LAUNCH Founder, Lauren Joyce Hensel, shares her experience in college counseling as a first-generation college student.
I remember. It was a bright, sunny April afternoon. My mom picked me up from school for our 25-minute drive home. I asked her if the mail had come. “No,” she responded knowing I was nervously awaiting my college decisions as a late applicant. As we pulled up, there it was. A large, white envelope sticking out of our small, black metal mailbox that creaked when I opened it. Apprehensively, I lifted the lid and removed the envelope - hoping for an acceptance.
You see, I applied to three schools - one that I believed was a low likelihood (Illinois Institute of Technology) and the other two were high likelihood schools. Despite having a wonderful high school experience, I only received 15 minutes of university guidance. My counselor asked me what I wanted to do, and when I told her, she photocopied two pages out of a college guidebook and sent me on my way. What my counselor did not know was I was a first generation college student trying to navigate being recruited to play college volleyball while keeping my grades up (3.8/4.0 in honors and AP courses), helping my sister with her homework when I could, holding down a part-time job, serving as a school student ambassador, volunteering to coach youth volleyball, meeting requirements for the National Honors Society, and making sure I stayed in shape for club volleyball season as it would help me get recruited and an athletic scholarship.
During senior year, I filled out many applications but never submitted them. I feared the unknown. I feared rejection. I feared not being good enough. I feared opportunity. I started applications, but never submitted them. In my desk sat numerous lost opportunities - Western Illinois, Northwestern, Washington University St. Louis, Loyola Chicago, Northern Illinois.
On top of that, there were the athletic scholarship opportunities I passed up because I didn’t know what they really meant and was fearful of leaving home - Washington State, University of South Alabama, DePaul University, University of Illinois Chicago, and SO. MANY. MORE. Three crates full of opportunities overlooked. In fact, Washington University St. Louis was ranked in the top 10 for volleyball and heavily recruiting me. I didn’t understand what my options were and what they could mean for my future.
No one is to blame; this is the plight of so many first generation university students around the world. I was lost in the process and made fear-based decisions. Little did I know my family would have qualified for need-based aid at the Ivy Leagues or other highly selective institutions (Washington University!). I was only looking at the published price. I didn’t know what return on investment meant. I didn’t know that being in the top 25% of applicants meant more scholarship opportunities. In hindsight, I needed so much more guidance. I need the Lauren that exists now. My lived experiences drive how I work with families and students through LAUNCH.
I push students to consider schools that are outside their comfort zone. I encourage students to look fear in the face and become comfortable conquering it. I inspire students to liberate themselves from societal expectations and work towards their own ambitions. I mentor families on how to productively understand university options across the world to maximize their opportunities - academically, socially, financially. I LAUNCH families into the future with confidence, courage, and determination as well as the resources to support them during their transition.
When I opened that white envelope from Illinois Institute of Technology, I cried tears of joy, relief, and amazement. I expected a rejection, but received an academic and athletic scholarship. I was able to afford to attend university without making my family go into debt (although filling out the FAFSA was an agonizing process every year). So while I lacked guidance, my situation worked out, but that is not the case with most first generation college students or those stuck on name brand institutions. The lessons I learned going through the process as a first generation student brought me to where I am today - living in Europe, owning my own business, and helping students dream, launch, and soar.