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Diana Virgil, School Counselor of the Year: Empowering Students to Succeed

In celebration of National School Counseling Week, Feb. 5-9, 2024, School Counselor of the Year Dr. Diana Virgil shared her insights with ACT on supporting first-generation college students and navigating postsecondary pathways through a two-part blog series. Dr. Virgil is a school counselor for 346 students at Daleville High School in Alabama. She also serves as the coordinator for ACT’s American College Application Campaign in Daleville. ACT congratulates Dr. Virgil and celebrates all school counselors for everything they do to help each student discover and fulfill their potential.

Many of your students are trailblazers in their families, aiming to be the first to graduate from high school. How do you approach supporting these students and addressing the unique challenges they may face?

This holds a special place in my heart as I am a first-generation high school graduate from my grandparents' grandchildren. My cousins, siblings, and I broke new ground by being the first to complete high school in our family. Navigating the uncertainties that come with such a milestone can be intimidating, especially when there are no familiar footsteps to follow or a roadmap to guide you.

Drawing from my own experiences, I empathize with my students who face similar challenges. I begin by delving into their backgrounds, aiming to establish a connection and reassure them that achieving graduation is not a case of imposter syndrome – they have rightfully earned this moment. Guiding them to discover the plethora of opportunities available is crucial, as some may harbor doubts about pursuing higher education simply because they are the first in their families to graduate high school. I swiftly take action, showcasing the feasibility of attending college with the availability of scholarships and grants. Additionally, I help them join programs like talent search, facilitate in-depth career explorations, and offer support, including waivers for those eligible to take the ACT. The goal is to empower them with the knowledge and resources needed to confidently pursue their education dreams.

You serve as your school’s coordinator for ACT’s American College Application Campaign, a national effort to increase the number of first-generation college students and students from low-income families pursuing a college degree or other higher education credential. Tell us about a time when, in the course of this work, you really saw how application programs make a difference for students.

I can unequivocally affirm that I have witnessed firsthand the profound effect that application programs can have on students, especially those hailing from first-generation college backgrounds and low-income families. A striking instance comes to mind involving a senior who harbored uncertainties about applying to colleges due to financial constraints, immigration status, and the absence of familial precedents. Despite being an exceptionally intelligent and ambitious student, she grappled with the fear that attending college might remain an unattainable dream. Through the American College Application Campaign, we not only facilitated applications to various colleges but also explored diverse financial aid options.

Working collaboratively, we identified colleges and universities that aligned with her academic aspirations and financial considerations. She actively participated in sessions we organized, equipping her with the necessary tools to craft application essays that eloquently portrayed her academic and personal journey. Following numerous applications, she started receiving acceptance letters and eventually secured a full-ride scholarship to attend a community college. The program not only empowered her to pursue higher education but also instilled newfound confidence in her ability to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of college admissions. This experience underscores the transformative potential of targeted application programs in dismantling barriers for students who might otherwise hesitate to chase their dreams due to socioeconomic constraints. It serves as a compelling testament to the tangible and positive differences these programs can make in opening doors and expanding opportunities for aspiring students.

Despite ongoing discourse in the education and career spaces about the value of a college degree, we know from ACT research that students still find value in higher education. How do you navigate these conversations with students as they are determining their postsecondary paths?

I start by discussing students' interests and goals to understand what they want. I then provide information about different options like college, vocational training, apprenticeships, and the military. I emphasize that success isn't only tied to college and that there are various paths to consider. I often refer to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and review the occupational outlook handbook to examine career details, including earnings and unemployment rates based on education. I encourage my students to blend this information with their personal passions and practical considerations to choose a path that suits them. I aim to assist them in making well-informed decisions for a brighter future.

Dr. Diana Virgil is a school counselor at Daleville High School in Alabama. She is recognized as an ASCA-Certified School Counselor, National Board-Certified Counselor, National Certified School Counselor, and has held a school counselor certification in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.