"The most exciting part of this job for me is being able to impact the lives of students and their families," is how Thomas Gilkison views his role as Imperial Valley's EAOP director.
Along with eight part-time peer counselors or "mentors" as they are more commonly known, Gilkison works closely with 22 local middle and high schools to spread the word that going to college can be for everyone.
And that message has a lot more impact when you consider the background of those "messengers." The mentors are all college-going students.
There is evidence this mentoring is paying dividends. A total of 156 Imperial Valley students received notification last month they have been accepted into the UC system for next fall. Fifty of those students came from the Calexico Unified School District alone.
Working with students as young as seventh-graders, mentors offer orientation on the process of going to college and Gilkison said the work the mentors do is invaluable in providing the students with an academic plan and encouragement that they can take on to college.
"We work with students this young because we want them to have as many options as possible by their senior year," Gilkison said.
EAOP also works closely with the parents of the students because as Gilkison sees it, "Many people in Imperial Valley don't have an understanding of the process of going to college. We want to educate the parents so they know how to work with the system and have their children go to college."
Gilkison is passionate about getting the message out, "College is for everyone. I truly believe that college enriches the lives of everyone, students and parents alike."
Stressing the importance of working with parents, Gilkison views the decision to go to college as one the whole family should be involved in.
"Parents need to be comfortable with the decisions being made," he said. "After all, they are the ones who are going to be saying ‘go' or ‘stay' to their children."
He agrees there is a reluctance on the part of some parents to send their child to a college in a large city, away from the sheltering environment of the smaller communities of Imperial Valley. For many the concern is their children will not be safe on a large urban campus.
"We recommend that parents take advantage of programs that offer campus visits for parents as well as students and then they can see for themselves what a college campus looks like. Recently we took a busload of students who have been admitted to UC Riverside, along with their parents, for a campus tour."
For other parents the fear is that once their children get a taste of big-city life on a large campus they'll never come back home to settle.
Gilkison said that may have been the case in the past but now he's seeing "an exciting trend where we're seeing many graduate students coming back to the Valley and giving back to their communities by working here."
All the schools EAOP works with have college nights with workshops for parents periodically throughout the year.
"I tell parents at these workshops that my best advice is ‘to make the school counselor your best friend, especially during the four years your child is in high school — or even better, start the process earlier in junior high school.'"
Smiling, Gilkison added, "I tell them that information about getting their child to college will not, for the most part, just fall into their laps. They need to work with the child's counselor in school, make an appointment to see the counselor and go to the workshops when they're offered."
And if a parent does all that — and still has unanswered questions — Gilkison said the door to his office is always open.
"I don't pretend to have all the answers but if I don't know the answer, I will surely find someone who does have the answer for that parent."
The office has a bilingual staff and there is a computer lab for parents and students to access online college information if they don't have a computer at home. And if you're not a completely computer-savvy parent there is always someone in the office available to help.
Office hours are 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. but for those parents with work commitments during those hours, Gilkison said, "We're always willing to work with and accommodate parents who have an interest in their children's future success."
The EAOP office is at 300 S. Imperial Ave., Suite 12. The telephone number is 353-6733.
>> On the Web: http://sea.ucsd.edu/eaop
>> Staff Writer Jennifer Ralton-Smith can be reached at 337-3442 or dingo87@ earthlink.net