VCU students help Richmond high schoolers navigate the college application process

Sahana Tharakan, Allen Shieh, Christine Huynh, Timmy Tran and Brennan Chaloux
The executive board of Personalized Exploration for College Success: VCU students Sahana Tharakan, Allen Shieh, Christine Huynh, Timmy Tran and Brennan Chaloux. NOTE: Chaloux is a biomedical engineering major, hackathon veteran and narrator of the PECS video (see below) (Courtesy photo)

By Brian McNeill
University Public Affairs

As a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman in fall 2017, Allen Shieh volunteered to give tips and advice as part of an introduction to applying to college session for Richmond students attending Open High School.

Many of the high schoolers told Shieh they felt overwhelmed by the college application process.

So Shieh and several fellow VCU students in the Honors College decided to create a new organization — Personalized Exploration for College Success, or PECS — that would provide free peer-to-peer mentorship for Richmond public high schoolers and help them navigate the college search process, assist with writing application essays and more.

“PECS differentiates itself from other similar college application aid programs, in that it is run primarily by VCU students who are screened for their diverse experiences … and can provide their own personal touch to giving college application advice to high schoolers currently in the process,” said Shieh, who is majoring in chemistry with a concentration in biochemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

So far, the organization has helped roughly 150 students at Open High School, Huguenot High School and Thomas Jefferson High School. The team has connected with all other high schools in Richmond Public Schools and is hoping to expand by two per year.

“We want to supplement the college advisers’ work at each RPS high school and provide an alternative resource for high schoolers to rely on, especially when it comes to being themselves on a piece of paper (i.e. their admissions essays),” Shieh said.

In addition to Shieh and four other students on PECS’ executive board, about 35 VCU students have signed on as volunteer mentors.

Shieh and Christine Huynh, a fellow Honors College student and member of PECS’ board, were among five teams of VCU students selected to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in Chicago in October. The conference, hosted by the Clinton Foundation, brings together students, university representatives, topic experts and celebrities to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.

Mary Boyes, an assistant professor with the Honors College writing program, led the original college application session at Open High School and is PECS’ faculty adviser.

“Honors students are usually motivated and high achieving but the PECS team, who all hail from the Honors College, have a special sauce that is rare,” she said. “From designing their own logo, to creating professional letters to high school guidance counselors in the city of Richmond, to garnering a spot at the Clinton Global Initiative, the PECS team has been immensely creative, driven and energetic.”

PECS recently was accepted as one of 10 finalists in a competition sponsored by Zipcar called “Students with Drive,” which recognizes college student organizations that are making an impact on their community.

As a finalist, PECS received $300 in Zipcar driving credit and a $500 gift card to create a video demonstrating how they use Zipcar to make an impact on the community.

PECS — which has the tongue-in-cheek slogan of “Flex your PECS for College Success” — produced a three-minute video with “action-movie-style pacing, a bit of humor, and zombies, all while staying true to the core of the message that PECS mentors are there for all RPS high schoolers’ college applications needs,” Shieh said.

The video that receives the most votes will receive $10,000 in scholarship and donation funds, as well as $2,000 in Zipcar credit.

“Our main, ongoing financial issue is funding PECS mentors’ transportation to and from the high schools,” Shieh said. “Since we heavily rely on VCU freshmen, who are the most up-to-date with college application portals and procedures, many PECS mentors do not have a car.”

Winning the competition, he said, would help fund increased accessibility for mentors to reach all high schools across the city, allow PECS to host additional peer-to-peer workshops and presentations, and produce more promotional material and resources. It also could pay for incentives for high school students to participate, such as covering the cost of textbooks or college application fees.

“I am so thrilled that their efforts might pay off with Zipcar, which will allow PECS to help even more high school students who could use the guidance and energy that PECS has to offer,” Boyes said.

To vote in the competition and view PECS’ video, visit: