When Amber Williams began her new job at Benton Harbor High School last fall, Darren McCormick was ready for her. He wanted to go to college—U-M, preferably—and he wanted Williams to help him get there.

“I went there on the first day of school. I think her first job was dealing with me,” says McCormick, who recently graduated and who will attend U-M in the fall. “She functioned like a liaison, and she alleviated a lot of stress.”

That’s the idea behind the program for which Williams works: In the Michigan College Advising Corps, or MCAC, a group of students (seven in 2010-11 pilot year, 15 next year) who recently graduated from U-M work in a high school for the academic year to advise students who want to attend college.

They help with everything from the common application to filling out financial aid forms to making students aware of the post-high school options available to them. And they do so in places where students can use some additional guidance because the schools are in low-income areas and many of the students are from families in which nobody has attended college.

“It’s a barrier to a lot of kids. They have the potential to fall between the cracks,” says Amy Prevo, assistant director of the U-M Center for Educational Outreach, which is MCAC’s administrative base.

The full roster of advisers for the past year can be found here. Williams, who holds a 2010 bachelor’s in sociology and women’s studies, and the entire group have had a successful first year, Prevo says.

“It has been terrific. The advisers have been embraced by the schools, the students, the communities,” says Prevo. “They’ve done some amazing things to help change the college-going culture.”

Indeed, the success can be measured in a number of ways. Benton Harbor is a good example; six students applied to U-M, and four were accepted and are attending. Other students from the high school are attending colleges near—Southwestern Michigan College, Michigan State University, Western Michigan University—and far—University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Xavier University of Louisiana, Jackson State University in Mississippi.

“This is one of the best years we’ve had with Benton Harbor, in terms of matriculating,” says Jody Gore, until recently the admissions officer at U-M whose area included Benton Harbor and now the recruitment coordinator for campus day programs in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Beyond that, he says, “I think Amber is doing a good job of getting kids to go to school in general, not just the University of Michigan.”

Williams was pleased by the range of students who sought her guidance. “What we are seeing is an expansion of students in the entire student body to at least consider applying for college.” She met with everyone from the top students who wanted to attend schools like U-M to students with 1.5 GPAs who wanted to know what they would need to do in order to attend college.

Loosely based on Teach for America, the program began at the University of Virginia in 2004. Now 15 schools make up the National College Advising Corps, in which recent graduates are trained in the college advising process before starting to work at the high schools.

Their role is especially important in a state like Michigan, where guidance counselors tend to be stretched too thin, Prevo says. “The biggest issue is the student-to-counselor ratio, which in Michigan is the third-worst in the country. The recommended ratio is 250 students to one counselor, but in Michigan, some schools are closer to 600 to one.”

Next year, the program is expanding to include eight more schools in Flint, Highland Park, Lansing, Holland, and Port Huron. Williams will return to Benton Harbor.

That’s good news for students at the school, says Jessica Williams (no relation), one of the Benton Harbor High School students who will attend U-M in the fall. “I can definitely say there wouldn’t have been as many people applying to colleges without having her at our school. I know a student at a different school who said he didn’t have anyone like Amber, and he wished they’d had someone like her to help get people ready for college,” she says.

More than just getting students to apply to college, one of Williams’s goals was to help students navigate the often-confusing world of financial aid. If anyone could assist them in understanding the importance of finding as many financial aid options as possible, it was Williams. Financial aid issues led to a jam-packed schedule for her during her five undergraduate years, including a time when she worked three jobs while taking 18 credit hours.

“I know the financial aid piece is probably the most daunting,” she says. A lot of students didn’t realize what kind of information they needed to submit, or the range of scholarships, grants, and loans that were available. “Getting through that process with them is definitely one of the biggest impacts I made.”

Williams also knows firsthand what it’s like to come from a family without a long history of attending college. She is a first-generation college graduate on her father’s side of the family, and her mother earned a bachelor’s degree the first year that Williams went to U-M.

“A lot of them come with baggage from home and baggage from their personal lives. But they refuse to let that interfere with actualizing their wildest dreams,” Williams says. “The students I have been working with are survivors, and they will push through anything to succeed.”

Photos: Marie Ting, Center for Educational Outreach