Change Agent: Helping college students stay the course

April Helms
Akron Beacon Journal
Connie Thackaberry is a mentor with College Now Greater Cleveland, which helps students get into and stay in college.

Connie Thackaberry first heard about College Now Greater Cleveland through her job at Thompson Hine LLP in Cleveland, where she works as the secretarial support services manager.

The program pairs professionals in the area with college-bound students. Thackaberry, 45, who lives in Sagamore Hills with her husband and daughter, said that mentors "commit to the student's entire college career." 

"My student just graduated last weekend," Thackaberry said. "We've been together for four years. I got a really highly motivated mentee. She's just a wonderful woman and self-driven. I talked to her about her ideas and where she wanted to go."

Thackaberry's past experience with theater — she worked with her parents running Actors' Summit, which was located in Akron and Hudson at various times — helped Alexcia Ambroz, who was a theater major at Baldwin Wallace University.

Thackaberry, who grew up in Hudson, said that before the pandemic she still did some work with the local theaters, including Western Reserve Playhouse and Playwrights Local.

She's been involved with College Now Greater Cleveland for four years. The organization helps students from Cuyahoga, Lake, Summit, Medina, and Lorain counties. 

"What they started off with is an organization that helped students get into college," she said. "That's a whole process in itself. But then they were finding that while the students were getting into college, they were not staying in."

So College Now expanded to help students navigate their way through the college experience, Thackaberry said. The organization even offers a scholarship to participating students.

Laurel Wilder, the director of marketing and communications for College Now Greater Cleveland, said that students must have attended a high school served by a College Now advisor to receive a scholarship. 

"The College Now Mentoring Program serves any student receiving a College Now or Say Yes Cleveland scholarship," Wilder said. "We do have a resource center that is free and open to anyone who needs help with college and career access. We will serve anyone from any county in the resource center."

The list of schools that have College Now Greater Cleveland contracts and advisors can be found on the 2021 Report to the Community, which is posted at www.collegenowgc.org, Wilder said.

"I'm one of a thousand volunteers," Thackaberry said. "They recruit from all sorts of businesses and careers. You need an undergraduate degree and time to commit. They typically have 800 to 1,000 mentors each year. Every year, they have to recruit that many because there's always incoming freshman." 

Mentors need to connect with their mentees on a regular basis through messages, email and visits. Thackaberry said that in-person visits have been challenging this past year due to the pandemic, and many mentors connect to their mentees through virtual means, either because of COVID-19 restrictions or because the student is attending a university that is out of state. 

"A lot of students are first-generation college students, so you are there as a guide," Thackaberry said. Help can include coaching the students through interview skills, drafting a cover letter and resume and helping students connect with professionals in their field.

Help may even be extended for life skills, Thackaberry said.

"My mentee was getting ready to purchase her first car," she said. "But she found out that she didn't have enough of a credit history. So she researched and worked to build her credit and save her money. A year later, she could purchase that car."

In addition, COVID-19 has added stress to what can be a challenging experience, Thackaberry said. 

"We can go over how to keep healthy physically and mentally," she said. "We would spend time talking about that. You can cover so many aspects of life."

College Now also offers programs for adult learners who are thinking of heading back to college, Thackaberry said. 

"I've had so many mentors in my own life," Thackaberry said. "Sometimes, you just need someone to listen. You may not need advice, you just need someone to listen. It was great to be a part of her journey. I hope our friendship extends far into the future."

Ambroz, 21, who currently lives in Parma and grew up in Tremont, said the most valuable thing Thackaberry taught her was "to never apologize for who I am and all I want to achieve."

"She has helped me feel powerful and brave in a world that can be so scary," Ambroz said. "Working in the theater industry is a difficult job, but Connie has proved to me that anything is possible as long as you work hard and hang onto that passion. I am forever grateful for the work she’s done in my life."

Having Thackaberry as a mentor "has been such a breath of fresh air considering how overwhelming and difficult college can be," Ambroz said. 

"But she’s also taught me how to embrace those exciting moments that come along with college and discovering a career," she said. "She’s had my back on anything and everything I have struggled with the past four years. There was never something she wouldn’t go above and beyond to help me with.  She’s also someone who gets very excited about the projects I am working on and any achievements I have. Connie is one of my biggest cheerleaders."

Ambroz said she found out about College Now Greater Cleveland through her high school counselor.

"I was very much worried about paying for college, so I talked to my counselor and that’s how I discovered how College Now could help," she said.

After graduation, Ambroz said she plans to begin her service "as an AmeriCorps for College Now, where I will help low-income community students navigate the collegiate process."

"I will spend 11 months there starting in August and during that time, I will network myself to various professionals who could possibly hire me," she said. "I am very excited for what comes next. I am so thankful to have someone like Connie in my life. She and I have created such an incredible bond that truly has changed my life in amazing ways. "

For information on College Now Greater Cleveland, visit https://www.collegenowgc.org online, or call 216-241-5587.

Reporter April Helms can be reached at ahelms@thebeaconjournal.com


About Change Agents

The Beacon Journal is highlighting emerging leaders from newer generations who are making a difference in Summit County neighborhoods, businesses, schools and organizations. Do you know a Change Agent we should feature? Tell us about that person at bjnews@thebeaconjournal.com. Please include “Change Agents” in the subject line and be sure to share contact information for the individual.