PATHe counselors guide students on journey to higher education during time of coronavirus and virtual learning

young man typing on laptop(Sept. 23, 2020) – Navigating the higher education system is challenging under the best of circumstances. Now counselors from the Pinellas Access to Higher Education (PATHe) program have the daunting task of helping students and families on that journey while also dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of parents and they’re generally overwhelmed,” said Sandy DeCarlo, a PATHe counselor based on USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “I think they’re really concerned about how to advise their children and either they don’t have experience themselves or their experience is pretty outdated because things are so different now. Finding resources to be able to get accurate information is a real challenge these days, especially with COVID.”

The PATHe program is a partnership between St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus that was launched in 2018 with support from the Florida Legislature. The intent is to expand educational access and assist Pinellas County students who want to earn a college degree.

The approach is dual-pronged. First, PATHe offers an opportunity for students to start their degree at SPC before transitioning seamlessly to USF’s St. Petersburg campus. Last year, 45 students enrolled in the PATHe program, with one already transitioning to USF’s St. Petersburg campus, where she is studying Global Business.

So far, 16 students have enrolled in PATHe this year, and the application process is still ongoing, DeCarlo said.

The second element is the guidance and support offered by the PATHe counselors. There are three: two based on USF’s St. Petersburg campus and a third at St. Petersburg College.

In the past, the counselors have visited local schools to meet with families, students and guidance counselors to provide information about the transition to higher education. But the coronavirus epidemic has forced them to transition their support to the virtual realm.

Once schools made the switch to online learning in March, PATHe counselors began offering one-hour virtual sessions every Wednesday to answer questions and discuss strategies for college admissions.

“It was a really good way of engaging with students we hadn’t met before and letting them know we exist and the services that we are able to provide to them,” said Dineca Walker, a PATHe counselor based on USF’s St. Petersburg campus.

In August, they held a week-long virtual “Discover Your PATHe” program. It began with a session for parents that featured admission counselors from USF and SPC and provided advice on how to prepare their students for college. The rest of the event was dedicated to students and covered everything from developing a plan for applying to college to identifying test-taking strategies and practicing the principles of time management.

Students got the opportunity to hear directly from their peers at SPC and USF during online panel discussions. They also got to know one another and have a little fun, competing for prizes such as PATHe t-shirts, knapsacks and lanyards.

The challenge now for PATHe counselors is to make their services available at a time when many Pinellas schools are still determining how best to communicate with students, especially when many continue to learn remotely.  The PATHe counselors have created a variety of presentations that address different grade levels and are offering those to the schools in a virtual setting. They’re also letting school officials know they’re available to join their classrooms or virtual meetings to provide resources and guidance. In addition, they’ve started a new Instagram account, @plan_your_pathe, where users can find practical tips and information.

“We’re basically addressing the schools and all the contacts we made last year and letting them know that we are still here and we’re willing to adapt how we bring this information based on the schools and what they’re doing,” DeCarlo added.

While the program is based at SPC and USF’s St. Petersburg campus, counselors are available to help no matter where a student would like to attend college, said Walker.

“If parents or students have questions regarding just general information around college preparation or admissions processes, please reach out to us,” she said. “We’re here to serve them as a resource no matter where they plan to go.”

For more information on the PATHe program, visit stpetersburg.usf.edu/pathe.