Anthony Clark is an AdviseMI college adviser serving at Eastpointe High School on the northeast edge of Detroit.

When I first arrived at Eastpointe High School as an AdviseMI college adviser, I was determined to build a college-going culture through bulletin boards, group presentations, and other activities. Reflecting on those first months of service, I now realize there was an over-emphasis on trying to change the culture without building relationships first.

Over this past year, these students have faced so much stress and trauma related to COVID, which has also exacerbated family pressures at home. I’ve had many conversations about college that have turned into listening sessions about my students’ lives and the struggles, challenges, and loss they have felt. In those moments, my role transforms into the person who listens without judgment, because their voice matters and deserves to be heard by someone. I remember one conversation with a senior who said “I’m motivated to go to college because of a lack of role models in my life.” The power in this work doesn’t come solely from our knowledge of college or its planning process, but also comes from being an advocate and an empathic voice for students who don’t see themselves in the education system.

As a man of color and a college advisor, I’m discovering the power of building relationships with students of color to understand their stories. My students are not defined by their present circumstance or the perceptions of others. They have shown me brilliance, kindness, and humor that can’t be fully captured in a college application or essay. My students are innovators and entrepreneurs with creativity that isn’t always reflected on a transcript. I work to create a college-going culture by uplifting and empowering students, letting them know their dreams and goals are possible, regardless of other people’s opinions. I’m building a college-going culture by sharing my own story as a way to connect with students and then listening to their stories.

At the end of the day, my work is defined by the relationships that I have nurtured and built, helping students see that college can be their pathway regardless of what family, educators, or peers say to them. I choose to change their hearts and minds by being the person who encourages them to go for their dreams, hopes, and ambitions. Building a college-going culture means that I choose to listen and to understand what our students desire, being there for them as a caring and compassionate adviser. I choose to make relationships the core of how I get students to think about college, letting them know that who they are matters, their lived experiences matter, and who they want to become matters.