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High school confronts volunteer challenge

Sandy High School College and Career Center Coordinator Jennifer McNeil is looking for a few good mentors.

On her desk sits a stack of more than 100 completed forms, each one representing a student interested in getting help with the transition from high school to college, through the state-sponsored Access to Student Assistance Programs in Reach of Everyone, or ASPIRE program.

It began in 1998 with just four schools participating, and has since grown to include 115 schools. Participants meet regularly with a community volunteer mentor to receive help filling out college and trade school applications, apply for financial aid and search for scholarship and grant opportunities, and explore career options.

ASPIRE has existed at Sandy High School for five years, but administrators have been challenged to staff the program with enough volunteers.

“Right now, we have I think two volunteers signed up,” McNeil said. “Typically, there are about a dozen volunteers, but we need many more.”

McNeil said last year there were just five ASPIRE volunteers at Sandy High School.

That stack of completed forms is the result of a new policy to include them in the student registration packets.

“Last year, we would just hand the forms out to kids and ask them to have their parents sign them, and of course we would never see them again,” McNeil said.

The value of the program, McNeil added, is that it gives the students a reason to come in and work through the sometimes intimidating process of applying for college.

“If they have a purpose for coming in here, and if they have a mentor to help them with the process, they’re more likely to follow through,” she said.

Another obstacle for many students, and one the ASPIRE mentors can help with, has to do with money.

“I think the No. 1 problem is being overwhelmed with the financial aid question,” McNeil said. “It’s overwhelming for parents and students alike. I think a lot of students have the grades and the test scores to get into great schools, but they look at the price tag and they don’t bother.”

With the volume of interested students, clearly the demand is there. The supply side is the tricky part, said McNeil.

“Parent volunteers are great, but a lot of parents work during the day, so it’s hard for them to get out and volunteer,” she said. “We really would like professionals in the community to volunteer. We hope to get people who can dedicate themselves to being here on a regular basis.”

Another part of the staffing problem, said McNeil, is the perception of the work and the required qualifications.

“A lot of people might be hesitant because they don’t know anything about student loans or the application process,” she said. “But to volunteer, you don’t have to be an expert.”

McNeil said volunteers do not have to be college graduates to be effective, and that volunteer mentors are screened and trained before working directly with students.

Another barrier for some would-be volunteers is the time commitment. McNeil said this aspect is more flexible than some might think.

“The schedule can be matched up with the mentor,” she said. “And it really is one of those volunteer programs that can be very rewarding.”