Alumni Spotlight: Lindsey Barclay, CollegeTracks
CollegeTracks is a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery County, MD dedicated to making higher education accessible for all families in their local communities. For decades, CollegeTracks has provided mentorship, from standardized test prep to scholarship application assistance, for students most at risk of not attending college – low- to moderate-income, first-generation-to-college, minority, and immigrant youth.
The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with alumna Lindsey Barclay, College Access Director at CollegeTracks, about her experiences working in the nonprofit sector and her time in CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program, where she was a recipient of a scholarship from the Crimsonbridge Leadership Fund.
Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL):
With so many great causes to champion within the nonprofit sector, what drew you to work at CollegeTracks?
Barclay: I began working in the nonprofit sector, in student development in particular, when I was around 18 years old. I didn’t necessarily have a career plan in mind but I knew I didn’t want to spend the summer sitting at home. I ended up becoming a Community Assistant in Residential Life, helping guest acclimate themselves to life in campus housing. Through this opportunity, I learned about the role Community Directors played in student affairs. Later, when I was pursuing my graduate degree at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, I became the Assistant Community Director for Residential Life. From my years working in these positions and meeting many students, one particular moment stuck with me. A student lost his room key, so he was charged for the replacement and for the multiple sets of locks that needed to be changed as a result. One lock was $50 dollars, but in this case, we needed to change multiple locks, so the student had a bill of $250. When I met with the student to explain these charges, he actually began to cry. He shared with me that he was a low-income student who could only attend school through scholarships and loans; $250 would derail him completely. Luckily, I was able to work with the administration to get his charges waived, but the moment was pivotal for me. I realized that there were students who had the privilege of higher education, yet struggled for the resources I take advantage of every day. Working for UMBC was a wonderful experience but after finishing my master’s degree, I knew I wanted to work directly for these kinds of vulnerable students, not just the educational institutions themselves.
I found out about CollegeTracks while I was doing career research on the internet and after reading more about their executive director, Nancy Leopold, I was excited to get involved. I applied as a College Success Coach and what intrigued me the most initially was the ability to use what I learned working in residential life on campuses to now help low-income, first-generation students. In my belief, it’s important to ensure that students who are able to go to college graduate with as little turmoil and debt as possible. It’s been six and a half years since I began working at CollegeTracks. We now operate in more than five high schools across Montgomery County, MD. Working here has taught me resilience, grit, and tenacity to fight against systemic barriers. Colleges and universities were not designed to include the students our program serves, and that’s something we contend with every day as an organization. It has and continues to be my honor to work alongside determined students forging their own paths in the world.
CPNL: What are some of the unique barriers in place for first-generation and immigrant students? How does CollegeTracks tailor to these needs?
Barclay: The biggest barrier our students face is a lack of foundational knowledge. I grew up in a family where college was not only the expectation but something several generations coming before me had completed. When I had questions about my own classes and applications, there was always someone there to answer them. However, if you’re a low-income, first-generation-to-college, minority student, the American higher education system doesn’t really make sense. It’s very complex and hard to understand, but oftentimes your life depends on being able to do just that. As an organization, we provide knowledgeable adults who can help each student through their own unique process. Our staff members have all worked closely with the educational system, and each of our more than 90 volunteers all have at least one college degree. Our tutoring and resources are located within the schools, so our students don’t experience the program as anything other than a part of their daily lives until graduation. Once a student joins, we help with testing, set up appointments, and even suggest which colleges would make for the best fit.
CPNL: Since leaving the Certificate Program, what work have you done that you’re most proud of?
Barclay: Knowing that when you help students who are marginalized successfully navigate college until they receive their degree, you’re changing entire communities, as well as the whole societal system. These students leave college to become educators, engineers, and politicians. What they learn from CollegeTracks is that the support of others in need is a worthy pursuit. We create more social change agents, more fighters for what is right.
CPNL: What is one significant challenge you faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?
Barclay: It can be challenging as a nonprofit to experience a lack of resources, whether that be finances, time or knowledge. You have to be very responsible about what you’re managing and what substantive change you’re impacting. At times, it can feel like your work is really limited because of this.
CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?
Barclay: Aside from giving me a boost on my resume, the certificate program allowed me to network with colleagues in the nonprofit sector from around the globe. I was able to see how all our work overlapped and intersected, allowing us to not only normalize our experiences, but to brainstorm creative solutions. I remember a particular session when we spoke about how communities of color are not really recognized or utilized for their philanthropic work. This was a sentiment I was able to take back to my own organization and develop more progressive paths forward. For example, I advocated for connecting with vendors of color and reconsidering the language we used with our students so that it wasn’t deficit based. I also felt that CPNL’s program gave me access to cutting edge knowledge about how to be an effective nonprofit practitioner and to understand the broader structure of the sector in general.
CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?
Barclay: Stop considering and do it! It was an eye-opening experience with practical application. It’s not just the week or semester you participate. I very much still feel connected to the program and my colleagues. At any time, I know I can reach out to colleagues for advice on LinkedIn or attend a racial equity session to involve myself with the work.
This article has be lightly edited for clarity.