What happens to the students who are not quite ready to transition into the next phase of their lives when they graduate high school?
“I realized there was a gap there,” said Amber Mitchell, school counselor at Ritenour High School. “They are stuck, and they have no one to guide them through.”
Some high school seniors let college applications remain half-finished. Some miss deadlines for job applications and don’t follow through on enlisting in the military.
Any momentum such students had when their high school counselor was urging them during the school year gets lost when summer hits. It’s a phenomenon called “summer melt,” she said.
And Mitchell has spent numerous summers trying to bridge this gap for students throughout the St. Louis area.
At first she volunteered with the Summer Melt program that was started by Washington University graduate students. When that dissolved, she started her own Summer Melt program at Jennings Senior High School, where she worked for five years prior to joining Ritenour.
“I made myself available all summer to help students,” Mitchell said. “I would invite college reps in the St. Louis area to help them with the college advising process, even if it wasn’t for that specific school.”
These representatives would help students navigate things such as financial aid, the acceptance process, or how to make a plan if they didn’t have enough funds to attend their top choice. She invited employers in to do mock interviews and help with resume writing. She also invited military reps to help with the enlisting process.
When summer hits, “it gets real,” Mitchell said, laughing. “We’re then able to have a more serious conversation.”
Mitchell was able to get a stipend for her work, but she didn’t anticipate how big the program would become. She was working evenings and weekends, as well as traveling with students to orientation. Many of the students still keep in contact with her because the questions don’t stop after they get into college.
“They want to talk to someone who they feel more comfortable with,” Mitchell said.
She remembers that feeling, she said, and that’s why she ended up attending the University of Missouri at St. Louis (UMSL) when she graduated from Beaumont High School. She had participated in UMSL’s Bridge Program, a year-round pre-collegiate program for St. Louis-area students. While both of her parents are educators, they didn’t know much about the college-application process.
“I felt like I was going through it by myself,” she said. “It was up to me to figure out this college thing.”
Mitchell ended up receiving her bachelor’s degree in psychology and two master’s degrees in Secondary School Counseling and Adult Higher Education, all from UMSL.
When she got to the university, she decided to volunteer with the Bridge Program as a way to “give back.” That landed her a job, where she discovered her passion for advising.
“As a student worker, I was learning so much about the college process,” she said. “It was like teaching the teacher.”
That experience still informs her work today. What she feels she wasn’t trained for was the life experiences she would encounter among her students – experiences that are far more intense and traumatic than she ever had to deal with growing up, she said. Though it’s only her first year at Ritenour, she said the district’s work in trauma is one of the things she greatly respects about the schools. The district has a slogan, “You don’t know my story.”
“I thought that was very interesting because my personal slogan has always been ‘Every student has a story,’ and it is my job to learn their story,” Mitchell said. “When we learn their story, we get to know what’s really going on because we have students who deal with a lot of traumatic experiences. When they come in the building, that doesn’t stop at the doors.”
On Saturday, September 21, Mitchell will receive the SEMO Counselor of the Year Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Awards Gala, held at the America’s Center.
Mitchell has over 14 years of experience in developing, coordinating and implementing college and career readiness services for underserved youth and has aided in the presentation of college access workshops for high school and middle school students, parents, and professionals throughout the region, said Trent Ball, assistant vice president for academic diversity and outreach at Southeast Missouri State University.
Ball said, “Amber demonstrates a great deal of passion and commitment in assisting students to achieve their goals for college and career success.”
The 2019 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 21, 2019 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $100 each/$1,000 table and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.stlamerican.com and click on Salute to Excellence, or call 314-533-8000.