By Theresa Kennedy
“Who is this with you?” asked the judge.
“My counselor,” replied the young man.
“No, my college counselor.”
The judge didn’t know that Ms. Russell, as the students of Arbor Prep, Taylor Prep, and Canton Prep call her, learned at 1 p.m. that the young man was due at court at 2 p.m. and owed $60 in fines the same day. The judge didn’t know that his mother was unaware of the initial arrest for selling marijuana or the subsequent failure to report to his probation officer. The judge didn’t know that, six months earlier, the young man was in danger of not graduating from high school because he had been permanently kicked out of most of his classes due to disrespectful behavior, or that he had since become determined to complete summer school and graduate. All the judge knew was that someone cared enough about the young man to prompt a second chance.
Tonika Russell’s vocation is College Counselor for Prepnet Schools, but her avocation is mentoring black kids. She begins when they are freshman, initiating relationships with her students and helping them academically and socially so that, by the time they are juniors and ready to apply for college, she has built trust with them and, as she says, “My word is golden.”
Russell knows how important it is to have support to navigate the college admissions process because, as a black student in a predominantly white school, she wasn’t offered the resources that were available. Now she ensures that her students do.
“The first time I thought about diversity was when I transferred from (Flint) Southwestern Academy to Grand Blanc,” Russell said.
Russell grew up in Flint, the daughter of auto workers. “Before I transferred, I only remember interacting with black people.”
In a high school with an 88% minority population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the opportunities to explore college were robust. Southwestern Academy coordinated and promoted HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) tours, making sure that students were aware of the trips and that teachers excused the absences.
But at Grand Blanc, Russell’s mother had to persuade teachers to support her daughter’s trips. Grand Blanc High School was 75% white.
Russell was never invited to visit her high school counselor to discuss her college plans, so when other (white) students were announcing their college choices, Russell hadn’t even yet applied.
“I don’t know if it was because I was black, or because of my GPA, but no one told me when it was time to apply,” she said. “My college journey began in May of my senior year.”
Russell attended Saginaw Valley State University for a year, and then dropped out due to poor grades. She considered maybe college wasn’t for her, or she was destined to work at Chrysler or General Motors like her parents. Then she enrolled at the University of Michigan-Flint, and found mentorship through Zeta Phi Beta.
“I was a 23 year-old confused person, and Zeta gave me a place and helped me figure out who I was.” She found a sisterhood of black women that were all different; different ages, different economic backgrounds, and different interests, but all empowered. The mentorship she received through her sorority would be an influence throughout her career.
Russell completed her Bachelor of Arts in History and then went on to earn a Master’s in Public Administration for Non-Profits, thinking that she would work in higher education, perhaps as director of Greek Life. She applied for and was hired as a recruiter for undergraduate admissions.
Russell’s first high school visit was to Denby High School. “I watched the college counselor at work, and knew that was my future,” Russell explained.
At every visit to a high school, Russell asked the college counselor how they got the job. At first discouraged because a Master’s in Counseling was a job requirement, and not wanting to go back to school again, Russell continued in her role in admissions, creating and maintaining relationships with the students she recruited. But she still wasn’t happy, especially when recruitment became more and more like sales.
Russell started to apply for open positions despite the requirement for an MA in counseling and got a phone interview with PrepNet Schools. When they asked if she understood that the counseling degree was a must, Russell said, “You can interview every person in the United States that has a master’s in counseling, but none of them will have the passion for helping students that I have. No one. At all.”
Prepnet called Russell the next day and asked if she could come in immediately for an in-person interview. Despite it being in the middle of the workday, Russell’s supervisor urged her to just go, no hesitation.
“When I walked out of that interview, I knew they were going to hire me,” Russell said.
Hire her they did.
Russell now the supervises the college coordination team at three schools, and recently graduated from Spring Arbor University with a Master’s in Counseling. She created a mentoring program for girls called Queenin’. She has also realized that white kids from privileged backgrounds need her help too.
“Kids from upper class families are often told what they are going to study in college, and advocating for them to follow their dreams is important too,” Russell said.
“I enjoy it, because I learned that all kids have problems.” She encountered students with 4.3 GPAs and 1450 SAT scores had parents that made them feel like they weren’t good enough.
Ms. Russell sees everybody and has found her passion.