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Acing the application

College T-shirt Day: Students at Pinson Valley High School are encouraged to wear shirts and hoodies from the colleges and universities they plan to attend. The day was a part of the school’s College Application Campaign Week. Photo courtesy Pinson Valley High School

Advice from experts on choosing and applying to college

| Click here for a listing of Alabama Colleges and Universities |

 By Allison Griffin

The senior year of high school is packed with excitement and anticipation. But for some students and parents, the prospect of applying for college, evaluating schools and worrying about financial aid overshadows the fun. A little planning and wise advice can help take the stress out of the process. Read on to get some tips from experts.

Start preparing for college early. As in, freshman year.

“What I try to tell students is that, in their freshman year, they’re starting their high school career with the same GPA that seniors want to have when they finish — a 4.0,” says Dr. Taqua Lewis, junior and senior guidance counselor at Pinson Valley High School. The only way to keep it at a 4.0 is to study and work hard, and it’s far easier to start ahead than it is to dig out of a hole.

Fill out a Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) form, regardless of the family’s financial status.

That’s because you don’t know what financial aid options might be available to you. “Schools have in-house or stimulus money, or state funds that the students may qualify for,” says Willieta Conner, education specialist with the Alabama State Department of Education.

And every year you should reapply, she says. “You may not be eligible your freshman year, but when you get to your sophomore year, something may change.”

Get your applications in as soon as possible.

In many areas, it’s not just a matter of getting accepted at the college, says Dr. Greg Fitch, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. “It may be a matter of getting on track with the type of degree that you’re looking for,” he says.

For example, at the two-year schools, a majority of nurses graduate with an associate’s degree, and the nursing classes start right away, with few survey courses. “You need to be prepared for that,” Fitch says.

Don’t be intimidated by the application process.

Lewis calls today’s high school students the “microwave generation,” because they want everything instantly. They like quick results, and might be discouraged from applying to college by forms and paperwork. Fortunately, today’s colleges allow online applications, which don’t seem quite as intimidating.

While school guidance counselors and teachers can be encouragers, parents need to push the students to apply to schools and ensure that all the forms are filled out correctly and in a timely fashion. “A lot of parents may not have gone to college,” Conner says, “but they can explain to their children why this is a good thing.”

Don’t take a shotgun approach to applying to schools.

Applying to many schools isn’t worth the effort or the expense, and isn’t realistic. There’s no point applying to a school that doesn’t offer your intended major, Lewis says, or that requires a tuition that is too far out of your family’s price range.

She tells students to do their research online, armed with their current GPA. “Realistically look at your grades, their admissions requirements, (figure out) if you meet their minimum requirements, and if you do, does that school offer what you’re interested in?” Lewis says.

She advises students to have three school choices: The No. 1 choice, “where I want to go, beyond a shadow of a doubt,” and an option two if No. 1 doesn’t work out. Finally, an option three — “if neither of those works out, I can live with No. 3.”

And keep a realistic view of your previous high school coursework. Lewis wwsays she’s had students who tell her they want to be doctors, but who clearly haven’t been on that track in high school and haven’t taken the upper level math and science classes. In those cases, she’ll suggest looking at other options in the medical field — not to deflate a student’s dream, but to steer the student toward a more realistic career goal.


Don’t stress over the choice of majors.

While the undeclared major can be interpreted as a lack of direction in some students, remember that it is not required for a student to declare a major when he or she arrives on campus.

“I think there is a misconception, and it’s often on the part of the parents, that the student has to know what they want to major in,” says Buddy Starling, dean of enrollment at Troy University. “Parents seem to stress over that more than the students. Sometimes parental stress is student stress.”

Remember that college accolades aren’t everything.

Most colleges and universities can point to at least one national ranking on which they’ve scored well, compared to other schools. Such accolades are relevant, but keep in mind that the most important quality in choosing the right college is fit.

“I think there’s a certain feeling when you get when you’re on a college campus,” Starling says. “Sometimes you just know it’s right, and sometimes you know it’s not so right. So perhaps the intangibles are more significant than the tangibles.”

Lewis advises parents to not hold too strongly to the dreams of a child attending their alma mater, especially if the student is leaning toward another school. “I let them know, mom and dad … this is about them, not about you. At the end of the day, they have to be happy with the decision they’ve made.”


Seniors encouraged by College Application Campaign

Not every student is cut out for college, but a number of potential students may be overlooked because of a lack of encouragement to apply. Giving those students a good shot at a collegiate career is the goal of a state-funded program called the College Application Campaign.

In the first year, the campaign piloted with 10 Alabama high schools; this year, the Alabama State Department of Education took the campaign statewide, and has 216 schools participating, says Willietta Conner, education specialist with ALSDE and the campaign’s state coordinator.

The school guidance counselor serves as the site coordinator, with other people on the team – teachers, administrators and graduation coaches. They work as a team to get the seniors to apply to college early in the year.

The focus is on first-generation college students, who would not normally apply early, as well as some who may not have decided what they want to do in the fall of their senior year.
But the program isn’t limited to the 12th grade; some middle schools are even embracing the concept, Conner says.

“That sends a strong message, because the sooner the students start getting their information, the better prepared they are by their senior year,” she says.

The campaign team uses promotional items, such as student buttons that say “I applied to college,” and teachers decorate their doors and classrooms with banners to promote a college-going culture. Some schools host college fairs; some colleges send counselors to the high schools to help seniors with applications and FAFSA forms. Some host “college colors” day, and encourage students to wear gear from the colleges to which they’ve applied.

So far, the results are encouraging, Conner says. The seniors take pride in completing their applications and the memorabilia they receive; that inspires the juniors to want to participate too.

For more information, contact Willietta Conner at

Living history

Aroine Irby
Aroine Irby

Capitol tour guide lived through pivotal time

By Jennifer Kornegay

The Alabama state Capitol building’s magnificent white dome has looked down upon some of our country’s most important events.

On its white marble steps, in 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the first and only president of the Confederate States of America; a bronze star marks the spot. More than 100 years later, at the edge of the same steps, another event unfolded, one that would change the world.

On March 25, 1965, 25,000 marchers arrived in downtown Montgomery after traveling on foot from Selma for four days. They made their way to the Capitol steps in the final leg of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, a peaceful protest led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement. As a direct result of the March, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law.

Today, you can tour the Capitol to learn more about its rich and turbulent past, and there’s no better person to have as your guide than Aroine Irby. After retiring from the Air Force, the Gees Bend native became a docent for the Alabama Historical Commission and has been leading 12 tours a week for 10 years, walking folks through the Capitol’s storied halls, entertaining and educating them with his big personality and even bigger grin.

He begins by telling visitors that the Capitol is a “working museum.” He explains the origins of our state flag. He points out the two grand circular staircases designed by a former slave, renowned bridge builder and one of Alabama’s first black legislators, Horace King.

But he also adds a personal perspective, and it’s one worth hearing. Irby was an active participant in the civil rights movement and lived through some of its most pivotal and dramatic moments. Near the middle of the tour, he leads visitors out the massive front doors to the marble steps and speaks with pride as he shares his experiences. He was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when the first march to Montgomery was stopped by law enforcement in a violent spectacle now known as Bloody Sunday.

Aroine Irby addresses co-op students on the Montgomery Youth Tour.
Aroine Irby addresses co-op students on the Montgomery Youth Tour.

He praises King for his insistence that the marchers remain passive in the face of brutality. “That was a tough pill for me and many of the protesters to swallow, but he was right. It was the key to the movement’s success.” And he smiles as he recounts the day all the suffering finally paid off.

“When we made it to the steps in the final march, that day was unlike any other. It was an amazing achievement, and it turned the attention of the world to our plight. I’ll never forget Dr. King’s words, and what we all earned in that struggle, the right to cast our vote like every other American.”

Irby went on to work for Gov. George Wallace for a short time, the man who only a few years earlier stood on the Capitol steps and vowed that nothing would change. Irby says that later, Wallace had a true change of heart. “It was an act of God, and to this day I maintain that he was one of the best governors our state ever had, even in the bad times,” he says. “His speeches and stubbornness pushed us to do what we did.”

And Irby maintains that in his last years in office, Wallace did more for minorities in Alabama than any other governor. “And not just blacks, but women and Latinos too,” he says.

This spring, find the time to take a Capitol tour with Irby; his enthusiasm for keeping the history of the Capitol alive is obvious and contagious. “If I was a rich man, I’d pay the commission to let me continue to do this,” he says.

Training Alabama’s future workers

By Minnie Lamberth

Recruiting the next generation of construction workers

Students try their hands at brick masonry at the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council’s Worlds of Opportunity fair, a large career expo in held Mobile. Photos courtesy Big Communications
Students try their hands at brick masonry at the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council’s Worlds of Opportunity fair, a large career expo in held Mobile. Photos courtesy Big Communications

Facing a severe shortage in its workforce, Alabama’s construction industry came together in 2010 to push a simple message: “Go Build Alabama.”

The mass media marketing campaign promoting the theme is a creation of the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute, which has served as a model for other states on how to recruit the next generation of skilled construction trade workers.

The first step took place when partners across the commercial and industrial construction industry – including labor unions, builders, contractors, schools, colleges and construction business owners – joined forces to address the problems they were observing. They approached legislators for help establishing the recruitment institute.

“It was driven by industry,” says Jason Phelps, the ACRI’s executive director. He explained that industry leaders recognized that their workforce was aging and would soon head into retirement. The research was also showing “young people weren’t considering construction as a viable career,” Phelps says.

“These are good, viable jobs (so) that once you get some training under your belt, you’re going to be in the upper half of the wage earners in the state,” he adds.

At the time the ACRI launched the “Go Build” campaign in August 2010, one third of all skilled tradesmen in the construction industry were over the age of 50, and training programs weren’t producing enough young workers to replace those soon to retire.

“If kids don’t see it as a future for themselves, they’re not going to sign up,” Phelps says. “We try to spark their interest.”

Next, they help them find the right training programs. Links with information about community college programs, career technical education and apprenticeships are available at

Mike Rowe, former host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” was one of the first faces associated with the phrase “Go Build Alabama” when he served as spokesman for a series of television commercials, many of which ran during or around sports programming.

The results of the campaign have proven worthwhile. Based on a May 2013 survey of career technical students, Phelps says, “Thirty-one percent said ‘Go Build Alabama’ played a role in choosing a career in construction.” Those numbers correlate closely with data that shows a 33 percent increase in student participation in career technical programs.

Colleges partner with automotive industry

A student in the Consortium for Alabama Regional Center for Automotive Manufacturing, or CARCAM, program works with a robot. Photo courtesy Gadsden State Community College
A student in the Consortium for Alabama Regional Center for Automotive Manufacturing, or CARCAM, program works with a robot. Photo courtesy Gadsden State Community College

As Alabama’s automotive industry moved into high gear over the last ten to 20 years, thanks to the location here of automotive plants for Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai and many other suppliers, the state’s community colleges and universities also created partnerships with the industries within their communities.

With the support of National Science Foundation grants, 11 of the state’s community and technical colleges formed CARCAM, or the Consortium for Alabama Regional Center for Automotive Manufacturing.

The purpose, says CARCAM director Beverly Hildebrand, is to educate skilled technicians for the high-tech-based fields of robotics, industrial automation and precision machinery. The colleges offer an Automotive Manufacturing Technology degree along with curriculum and programs validated by industry representatives. They prepare workers not just for automotive manufacturers but also for their tier 1 and tier 2 suppliers and other advanced manufacturing industries in their communities.

Corey Edwards, a CARCAM student at Gadsden State Community College, says he’s glad to be part of the program. “I thought it was a really good fit as far as finding a good job and job openings,” Edwards said.

The 25-year-old student is pursuing an associate of applied science in electronics engineering technology, and though he hasn’t decided where he wants to work, he knows opportunity is there. He said CARCAM and the American Manufacturing Association are good at helping good students find jobs when they graduate – and giving them support during their schooling.

“CARCAM gives you everything you need for success in an industrial environment,” Edwards says. “I’m glad I made that choice.”

Community colleges participating are: Bevill State, Calhoun, Central Alabama, Gadsden State, Jefferson State, Lawson State, Shelton State, Southern Union State and Wallace State, along with Drake State Technical College and Trenholm State Technical College. More info: