to college, but I enjoy doing what I can to make the college-going process more digestible for students.

allie-uaspireI am a firm believer in the idea that education is right and not a privilege. Students that put in the hard work and effort in school to go to college shouldn’t be stopped short because of high cost. I feel very fortunate to be able to meet and work with seniors and learn about their dreams for college and beyond. While I may only provide them a tidbit of knowledge and a few tools, the students take what they learn and run with it. I am only part of their journey for a small fraction of time, but it is incredible to witness students take ownership and control of their futures and not let obstacles stop them from achieving their goals. Working at uAspire provides me with the opportunity to meet and work with motivated, inspirational students, while simultaneously helping to ensure that higher education is attainable for everyone– I am extremely grateful for this opportunity and for the students I’m getting to meet along the way.

Allie Negron is the FAO Schwarz Marketing & Communications Fellow at uAspire. In this role, she spreads awareness about uAspire’s work and college affordability news. In the other half of her role, she serves as a College Affordability Advisor, where she works with Boston Public School students to guide them through every step of the financial aid process.

Staying Grounded: A Visit to Recess

“Hi, my name is Tristan. I’m going to be one of your Junior Coaches today.”

When I spent a day on the recess yard at the Trotter Innovation K-8 School the other day, all of the Junior Coach 5th grade leaders were helpful. They came out pretty much on time for their recess shifts, helped get the first graders playing kickball and running relay races, and helped set up the volleyball net. But Junior Coach Tristan stuck out ahead of the rest.

That was our first interaction and it was him who took initiative to come up and confidently introduce himself to me when I hadn’t even realized he’d come outside yet. We’d spent a lot of time at the Junior Coach Leadership Convention over February Vacation talking with these young leaders about how to introduce yourself, and it made me beyond proud to see it in action. But it only got better from there.

“What do you like about being a JC?” I asked him, as we started setting up for fourth grade recess.

“Well, last year I was a bad kid. Now I get to help. I like being viewedIMG_0819 as a good kid now.”

Sometimes the words we use to talk about our work become jargon. I can’t count the number of times I’ve said to someone who asked about my job that we help kids who have a hard time succeeding during the regular school day have a chance to shine and develop leadership skills through our Junior Coach Leadership Development Program. However, it means something entirely different to hear that sentiment coming from the genuine lips of a fifth grader. He was viewed as a bad kid, but he worked hard, learned a lot from Coach TK, and is able to be helpful now. Able to be viewed as a good kid.

It’s a very unique space I get to be in as the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Playworks. I get to work closely with upper-level staff, meet funders, and develop my skills in my special project work. I also, though, get to spend time with awesome young people like Junior Coach Tristan and get regular human reminders of why it is we do the work we do. I don’t just hear the stories our development staff tell that may have happened a week, a month or a year ago – I get to go experience them and help those young people continue to develop.

As I reflect on the first year of my fellowship, the most poignant thing I’ve learned is about myself. As I make moves toward the upper level of nonprofit management, it’s essential that I keep that connection to the ground-level work. I can’t imagine a week where I don’t see the people we serve in person, hear about how they’re doing, and remember how much we all have to learn from each other.

Dawn Lavallee is the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Playworks Massachusetts, a national nonprofit working to change school culture by leveraging the power of safe, fun, and healthy play at school every day. As the Junior Coach Alumni coordinator, she works to launch 5th grade leaders into a successful middle school career. She also works to bring valuable social and emotional skills to the children of Massachusetts through play.

Helping Creative Minds Flourish

Last Spring I worked with a group of twelfth grade students on a project aimed at exploring the environmental impacts and opportunities of an upcoming park space coming to the neighborhood around their school. The goal of this workshop was to investigate relevant issues through art making.

I began the term with high hopes for student lead investigation, generative art making, and youth driven momentum.  It came as a big shock when the answer to the question “what do you want to make?” was “we have no idea”.  Half way through the term I honestly thought I had failed, as week after week we wrestled through the same conversations about environmental science and waded through endless drawings of the same puffy clouds and bubbly hearts. And I found myself increasingly distressed and uncertain of how to engage students in creating something new.  Suddenly it hit me that I’d been trying so hard to push for student driven investigation that my students felt lost and without direction.

From then on we dove into our content with a clear road map to get where we needed to go.  We began exploring four themes for environmental action happening in the park: ABSORB, CONNECT, COOL, and RE-USE.  For each theme, students produced drawings using the exquisite corpse method Margaret Pic(this is a classic drawing exercise that originated in the Surrealist movement of the early 20th century, where participants begin a drawing on a page and then fold over the section they’ve drawn so the next person can add without knowing what came before).  In this structure, the students were suddenly able to flourish. And it wasn’t that they were defined by the structure—rather they were freed by it to really explore their own potential as artists.  I realized that giving them structure didn’t mean taking away their voice, just giving them a path to start walking down.  In giving my students a platform to find their feet, I also eased some of my own tension in the classroom and was able to relax into each class knowing that everything was moving forward I could begin to calm down and chat with my students about their upcoming transitions to college and all the big, exciting changes about to happen in their lives.

By the end of the term, the students were actually producing art work; artwork that wasn’t just beautiful but showed an understanding of real issues. In our last class, we tackled the core theme “CONNECT” (as in connecting people to nature and fostering stewardship of the environment).  There was one piece in particular that took the whole group’s breath away—when we opened it up multiple students immediately asked if they could have a copy for their dorm room next year.  In this moment it was clear that the students had grown to connect themselves to their art and to their world.

The drawings that the students made last Spring, and the conversations we shared about how to think through the changes in their environment were compiled into an interactive map which will be printed and distributed to the community at the dedication of the park (also my first time making something that will be used in public space like this!).  It is so inspiring to see that from those who don’t consider themselves artists, such beautiful things can come out that change everything.

I would encourage anyone who thinks that they’re “not an artist” or “can’t draw” to give it another shot—you just might surprise yourself.

Margaret Kearney is an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.  She works with the Restored Spaces Initiative, the program’s “art-based approach to integrating the activities of city agencies, community organizations, and residents as we collectively transform schools, recreation centers, and commercial corridors into models for sustainable revitalization.”

Conquering Millennial Anxieties: Lessons from service

I have never been a fan of phone calls.JOE

My childhood anxiety around the idea of picking up the phone and dialing family members or girls I liked only increased as texting grew popular and threw the original form of communication out into the retro dump of futility. So when one of the high school seniors I was working with called my cell phone, I was scared. Had she already heard bad news from one of her early action schools? Did I forget to mention a scholarship deadline? What potential maelstrom had befallen us?

Instead, she announced through tear-filled elation that she had received the Posse Scholarship, a full-tuition ride that also served as a gateway to a “posse” of other students attending the same school that would stay with her as she traversed her four years of higher education. Moreover, this scholarship was to Brandeis University, a strong academic institution and one she had been eyeing throughout the college process.

Though I was undoubtedly proud of her incredible accomplishment, what made me the most emotional was the fact that she continued to thank me, as if I were the one who made the decision or carried the brunt of the work. I responded with incredulity, pushing the onus back on her and congratulating her again and again for the incredible journey ahead of her. But what this interaction cemented for me was the impact moments like these—and the journeys required to get there—have on our students.

It comes as no surprise that getting to college can prove to be extremely hard for the population of students we serve; the combination of institutionally-driven restrictions, financial burdens, and implicit feelings of mediocrity causes many young scholars to falter and doubt their potential. As a first-generation man of color from an underserved community in Los Angeles, I have felt these uncertainties creep up at the most inopportune moments. Without reassurance from trusted sources, these suspicions can derail and destroy students’ paths to successes.

This is the reason I came Breakthrough New York as an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow in the first place—to allow the fresh ideas of our next generation of leaders to flourish and mature as they traverse an environment that sometimes seeks to reject or stifle. To be completely transparent, this job can be difficult sometimes; serving students of all needs demands an attention to detail and a perseverance that can sometimes be exhausting. But when you get to witness moments like these, feel the emotions shine through with every letter of admission or internship acceptance, any doubt or frustration once had fades away.

It’s why I do what I do. And it’s why even when I feel my heart flutter, when a student calls, I pick up the phone.


Joseph Rosales is the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow and High School Coordinator for Breakthrough New York, a college success program that works with high-achieving, underserved students from across New York City. Using his own experiences as a first-gen student of color, he supports high school students in any way they need in an effort to help prepare them for the educational road ahead.