This story was originally published by GO Public Schools West Contra Costa.
Counselor Erica Martinez has a clearly defined mission: help high school students discover their passions and find a path that will lead them to opportunity, happiness, and success after graduation.
“As a counselor you’re guiding young people on how they’re going to do their education,” remarked Martinez, “but you’re also helping them become adults.”
For Martinez, the call to pursue a career in academic counseling was fueled in part by her own experience with counselors in her hometown of Fresno, California. Martinez recalled seeing her own counselor in high school “maybe one time” and shared that college was not part of the conversation, leaving her to wonder why her post-high school plans and options were never discussed.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m Latina or because [the counselors] seemed to only want to focus on the ones who were hardcore about going to college,” she said. “I ended up going to Fresno City College after I graduated and I stayed for a very long time because nobody explained to me how college was going to work.”
Martinez’ rocky journey to and through college is one shared by millions of students across the country. While she persisted to graduation and went on to earn her master’s degree, on average about 40 percent of students across sectors who start college don’t finish, according to an article published by National Public Radio (NPR) last year.
Martinez is determined to improve these outcomes for every student she can reach. She eventually left Fresno in 2015 and moved to the Bay Area to join the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) as a counselor on special assignment. She now works as the academic counselor at both Middle College High School (MCHS) and Vista High School.
At MCHS, students are dually enrolled in both high school and college and follow a course of study that helps them earn their high school diploma while simultaneously working toward a certificate or an associate’s degree from Contra Costa College. Vista High School delivers customized academic programming, support, and flexibility to be able to meet the unique needs of each learner. Both MCHS and Vista High School offer West Contra Costa students and families a viable alternative to traditional comprehensive high schools.
Martinez works hard to develop relationships with each of her students from both campuses. She strives to make herself accessible and is clear that she does not want any of her students to go through high school not knowing who she is.
For juniors and seniors in particular, Martinez finds every opportunity — through virtual check-ins and the Remind application — to speak with them about financial aid, college applications, and their next steps after graduation. With her seniors, Martinez requires that they complete a career exploration project as a way to self-assess their professional interests and then compare how those interests align with current job market trends.
“If [students] don’t know what they want to do and nobody is questioning them or helping to tease answers out of them, they’re not really going to know how to plan for their future or what they’re working toward,” she explained.
She also asks her seniors to complete a survey sharing more about their backgrounds, extracurricular activities, and aspirations in an effort to get to know them and to streamline the process for writing letters of recommendation for college applications and scholarships.
Ultimately, Martinez says that one of the most important functions of her role is to give students as much information as possible to make well-informed decisions for themselves. She recognizes the pressure many students are under to attend specific colleges or pursue careers encouraged by family and friends, but she aspires for her students to follow their own paths and make the best decisions for their own lives.
“Do something that satisfies your soul and makes you feel good at the end of the day,” she tells her students. “For myself, this is the best job I’ve ever had because I feel everyday that I’m helping someone, and that fulfills me.”
Natalie Walchuk is executive director of GO Public Schools West Contra Costa (GO WCC), and this piece was originally posted on the organization’s website here. GO WCC supports a coalition of students, families, educators, and community allies united around generating solutions to ensure that every West Contra Costa student thrives.