About the time she was packing the youngest of her four children off to college, Amy Daubert made an unusual decision.
The former school counselor had just helped an acquaintance’s son get into and pay for college despite a serious obstacle, an experience she found incredibly rewarding.
So she offered to volunteer her time as a college counselor for the nonprofit Partners for Youth Opportunity, or PYO, a Durham organization that helps at-risk teenagers. She would work almost full-time to help about 20 students navigate what many first-generation college students find to be a rocky road to college.
In the end, she’s helped most of these students, who all faced barriers to academic success, get into a four-year college, including UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University. And she’s already starting to work with next year’s seniors.
“The work she’s done for these students is just amazing,” says Julie Wells, PYO director. “She could have done a lot of other things with her time, but she cared enough to spend it helping them.”
Daubert was born in New England and met her husband when they were both studying at Williams College in Massachusetts; she studied political science, and he was on his way to becoming a doctor.
The couple moved to Durham in the 1980s when he took a position at Duke Health. Daubert worked as a substitute teacher in the Durham public schools and for a time coordinated the Living History program at Duke before earning a master’s degree in counseling at UNC-CH.
She worked as a guidance counselor in the Durham schools for several years until her children were born, when she turned her attention to raising them – a move she recalls with a humorous rationale: “I’ve seen enough kids get messed up and I figured if anyone was going to do that to my kids, at least it would be me.”
Her first two children were born in Durham, the other two in Rochester, N.Y., where the family lived from the early 1990s until 2009.
While the children were young, Daubert devoted much of her time to volunteer work. She raised money and organized events for Williams College, and worked with an organization in Rochester devoted to resettling refugees.
She served on the board of her children’s little league organization and the Catholic school they attended there. At one point, when she won a series of volunteer awards, she made sure her children came to the event.
“I wanted them to see that I was actually working,” she says.
Once back in the Triangle, she was active at Durham Academy, which her younger children attended.
But she says she was never overly involved when her children applied to colleges.
If anything, she tried to downplay the pressure to build up their applications throughout high school – a source of stress at the private schools they attended.
“I didn’t want all their lives in high school to be consumed by college applications,” she says. “But they were on a college track, so there wasn’t much to do.”
She became involved in helping other students when a friend’s nanny was being treated for ovarian cancer. Eager to help, Daubert offered to help the nanny’s son, a high school senior, with his college applications.
He was a good student, bright and dedicated with advanced classes under his belt, despite having entered the country at the age of 14 unable to speak English. His SAT scores weren’t great, though, and he had been rejected by several schools.
Daubert called some of those schools, and explained his situation. Some gave his application a second look, including Appalachian State University, which eventually accepted him. She was ecstatic.
“I felt like I was doing what I had started out doing before I had my children,” says Daubert. “He was really invested in getting his education and it felt wonderful to help him.”
Giving kids support
Partners for Youth Opportunity aims to give students that don’t have a clear path to post-secondary education or high-paying careers a leg up in their futures.
Many of its participants are poor, are the first in their families to be born in this country or to speak English. Some have parents who are or have been jailed. Students enter the program as early as eighth grade, and remain in it until graduation.
The idea is to provide a number of services to help these children succeed – tutoring, mentoring, internships and job training, volunteer opportunities and more.
Those kind of services are difficult for overburdened high school counselors to do, particularly for first-generation college students, who tend to need more guidance.
Nationwide, the ratio of high school counselors to students is nearly 500 to one, and those counselors tend to be concentrated in more affluent schools, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. By the association’s estimates, the average public school student can expect to receive less than an hour a year of college counseling.
“The impact of that shortage is enormous,” says Bill Symonds, director of the Global Pathways Institute. “We talk about getting more young people into college and good careers, but unfortunately many students aren’t getting the guidance they need to succeed.”
Daubert got involved with Partners for Youth Opportunity five years ago through a friend.
She joined the organization’s board, and still helps with fundraisers. But her role increased significantly when she offered to become its volunteer college counselor.
“The idea of PYO is to give these kids a 360-degree wrapping around of support,” says Daubert. “And this is a kind of support I knew they needed, so I decided it’s what I’m going to do.”
Off the bat, she found the 20 students entering their senior year weren’t well prepared to apply for college; many hadn’t taken the SAT yet, so she got them signed up and studying.
She arranged field trips to visit local colleges, and held parties with food and volunteers to help them complete tedious online applications. She found volunteers to help them work on their entrance essays, and worked one-on-one with students to narrow down their options.
In a few cases, she’s also gotten on the phone with admissions officers, explaining why a student warrants a second look.
This summer, she’ll be back to work with younger students to make sure they’re practicing for the SAT and introducing them to other resources, such as a website she found that offers small scholarships for individual accomplishments such as earning an A or completing a particular activity.
She hopes to catch other problems early, such as working with parents to make sure they file yearly tax returns and fill out free and reduced lunch forms.
“These things are mundane, but they’re real things, and if they don’t do them, their children won’t get financial aid,” she says.
The group is also making plans to follow the students once they start college; Daubert notes that first-generation college students tend to falter more than others in the first years of college.
She says she averages 30 hours a week on the job, including regular meetings with students three days a week as well as staff meetings and hours of planning and talking with counselors and admissions officers.
“It’s just been a wonderful experience,” Daubert says. “Sometimes I pinch myself. I’m not getting paid, but I’m getting a whole lot more.”
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Born: April 1960, Concord, Mass.
Residence: Chapel Hill
Career: Volunteer college counselor, Partners for Youth Opportunity; former school counselor
Education: B.A. political science, Williams College; M.Ed. school counseling, UNC-Chapel Hill
Family: Husband Jim; children Patrick, Thomas, James and Mairin
Fun fact: Even though her husband works at Duke and her volunteer work is in Durham, Daubert says she’s always loved Chapel Hill and lived there even when her children were attending Durham Academy.
“It feels like we live in the woods, yet I can walk everywhere,” she says. “I love the vibe of this area.” Yet, when it comes to sports, she is a Blue Devils fan.