Growing up, I saw college as merely a buzzword — a way for well-off people to learn more and prepare themselves for a lucrative career. For most of my childhood, the concept seemed so distant, costly, confusing and difficult that I believed college was completely out of reach.

I certainly didn’t think much about higher education during my childhood, which included frequent food insecurity and the occasional electricity and water shutoff. My mom, who gave birth to me at the age of 14, juggled several jobs in the hope of providing food for our family.

Yet, while my home life lacked stability, I found comfort at school. I performed exceptionally well academically from day one — from correcting my teacher’s spelling in kindergarten, to earning stellar grades throughout high school. I could ignore whatever was happening outside of the classroom and find refuge in learning, as well as in the books that I sought out relentlessly.

My strong academic performance gradually made me start thinking more optimistically about my prospects for college. I began to envision a possible future at a few of the schools in Southern California. I reasoned they would be cheaper than anywhere else and I would probably get in. It never crossed my mind that I might gain acceptance to an elite school, like the ones you hear about on TV.

After taking the SAT partway through my junior year and doing well, I received a call from an unknown number. The voice on the other end offered free college advising through a program called CollegePoint. Even with my plan of just applying to a couple of local schools, I didn’t really know what I was doing or how to write application essays, so I decided to give CollegePoint a try.

Through the program, I was paired with my adviser, Charlotte, an art and archaeology major at Princeton University. I communicated with her regularly by email, text and phone, and video, and she helped me tackle the confusing web of applying to colleges. Charlotte mapped out which standardized tests to take, how to build a list of colleges to apply to and how to apply for scholarships.

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an engineer or explore the social sciences, so Charlotte and I decided to look at schools where I could do either — or both. We also talked through my preferences for location, region and the size of the college. Throughout the process, Charlotte was there — bolstering my self-esteem, telling me I was capable of being accepted to my dream schools and offering the technical support of someone who, as a college student, had recently been through the process herself.

With Charlotte’s help, I got into schools that included MIT, Princeton and Stanford! I chose Princeton. Charlotte’s relationship with me as a near-peer, guiding me through a process I would have originally taken on alone, was invaluable.

… The reality is that students like me are less likely to go to a college where we will receive the academic rigor and the resources we need to succeed. But the free guidance offered by CollegePoint is changing that, making an immeasurable impact on students and their families.

My experiences have only served to reinforce the knowledge that more students are capable of attending these types of institutions. We need more of a focus on reaching high-achieving students who feel limited — be it by income, geography, or upbringing. CollegePoint’s ambitions and actions present an example by which we can all be inspired, and in my case, forever impacted.

Josiah Gouker grew up in Yucca Valley and is a sophomore at Princeton University. This Guest Soapbox was edited to fall within the word limit.

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