education is an elusive dream for many high school students, no matter
what their circumstance. But for first-generation college-bound
students, or those who come from low income or minority backgrounds, the
challenge of preparing, applying for and finding financial support for
school can be overwhelming. SoMD CAN has a system for leveling the
playing field by providing educational opportunities to Southern
Maryland's youth-at an annual cost of only $230 per student.
Sonia Wagner remembers well the worst advice she ever received as a high
school senior: "Don't even think about going to college," she was told.
"Why don't you just get married?" She only took half that advice -
eventually marrying, but also working diligently to receive the college
degree she knew would open doors and provide a lifetime of opportunity.
Today, Wagner is executive director of an organization that provides
those same opportunities to juniors and seniors in Southern Maryland
high schools. The Southern Maryland College Access Network, or SoMD CAN
for short, is an innovative program that was originally founded in 2005
through a two-year grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The
program's goal is to motivate, engage and educate high school students
about the possibilities that are available to them for higher education,
aiming to reach students who might not otherwise consider continuing
their education past high school.
Program services include assistance with college and career searches,
Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) registration, scholarship and college
application assistance, financial aid counseling, educational major
search and selection, college visits, financial aid workshops for
parents and students and weekly in-school student sessions to keep the
aspiring college applicants motivated and goal-oriented.
Wagner spends most of her time and energy organizing parent workshops
and counseling families on the intricacies of paying for college. "A lot
of parents don't realize the options their children have for higher
education. Many automatically believe they can't afford private college,
but what they don't realize is that many private schools have more
scholarship money to give away than public schools," she says.
She enjoys hosting workshops for families to explain how to complete
federal aid forms, how to apply for scholarships, which schools to
consider and when to enroll. "I really like giving information to people
and seeing that light bulb go off."
The realities of running a relatively unknown nonprofit also require
Wagner to spend a lot of time searching for ways to fund the
organization. With the original seed funding set to run out at the end
of 2007, she worries about the program's sustainability.
"We are able to provide all this counseling at an annual cost of only
$230 per student," she says, "but funding is always a concern." The
organization is efficient and frugal, but additional public and private
monies are needed to continue the program so Wagner devotes a number of
hours each week to raising awareness, reaching out to local businesses,
working with her board of directors and seeking additional funding
partners. She believes it is vital for a healthy community to provide
educational opportunities to all young people and create a homegrown,
highly skilled workforce.
Robin Willis is a site advisor with SoMD CAN and works closely with
dozens of students at Great Mills, Leonardtown and La Plata High schools
on a weekly basis. She gushes with enthusiasm for the program and the
students she counsels. "I have the best job in the world," she says. "I
absolutely love these kids. They're smart, have so much potential and
really could get into college anyway, but they just need a little push.
I'm the nag they need to get all the paperwork done or to be an advocate
and give them advice and guidance."
Like Wagner, Willis is passionate about SoMD CAN. "I'm very proud of
this organization," she says. "I know we've touched a lot of lives."
The name SoMD CAN is no accident. Wagner believes that any willing
student with a grade point average of 2.5 or better can go to college,
trade or technical school, no matter what their family circumstance or
income level, and she and her small crew of counselors have the success
stories to prove it. In fact, of the 66 seniors who participated in the
weekly program at Great Mills High School last year, 100 percent were
accepted into college or trade schools. It doesn't get much better than
"I know in my heart that we're doing something good," says Wagner. "This
is such an important program for our schools and there is so much more
we could be doing with additional funding. Years from now, these
students probably won't remember me or Robin or SoMD CAN, but they'll
remember that somebody said something that encouraged them, something
that made a difference. And that's what really matters."
To learn more about the educational opportunities available through SoMD
CAN, or to make an investment in their cause, visit online at
www.somdcan.org, call 410-474-4144
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. SoMD CAN is a nonprofit organization and
donations are tax deductible.