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College Bound coaches St. Louis’ under-resourced students through high school and to a degree

Taylor Smith (left) coached Michael Watson (middle) and Tyra Searcy (right) during their high school years in the College Bound program.
Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio

Asked what she might do after college, Tyra Searcy mentioned media, film — “maybe even politics.” 

Michael Watson, on the other hand, has set his sights on either an engineering program or a business degree.

Watson will begin his freshman year at Kalamazoo College in a few weeks; Searcy is traveling to Nashville to attend Vanderbilt University. And both St. Louis-area students credit their success partly to the mentorship and assistance provided by College Bound.

College Bound is a St. Louis-based nonprofit that provides under-resourced high school students and their families with preparatory programming for pursuing higher education. The organization is committed to advising and assisting students from high school to a college diploma and career path — a journey that can span nine years.

Students apply and join College Bound by the summer before their sophomore year of high school and stay with the program until they complete college, said Taylor Smith, partnership manager at College Bound. Throughout high school, participants attend classes to prepare them for college applications, standardized tests, and the eventual selection process. Coaches work with individual students — getting to know them and working with them to achieve their goals.

“The great thing about College Bound is that we are very relationship-based,” Smith said. “We work off of loving our students first.”

Smith coached Searcy and Watson in their high school years. But she made it clear that College Bound does not let the relationship end with a diploma.

Once College Bound students are in college, they get loan counseling, events back in St. Louis, and continued one-on-one support and guidance from their coaches. This later support may be even more critical to student success than the assistance College Bound provides in high school; the program prioritizes first-generation college students and those whose parents were non-traditional college students.

“For me, I knew I was going to college. It was always one of my goals,” said Searcy. But knowing where to go, how to work the applications, and which universities to choose was a daunting task. College Bound, she said, made the process smoother by pointing her towards the institutions that seemed like the best fit.

College Bound programs aim to end intergenerational poverty by facilitating the college process for students attending under-resourced schools, and student participants have credited the organization as a first step towards personal, scholastic and financial success. But college is nothing if not expensive, and for many College Bound students, cost is a huge factor.

“The financial part of college is a big part,” Watson said, and influenced his eventual decision on where to attend. “I actually didn’t go to my number-one school because of finances, but the school I ended up in is really great and gave me a lot of my financial aid.”

While College Bound provides no direct financial support for its students, assistance comes in other ways: explaining financial aid and student loans, and teaching the skills and knowledge necessary to apply for, and win, relevant scholarships. “We help them with those essays,” Smith said. “We work hard in class to help them understand, okay, this is the way we’ll get funds for these schools.”

“It was a big motivator for me,” Searcy said. Coaches pushed her into filling out applications and following opportunities; they reminded her that at the end of the day, all the work was really for her benefit.

“The help they offer…it really just turned out to be something great,” said Watson, who said that Smith’s encouragement was key to his college application process. “I personally think everyone should have them a Taylor in their life.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” Smith said. “What makes us unique and different is that we’re with our students—we’re committed to them—through the tough challenges. We’re there through family situations, we’re there through financial situations, we’re there when they’re struggling in high school, we’re there when they’re excelling in high school.”

That omnipresence can make ‘bad days’ hard, Smith said. Students may not follow up with an application or scholarship; they may not come to class or events; they may forget about something important in the process. But per College Bound’s mission, Smith said, “Our students are human and they’re not always going to be perfect, and you have to love them no matter what.”  

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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