Community partnership helps make college possible for more first-generation students

Marlette Gomez 

By Jordan Waidelich

When Marlette Gomez graduated from Goshen College in 2013 with a degree in social work, she knew she wanted to focus her career on giving back to the immigrant or Latino communities.

After working at a few different social services agencies, she found herself with an opportunity to work at Goshen High School in a new and unique role as a college prep coach, a position that was created in partnership between the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, Goshen Community Schools and Goshen College.

It all began with a good idea. Richard Aguirre, director of corporate and foundation relations at Goshen College, has been trying to help first-generation and Latino students succeed at Goshen College. As a first-generation college graduate himself, Aguirre understands the difficulty a high school junior or senior faces trying to navigate the college process alone. So he dreamed up the idea for a position of a college prep coach who would be able to support and coach local first-generation and Latino students through the college application process.

Last summer, Aguirre pitched his idea to members of the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, an organization that works in support of nonprofits and other programs that benefit the community at large. They loved the idea, and after Aguirre wrote a grant proposal, they pledged to contribute the stipend for the first year of this program.

Aguirre also worked with Diane Woodworth, superintendent of Goshen Community Schools, and other school administrators to figure out the logistics of the program. With all of that in place, the school board approved providing benefits for the position during its pilot year.

Gomez speaks with families during a college information session at Goshen High School.

In August 2016, Gomez began her new role as the Goshen High School college prep coach.

Gomez herself is a first-generation college graduate, and she says that going to college changed her life, so this position allows her to “bring her values to work.” For her, the educational component and getting to work with first-generation students were the most appealing aspects of the position.

“I care about education, Goshen and the Latino community,” she said. “It makes the work kind of effortless and enjoyable.”

She meets with first-generation and Latino students — primarily juniors and seniors — and helps them with the process of applying to and getting into college. So far she has met with more than 200 students.

Her tasks include helping students look for scholarships, helping them fill out applications and the FAFSA, talking with students about career choices and arranging college visits. She has also held workshops for parents who may not know all of the necessary things their students need to do in preparation for college. Much of her work is planning informational events for parents and students and motivating students to do the work, helping out where she can.

“The greatest thing is when it comes true,” Gomez said. “It’s just really great to see their visions come true and being able to be there for them along the way.”

What started as just an idea a year ago has now turned into a successful program to help more first-generation high school students go to college. “When you start hearing about the individuals, you feel happier about your impact. If we can change one kid’s life by giving them the opportunity to go to college, it’s all worth it,” Aguirre said.

Gomez agrees. “I just think that the students are amazing, brilliant and resilient,” she said. “They’re going to do such great things. It’s really heartwarming to see them get there and help them get there.”