The Fire Is Lit

by Mai Nguyen '13
November 11, 2013

Mai is an Advisor in the College Advising Corps, an organization that seeks to increase the number of low-income, first-generation college and underrepresented students who enter and complete higher education. Mai and eleven other recent college graduates work full-time as College Advisors in public high schools around Rhode Island.

Within the first week of my arrival at Tolman High School, they tentatively knocked at my office door unsure if I was the “college person” with the college answers. Upon confirmation, they trickled through with questions.

Miss! Where should I apply? What’s the best school? How do I get money? Who’s my guidance counselor? What’s a GPA? What do I need? When should I start? I have a child, what are my options?

After two weeks, they barged in with statements.

Mai! I need an SAT waiver. I am failing AP English. I don’t have any money. CommonApp is confusing. I am going to the University of Rochester. I have nothing to write about. I didn’t know I needed the subject tests. I am bringing my GPA up to a 4.0 this semester.

Then came the feelings, neither trickling nor barging, but bursting through my office.

I’m not going to college! It’s too stressful! I’m a failure! I don’t know where to even start and it’s confusing. I want to go Korea so bad. I don’t think it’s for me. Can I just sit here for a little bit? I don’t want to be around the other kids…

I see the same 15-20 students everyday and an additional 3-5 new faces that have been avoiding me and what I represent. With 220 seniors, every day seems filled with games of Hide and Seek, 20 Questions, and Guess Who.

Miss, how did you find me? That’s a hard question. That’s not my name! Woah, how’d you know my name?

In our Corps meetings, the word “triage” always emerges its ugly head, to remind us at what point we are being introduced in our students’ lives. We receive them at our door with 16-17 years of stories, frustrations, and unknowing. Then, we are expected to answer them, direct them, and know. Send them in the right direction, whatever that may mean. We are the college experts after all.

I Google a lot.

I honestly don’t know answers to half the questions they ask me or whether half the answers I give them are any good. This perpetual state of doubt was at first maddening. What if I ruin their lives forever? Give them the wrong advice? Assume too much about their abilities? Talk about public sector dramatics.

After week two, I let go. They began to flood the office at a higher rate, which told me three things:

  1. I don’t have time to deal with my feelings about their feelings.
  2. I am the person they are consciously choosing to go to for help.
  3. The fire is lit.

Consequently, I’ve come to terms with being a resource. Despite how much I do and do not know about college access, I have something to offer and have a very short period of time to offer it. There is no time to doubt, but to do.





My daily choir is relentless in all that they do and ask of me.

I owe them the same.