New Interactive Map Details Iowa’s Resources for Teens and Young Adults

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Molly HeadshotMolly Walsh just concluded her term as a Public Allies Iowa AmeriCorps Volunteer in which she worked to compile Opportunity Iowa’s Opportunity Compass. To learn more about Opportunity Iowa and Public Allies, read her first post.  

Opportunity Iowa is a new state-wide initiative that recently began gaining some ground in the Des Moines community. Opportunity Iowa is premised on the belief that no matter what zip code you live in, you should have access to the tools necessary to achieve the American dream. Des Moines Area Community College president Robert Denson was approached by the nation-wide initiative, Opportunity Nation , to consider bringing Opportunity Nation’s ideals to the state of Iowa. Opportunity Iowa hopes to engage communities in discussions about how we can create a well-rounded resource base for our teens and young adults.

One attempt at identifying available resources, as well as what resources are missing for our 16-24 year olds, is The Opportunity Compass. This interactive map highlights resources and opportunities for the involvement of teens and young adults in the Polk County area. It provides locations of resources in the following categories: education, employment, support services, immigrant and refugee services, volunteer opportunities, trades and apprenticeships, and activities and interests.

Opportunity Iowa encourages all teens and young adults to explore the Opportunity Compass to find resources that may be of benefit to them. The map is dynamic and will be updated as new and existing resources are identified. Resource providers are also encouraged to navigate the Opportunity Compass to identify gaps in service around Polk County.

The goal is to provide maps for all 99 Iowa counties over the next couple of years. We encourage organizations and individuals to get involved with the mapping process. Visit our website  today to learn more about this great initiative and to navigate The Opportunity Compass. After all, it may be the key to navigating your success!


AmeriCorps VISTA Marlu Abarca: College Changes Everything in Des Moines

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Marlu AbarcaIowa College Aid has five AmeriCorps VISTA members working on the College Changes Everything  initiative in Des Moines, Burlington, Council Bluffs, Marshalltown and Ottumwa. Marlu Abarca, a graduate of Grinnell College, is on day 52 of her 365 days of service as an AmeriCorps*VISTA for Iowa Campus Compact. Campus Compact is a coalition of college and university presidents committed to fulfilling the public purpose of higher education.

When I first heard there was a volunteer position that was designated as a national service movement to eradicate poverty through education, financial literacy and college access, I thought, “sign me up!” When I told my parents that I was turning down jobs to volunteer for a year…they thought “come back home!”

As someone who is originally from Los Angeles, CA, my parents and I always assumed I’d come back home after graduating from college. But when employment prospects began to appear in Iowa and not in L.A., my parents and I quickly tried to come to terms with the idea of me being 2,000 miles away from home, family and friends—a feeling with which we were much too familiar. As a first generation college student, getting to Iowa was an uphill battle. I attended high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where the classrooms often overflowed with students, books were in short supply, and students lacked motivation to do well in school. Although I always found doing well in school very rewarding, like many of my fellow Latino “at-risk” peers, I did not fully grasp the significance of going to college.

The college application process was not what I imagined. I quickly had to assimilate into a world of pre-college education. I had to navigate the waters of recommendation letters, resumes and personal statements. Luckily, I had an amazing college counselor who came to my AP Government class to show us how to apply for a PIN on the website. She also helped me become a finalist for the Posse Foundation scholarship, a full-paid tuition scholarship to top-tier colleges and universities around the country. Through this process I found the very place that would spark my interests in working in higher education and college access: Grinnell College.

The thing that made my final high school years stressful and anxiogenic, but also unforgettable, was the very thing that made me aware of gaps in our culture and education system that made it difficult for me to attend and successfully graduate college to begin with. It was my last year interning with Latinas/Latinos Al Exito that made me realize the impact of mentoring and having someone simply explain what college is and how affordable it can be! One of my goals for this year of service is to work closely with the Iowa College Student Aid Commission during the College Changes Everything Campaign and be a resource to Des Moines Public High School students who need help navigating the college admissions and financial aid process as I did just five years ago.

The biggest challenge I see going into my year of service is probably limiting the amount of projects and programs I commit to! With so many great efforts by the Governor and the state of Iowa to address poverty reduction through education, I just don’t see how I am going to hold back involvement. It is something that I have been working to improve during my time at Grinnell—and with such an inviting community on Drake University’s campus, I can already see that participating in some of their student groups’ efforts towards college access may be hard to resist.

Common Myths about the College Selection Process

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Dave BallDavid Ball is the Director of Admissions, Recruitment and Student Life at Hawkeye Community College. He has worked in higher education for almost 25 years and spent most of his tenure in the field of admissions at Hawkeye and Kirkwood Community College. He holds an Associate of Arts from Kirkwood Community College, Bachelor’s of Arts from Mount Mercy University and a Master’s of Education from Iowa State University.

Over the years I have observed common mistakes that students make when choosing a college or university. Below are some of those age old myths about the college selection process:

MYTH 1: The best time to visit colleges is after you have been admitted.

Many students have fallen for this myth only to find that none of the colleges to which they were admitted “felt” right when they visited. If possible, visit before you apply and again after you have been admitted. If you can visit only once, make it before you apply.

MYTH 2: Big colleges are best if you haven’t decided on a major.

A lot of high school students think because there are more courses to choose from, a large college offers greater options for undecided students. However, this alone should not be the deciding factor. If you are undecided, the best college is one that has core requirements that ensure you will explore new areas and fields. Also, look for colleges with strong academic advising and career counseling programs regardless of their size. Good advising can help you choose an academic and career path you will enjoy rather than one you think you might like right now.

MYTH 3: College is only for four years.

This is wrong on several fronts: Only about one of five students completes a bachelor’s degree in four years. In fact, only two of five students complete a bachelor’s degree in six years. If you plan to be out of college in four years, determine the four-year graduation rate for each of your college options. The federal government’s College Navigator provides four-year, six-year and eight-year graduation rates for U.S. colleges and universities.

MYTH 4: Your life will be ruined if you don’t get admitted to your first choice college.

Thousands of students each year do not get admitted to their first choice college and most are happy, successful individuals today. Yes, rejection is hard, but you will not be alone. Many students today are starting at community colleges and transferring to the university or college of their choice after obtaining an associate of arts degree. Research shows that community college graduates who transfer, do as well their junior year as native students who started as a freshman at the university or college.

MYTH 5: The quality of the academic program that I am interested in is the most important factor when picking a college.

About two of five students change their major field of interest before they actually enroll in college and about one of two change their major field once they enroll. Look for a college that has your current field of interest, but is also strong in all its areas.

Research on success in college and employment after graduation suggests the best way to master a major field is through a combination of learning theory and active, hands-on learning. The opportunity to do research on your own or work side-by-side with a professor on a project tends to be more valuable than simply taking more courses in the field.


Use Campus Visits to Pick the Right School For You!

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2014-04-29 14.16.09One of the best ways to determine if a college is the right fit for you is to visit the campus. Your college education is a long term investment, so choose wisely! By touring the campus, you’ll get a feel for college life and if you can picture yourself at that school. Try some of the following suggestions to get the most out of college visits.

Record your experiences. Take a few minutes after each visit to jot down or type out your thoughts on the campus. After awhile all your visits will start to blend together, so keep track of each visit as it happens to make your choice easier later on.

Read the student newspaper. One of the best ways to get a feel for the on-campus culture is to read the student newspaper. This will also be a chance to find out the issues current students are dealing with and what they find important.

Explore the town and nightlife. If possible, spend the night in the town and check out local attractions, shopping centers, museums, festivals – ask current students for suggestions. Every town has a certain attraction or restaurant it’s well known for so start there!

Take a self-guided tour. Take advantage of all the activities of a planned visit, however, take some time to venture around campus without the guide. Revisit spots you didn’t get enough time during the tour, venture in buildings that house majors you’re interested in and take time to see how being on campus feels for you.

Visit a professor in your intended major. Make an appointment to visit a professor in your future major, or a major that interests you, during your visit. The professor can answer many specific questions related to your plan of study, give you a department tour and possibly let you sit in on one of his or her classes.



Don’t Let the Second Half of Summer Go to Waste!

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As August draws near2014-04-29 13.44.04, take a look at what you’ve done with summer so far. Are you all prepared for classes in the fall? Have you learned any new skills or explored new hobbies? There are still plenty of chances to take advantage of all that free time before college begins!

Volunteer. Not only can this experience be eye-opening and personally fulfilling, you can use volunteer work as a chance to gain experience in your field of choice. Interested in studying English or teaching? Try your hand at tutoring an ESL student or read during the library’s children’s story hour. Want to go into communications or marketing? Ask a nonprofit if you can assist in running their social media accounts or designing materials. Get creative and check out online resources to find volunteer opportunities, such as Volunteer Iowa and Volunteer Match.

Learn a new skill.  Whether it is a new language, software program or instrument, summer is a great time to pick up a new talent. There may be cheap classes available through your local community college or an online organization; however there are also hundreds of free resources for learning a new skill. Utilize YouTube tutorials, blogs and online learning communities. Some places to begin that offer useful skills for your college career include:

Take a road trip with friends. Chances are most of your friends won’t be going to the same college as you. Use summer as a chance to learn how to get to each other’s future school and where each of your friends will be living. This is a great opportunity to not only build more memories before everyone moves, but to figure out the boring, yet necessary details of visiting such as where you’ll have to park.

Enjoy the rest of summer and take the time to learn something new!

Don’t Fall Prey to Student Loan “Rescue” Companies

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There are many companie2014-04-29 15.08.28s that seek to prey on Iowa students and their families as they plan how to pay for college.  A consumer advisory bulletin was recently issued by the Office of the Attorney General to forewarn Iowans of a more recent scam involving student loans. This advisory is in regards to “rescue” or “consolidation” businesses that claim they can lower student loan borrowers’ monthly payments, reduce interest rates or resolve other repayment issues.

However, many of the services these companies charge a fee for can be done for free by borrowers if they contact their student loan service provider directly. To find your loan servicer for federal student loans, visit the National Student Loan Data System. Other companies offer these services in an attempt to steal consumer identities and money. The biggest red flag is if the company is making a promise that sounds too good to be true.

Some of the scams highlighted in the advisory include:

  • Law offices or attorneys that charge fees ($300-$600) to file paperwork for borrowers that could be filed for free by the borrower if they contact the loan service provider directly.
  • Companies that require access to the borrower’s bank account under the false pretense of using it to automatically deduct payments and steal money from the account. Also, any personal identification information, such as Social Security Numbers are used to steal the borrower’s identity or sold off to other scammers.
  • Long-term scams in which the company charges consumers a service fee, down payments and collects a couple of monthly payments they claim are
    going towards the borrower’s loan. The money is never applied towards the student loan and the borrowers face late fees and penalties from payments they didn’t know they were missing.

Do not fall prey to these scams. Some of these student loan companies will have professional looking websites and may claim to be associated with a government agency or that they are working for the U.S. Department of Education. If you feel you may have already fallen victim to one of these scams, file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division.

Explore the Country Through National Student Exchange

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All of the choices and NSEopportunities college presents to you can seem daunting and overwhelming at times. I always wanted to do more traveling, and college provides ample opportunities to pursue this passion. However, when I saw the price tag associated with studying abroad and general “have-it-togetherness” required to leave the continent, I felt this goal was out of reach. Then one of the many mass emails sent to me by Iowa State University caught my eye. This particular email advertised a program known as National Student Exchange. This program allowed students in participating schools throughout the United States, Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to spend a semester or year studying at a different school. The program even allowed you to pay your visiting school’s in-state tuition if it was cheaper than the tuition you already paid at your home school!

I quickly scheduled a meeting to learn more and received a booklet of all the exciting places I could go. For the real adventurous types, you could spend a fall, spring and summer semester in the program, each time at a different school or university. I looked for a school that was still in the U.S. and about as opposite of Iowa as I could get. Another factor my advisor had to counsel me on was the acceptance rate at each school; some colleges chose to take as few as two students a semester. With this in mind, I settled on my top choice, Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. This school seemed light years away from Iowa climate and culture, not to mention there was a chapter of my sorority there.

Each participating school sends an advisor to a conference where students are placed based on their list of top three choices. I was fortunate to receive my top choice and couldn’t believe that the following spring semester I would be enjoying the balmy Miami climate while everyone else suffered through snow and bitter cold.

However, the climate was not the most shocking change I experienced during my time at FIU. Never in my life had I been a minority, nor experienced a world filled with a language I did not speak. My randomly assigned roommate was originally from Jamaica and had a mother who lived in England. It was commonplace for her and her friends to visit Jamaica or spend a long weekend on a cruise to the Bahamas. Through the program, I made friends from Boston and Virginia and met sorority sisters from all over. Having grown up in a small rural Iowa community, this all seemed so exotic and enthralling. These new friends grew up in areas so different from my hometown and had unique world views which lead to many intense, insightful discussions on everything from politics to religion to social norms.

I highly recommend the program to anyone looking to expand their horizons and see how much our incredible country has to offer in friendship, culture, food and new experiences. Plus, it never hurts to spend winter somewhere with a low of sixty degrees.