Youth Leaders are Changing the Conversation on College Access

Cassie Schwerner, Karoline Jimenez, Enoch Jemmott, and Juliane Dressner

“If you have a friend of a friend with a kid – even a stranger – remind them that they’re worth something.”

Student Karoline Jimenez urged this of her audience after an hour of tears and testimony at the Philanthropy New York (PNY) June 17th screening of Stepping Up, a glimpse into the world of college access by filmmaker Julie Dressner. This feature-length documentary will highlight the woefully high 250:1 student-to-guidance counselor ratio in New York City. Guidance counselors have little time, says the film, to spend with their assigned students on college guidance, and there are deep disparities between students from low-income and high-income backgrounds who succeed in obtaining a bachelor’s degree. In an effort to close this guidance gap, then-high school students Karoline and friends Christine Rodriguez and Enoch Jemmott commit to helping their peers navigate the college application process. Stepping Up follows the three young people, trained by College Access: Research & Action (CARA), on their journey as high school peer counselors, even as they themselves undergo the intensive process of applying to schools.

“We want to believe that education is the great equalizer and there is social mobility in our country… What we find and see in this film is that that is not always the case.”

At this special PNY screening, Schott’s Cassie Schwerner, Senior Vice President of National Partnerships, served as moderator of a panel discussion with Julie and the students in which they discussed the flaws of the current guidance counselor system, the college application process and what the students had learned from their experiences both as peer counselors at their schools’ Student Success Centers and during their first year at college. Karoline and Enoch recounted times in which they felt frustrated undertaking their own college applications and described the lack of empathy Karoline said she often faced in high school. “As students,” she said, “we want to feel appreciated, we want to feel welcomed, we need to feel like we have a purpose – to be there, to do something, to learn something.”

“Keep that burning urge for positive reform,” Enoch offered, encouraging audience members to do their part as advocates for public education.

Andrew Greenaway, Karoline Jimenez, Enoch Jemmott, and Juliane Dressner

 Stepping Up showcases beautifully the lives and experiences of the students as agents of power – not as victims and certainly not through the stereotypical lens media uses to represent young people of color, Cassie points out. “I hope everyone working in youth development, college access and philanthropy has the opportunity to see this film. It frames youth leadership and organizing in a profoundly needed way.”

What does Julie hope will happen as a result of her film? “We, in general, want to believe that education is the great equalizer and there is social mobility in our country… What we find and see in this film is that that is not always the case.” She believes this film is a great opportunity to “bring the voices and the perspectives and the experiences of the young people who are the subjects of the film to the national debate that’s happening right now about, ‘How do we increase access to higher education for low income students of color?’”

Julie and her team are currently in post-production. If you’d like to contribute to the completion of Stepping Up, you can contact Julie Dressner by emailing

For more information on CARA’s programs to confront the gap in post-secondary guidance faced by first-generation to college students in New York City, visit CARA online at

And a special shout-out goes to the Urban Youth Collaborative, which was instrumental in bringing Student Success Centers to NYC.

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