California award-winning school counselor urges college applicants to get past fears

December 1, 2021

Yia Le, a counselor at McLane High School in Fresno, won a statewide award.

High school counselor Yia Le understands firsthand the obstacles to higher education for students who are in the first generation of their families to attend college, particularly those from immigrant families.

After all, Le and his family were Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia and arrived in California when he was just 3 years old. The family, knowing almost no English, struggled to earn a living as farmers in the Fresno area. Now 30, Le recalls picking and sorting tomatoes throughout his childhood and teen years.

Then he was able to attend Cal State Fresno with full-ride financial aid and later earned a master’s degree there in student affairs and college counseling and the pupil personnel services credential required for jobs in that field.

Le stayed in Fresno, and for the past five years, he has been a counselor at McLane High School, where most students are low-income and a quarter are English learners; 75% of McLane’s students are Latino; 16% are Asian. His work there advocating higher education and helping students receive financial aid recently garnered statewide distinction. The California Student Aid Commission honored Le with the annual Arthur S. Marmaduke High School Counselor Award. The prize, named after the commission’s former executive director, recognizes “exemplary skills in helping students fulfill their dreams of going to college,” the agency says.

EdSource senior correspondent Larry Gordon recently spoke with Le about the role counseling can play in young people’s lives and the challenges California students face after high school. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Does your own background give you a special connection to students who are trying to get into college and get enough aid?

Yes, of course, especially so for first-generation students who come from a history of low income. My family woke up about five or six in the morning (on the farm) and stayed working there until we finished everything at night. And on weekends too. It’s hard labor. When I was in high school, I thought, I don’t want to do this forever. I need to look for other opportunities. I have older siblings who did not get the chance to pursue higher education because they had to work to provide for the family. … Not too long ago, I was trying to get a student to complete her financial aid application. But her parent was really hesitant to give their income and Social Security numbers. They thought it was a scam. No one in the family had gone to college. So, I had to explain to the student that, hey, this is what I went through. I had to explain, this is how I got aid for Fresno State 10 years ago.

What is your role as a counselor?

Number one goal is making sure our kids graduate and get their diplomas and meet A-G requirements. (Courses needed for admission to California State University and the University of California). At the end of the day, my goal is to make sure that students have as many opportunities as possible to choose from, whether it’s the military, college, vocational school or starting a business. To become productive citizens of our society.

What are the biggest obstacles your students face in applying to and attending college?

I’d say there are plenty, but the biggest factor would just be the costs. The students need money to pay tuition and other related costs, and the cost of living is obviously going up. That’s why our school and district have a really big push for completion of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). And I think it’s also awareness and family culture. Being in the first generation to go to college, they have that fear. You have to take the leap of faith to be the first in your family to go to college, whether it’s in or out of town.

The University of California and the California State University have stopped requiring applicants to take the SAT or ACT. How does the change affect your students?

I think it’s tremendous. It eliminates one of the barriers for our kids because all our test scores were not the best. That’s one less thing that they have to worry about. GPA (high school grade-point average) has always been a big factor, especially for the CSU system, and probably will be bigger now.  If anything, I would say that this change should probably motivate the students to do more above and beyond to improve their grades. … And another thing is: I haven’t heard of any of our parents paying for outside tutors to prep their kids for the SAT or ACT test. That could have been a disadvantage for low-income students who couldn’t afford that.

Jennifer Pritchard

Yia Le. who recently won a statewide counseling award, advises a student at Fresno’s McLane High.

The Central Valley has a lower college attendance rate than some other regions of California. And I’ve heard more reluctance to send kids to colleges outside the valley. Why do you think that is?

There are a lot of factors that can play into that, but I want to say probably the culture, the family structure and the costs. Some of them have to stay home to support their family. When I was applying to college, there was no one in the family who had gone out of town for college. So, I think there is a kind of a fear about going out of town, the unknown. The majority of our students apply to the local colleges, but we try to push them to apply outside too and see that there are community colleges, vocational schools, 23 CSUs, nine UCs and plenty of private colleges out there. But at the end of the day, the student and parents have to make a decision that’s best for them and their family. And if cost is an issue and you can pursue the career you want at a local college, there is nothing wrong with staying in town.

What do you do when a student wants to attend a UC or CSU or four-year private college but doesn’t have the grades? Or can’t afford it?

I discuss other options, such as going through a community college and transferring. I tell my students all the time that there’s nothing wrong with going to a community college and that we’ve had our highest achieving students go there for various reasons, whether family situation, career exploration, or costs. With the California College Promise Grant, many students are choosing to attend community colleges to save money. We let them know that there’s no right or wrong way to start, as long as they finish.

What was it like to be a counselor online during the pandemic?

It was obviously something new to all of us. There were both advantages and disadvantages. The school day ended earlier. That provided more time to do college workshops and work 1-to-1 with seniors on college and financial aid applications. There were fewer distractions.  On the other hand, technology, attendance, academics and mental health were big challenges. And there are good things about being in-person. If I need to talk to a kid, I can just go and get them in class, while online they might not respond.

Did you see a lot of mental health problems?

Yes, there were a lot of mental health issues during online learning. Feelings of isolation or loneliness for not being around their friends. And there were lots of family struggles. Some homes had five or six students doing online learning, and there was no privacy. I think kids are still searching for their identity, and sometimes they come to school to escape from their home environment. For the first time, that option was not available. And seniors missed out on such an important time in their lives: prom, sports, friends and so much more. We have a really good social-emotional support system at our site, with our school psychologists, restorative counselor and social workers. So, if there are mental health needs that require additional support, we refer them to that team.

What does this award mean to you?

This award is like winning the lottery. I am super blessed and honored to be selected and to represent our McLane team and our district. It’s a great feeling to highlight our counseling profession and put our school and district on the map for positive things. … For me personally, growing up, I was a super shy person. In college, I would sign up for classes, and if I found out from that syllabus that we had to do classroom presentations, I’d drop out of the class. So I think I’ve come a long way personally. Look at me now: I’m doing interviews.


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