Emielle Nischik grew up in Mapleton, Oregon. Everyone around her said a community college was her only option after high school—until her older brother got into a four-year school.
“I was like, ‘I can do something else, there are some other options out here,’” Emielle says. “But it wasn’t coming from my community or teachers.”
Now, Emielle is executive director of College Possible Oregon. Founded in Minnesota, in 2000, College Possible originally focused on standardized test preparations. Since then, it has expanded to seven other states, with a broader mission of helping high school students from low-income backgrounds access college.
Coaches guide students through their junior and senior years—and even college—building their higher-education vocabulary and preparing them for the traps and stumbling blocks that could derail students from earning degrees.
College Possible Oregon works with 1,600 students across 13 districts and the state’s colleges. Emielle joined the Oregon branch a few years after it launched in 2012.
Much like the rest of the College Possible organization, the Oregon branch focused on the big cities before migrating into rural areas.
“The data out there was really showing that students in rural communities from all income backgrounds—not just low-income students—are less likely to enroll in college and stay in college than their urban peers,” Emielle says.
In 2016, College Possible Oregon began its Navigate program, partnering with eight rural schools to guide college-interested students.
Emielle says staff in many rural schools do multiple jobs to help students, and that outside organizations such as College Possible provide welcomed assistance.
College Possible equips students to navigate the system independently, knowing they have support, says Umatilla High School Counselor Dee Lorence.
Who Can Participate?
For qualifying students, having a guide can make a huge difference.
Nationally, College Possible students are 30% more likely to go to college immediately after graduating high school than their peers, and the program’s graduates have a 98% employment rate.
Students must apply to participate in College Possible. Requirements include having a GPA above 2.5, wanting to attend a bachelor’s degree-awarding institution, and either receiving free or reduced lunch or be Pell Grant eligible.
College Possible uses near-peer coaching to offer students individualized support. Each school’s annual cohort—typically about a dozen students—is matched with a College Possible coach who visits their respective school schools at least one day a month. While there, coaches host sessions during lunch or after school covering topics students need to address each month to stay on track for college.
Winter of junior year they address studying for standardized tests and identifying potential schools. In the spring of junior year, they explore options for majors. With seniors, they talk about the financial aid packages they have received in the spring. Coaches also have monthly individual one-on-ones with each of their students.
“I give my students a more holistic view of what college will be like, and what the college application process is like,” says Ryan Ichinaga, a College Possible coach working with four schools, including Umatilla. “I know that definitely is something you don’t necessarily know what to ask, or you can’t necessarily envision it until you’re in that specific place.”
Assistance from College Possible can help improve career earnings. According to 2020 Bureau of Labor and Statistics data, Americans with bachelor’s degrees earned median salaries of $1,305 a week, or about $67,000 annually. People with only a high school diploma earned $781 a week, or about $41,000 annually.
However, students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to enter and complete college. According to National Student Clearinghouse, 46% of 2020 graduates from high-poverty high schools immediately entered postsecondary school, compared to 70% of graduates from low-poverty schools.
Help With the Journey
Emilia Rivera, a senior College Possible student at Umatilla High School, says she would not have known how to start the college application process without College Possible.
“I didn’t know what questions to ask—and they had all the questions,” she says. “They would ask me, ‘Do you want us to go back and talk about this,’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t even think about that. Yes, please!’”
Emilia joined College Possible to help on her path to becoming a Spanish teacher. She has known she is destined to teach Spanish since seventh grade.
On her first day helping in a kindergarten Spanish class, the teacher asked her to sit next to a young boy who was having trouble. Emilia soon realized the student had a better grasp of Spanish than English, so she began translating the teacher’s instructions.
“He would be like, ‘Oh, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing right now,’” Emilia says. “I felt for him, because that was me.”
When she was little, Emilia spoke Spanish at home with her parents, who are immigrants from Mexico. She says she would struggle with English at school. She realized she could help others with the same problem.
“That’s what I want to do as a teacher because I wish I had that when I was little,” Emilia says.
She has been accepted into five schools and will be the first person in her family to go to college. Her school of choice is University of Portland, although she is comparing financial aid packages of the various schools.
Emilia’s meetings with Ryan, her College Possible coach, now focus on understanding the finances and looking for supplemental scholarships. College Possible coaches can help find scholarships, grants and other ways to pay for school. Ryan says he works with students to assess what scholarships they are eligible for, checking against a database College Possible employees have built, and doing additional research.
“I’ve been telling him so many times that I’m so thankful for him, because I don’t know where to look for scholarships,” Emilia says, noting that Ryan sends her lists of scholarships, saying she should apply for the ones that look interesting. “Most of the time, I’m like, ‘Money is money. I’m very interested in it.’”
College Possible coaches have helped Emilia hone her college application essays, understand financial forms, and prepare for the next step in her education.
She says she is grateful.
“I tell my sister that even though you have me as a big sister, you should apply for it because they have more information, and they’re more helpful than me,” Emilia says. “If you don’t know what to do, they can tell you that next step.”
A Dream Comes True
During her senior year, Jennifer Rincon had her mind set on attending Western Oregon University and becoming a Spanish teacher.
Applying to Oregon State University never occurred to the Umatilla High School Class of 2021 graduate.
“I just knew I had to go to college, but I didn’t really know how to get there,” Jennifer says.
Her College Possible coach told her to apply to at least two more schools, “that way I can have backups,” Jennifer says.
She applied to Oregon State.
As her financial aid letters came in, Jennifer was still focused on Western, but continued getting advice from her coach. When Jennifer’s financial aid packages came in, her College Possible coach helped her break each offer into individual costs and compare every detail.
The package from Western Oregon was not all Jennifer wanted.
Her coach helped her work with the school to seek a better package. When those efforts dried out, they tried Oregon State University.
“She told me to be demanding, but in a nice way, so that I could get more than what they gave me,” Jennifer says.
With a second and superior financial aid offer in hand, Jennifer is now enjoying her first year at Oregon State. She enjoys the classes, homework and making friends with others in her dorm.
As complicated as the college application process can be, arriving on campus can be harder. That is why, starting in 2015, College Possible began offering college-level coaches for students who graduated from their high school programs.
College coaches help students acclimate to their new environments.
Umatilla High School counselor Dee Lorence says she hears from many graduates who are overwhelmed becoming one of thousands of students at a college.
That culture shock can affect success. According to College Possible, 32% of low-income students who enter college graduate with a bachelor’s degree, compared to 71% of high-income students.
College Possible’s college coaches help students find campus resources, understand academic requirements and answer questions about the college process. They also help students on each campus get to know each other and build support groups.
“I think that’s especially important for the students in our rural communities who are often traveling really far away, and coming to the valley and not having a network of support to be able to get them quickly connected with others who have had similar experiences,” says Emielle Nischik, executive director of College Possible Oregon.
Jennifer says her coach has helped her expand her college vocabulary, understand what credits are, how many she needs and paths to complete her Spanish major.
“Right now, I’m enjoying everything because I feel like everything was set up perfectly for me,” Jennifer says. “If I didn’t have that, I honestly would probably just stay in my hometown and go to community college.”
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of this magazine, is taking readers on a yearlong journey, The Learning Curve, highlighting success stories in rural education in challenging times. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.