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Member Spotlight: Aliza Gilbert

Aliza GilbertAliza Gilbert
College Counselor
Highland Park High School

Claim to Fame: Last Year’s NACAC Human Relations Award Recipient, Aliza Gilbert Works Closely With Undocumented Students

Aliza Gilbert has been working to help underrepresented students – particularly undocumented students –  since early in her admission career. Her work was recognized by NACAC last year at the 66th National Conference in St. Louis (MO), where she was honored with the Human Relations Award. Today, Gilbert is furthering her knowledge about undocumented students and college access by using it as the focus of her doctoral dissertation.

Gilbert will be presenting the session “Helping Unauthorized Students in the Face of Challenging Times” at the upcoming Critical Components conference, being held May 31 – June 3 in Arlington (VA). She will also be presenting at Guiding the Way to Inclusion (GWI) on July 31 – August 2 in Chicago (IL).

Read more about Gilbert’s work in admission and with undocumented students, and what she anticipates for the future of this group.

What has been your career path that led you to your current work as a college counselor at Highland Park High School? How did you get into admission in the first place?

I think my career path is a bit different than many, as I did not have any involvement with admission during college. My undergraduate degree was in elementary education with a concentration in mathematics, but my experiences student teaching eighth-grade algebra confirmed that I did not want to teach. After graduation, I spent a year coordinating children’s services at a community center before applying to graduate school in higher education. An internship in admission at a liberal arts college introduced me to the world of admission. After five years, I made the switch to the high school side by taking a position as a college counselor.

Aliza Gilbert (Highland Park H.S.), 2010 recipient of the NACAC Human Relations AwardWhat was your experience like winning NACAC’s Human Relations Award last year?

I was both humbled and thrilled. I was humbled by the notion that I was receiving an award that had previously been awarded to Alejandra Rincón, as her work has inspired me every step of the way. I was also thrilled because the award affirms the notion that unauthorized students matter.

How did you get involved with undocumented students?

I encountered my first unauthorized student early in my admission career, when a young man from a local high school applied to the college where I worked.  He received a generous aid package from the college, and although the family struggled extensively to meet their required contribution, they did so because it was important to them that he attend college. Over the years I worked with a number of unauthorized students, some of whom were able to meet their financial obligations and enroll in college, but many more who weren’t.

When I moved to the high school side I began to work more closely with unauthorized students and I saw too many academically talented students decide not to pursue postsecondary college either because they thought they couldn’t due to their status or because they couldn’t pay for it.  I believe that it is our responsibility as high school counselors and college admission professionals to support all students in their pursuit of postsecondary education and as a result, I began to work within Illinois to create opportunities for unauthorized students.

What are the greatest challenges for these students, and for counselors?

I see four main challenges:

  • ensuring that students and parents are aware of postsecondary options;
  • making sure that high school counselors and college counselors recognize their role in supporting unauthorized in the college search and selection process;
  • helping students find sources of funding; and,
  • directing students to think realistically about potential majors and employment opportunities after college.

There are too many students and counselors who still think federal law bars students from enrolling in college. We must work to change this perception and we must also work to make sure that unauthorized students understand the importance of course work and grades in receiving merit scholarships.

Have the issues confronting undocumented students and counselors changed over the years?

Even with the changing climate in many states, I believe that it is “easier” for undocumented students to pursue postsecondary education than it used to be. More college admission and high school counselors are aware of the challenges faced by undocumented students and as a result, they have worked to create opportunities and ensure that students are aware of these opportunities. The tuition bills, which exist in a number of states, are a good example of these efforts. However, as anyone who works with unauthorized students knows, there is still a lot of work to be done.

How have you been able to link your research on undocumented students and college access for your doctoral dissertation to practice in the college counseling profession?

This for me is the most exciting part of my doctoral studies. Not surprisingly, my dissertation topic will study how unauthorized students explore postsecondary education as related to the models of college choice. I hope my research will help us better understand both how undocumented students pursue and achieve postsecondary education, and what counseling professionals can do to support them throughout the process.


This article originally appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of the NACAC Bulletin. Reprinted with permission.

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