Special Feature: LEDA Workshop

A conversation with students on overcoming hidden barriers to college success

While the 12th NPEA Conference was canceled, we are thrilled to share the below resource developed by Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) as part of their preparations for their workshop session.


“Through the work of the LEDA Policy Project, we had hoped to bring students to the National Partnership for Education Access (NPEA) Annual Conference to discuss how to help students overcome hidden barriers to college success. The event was canceled, but the conversation is still critical, so we have converted our panel to a written Q&A.”


Questions address topics including:

  • Hidden barriers students face while completing college, and how college access and success programs can support students in overcoming them
  • How COVID-19 has impacted the work of college success counselors, and how they can adapt their approach to the work during this unique time
  • How campus closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted students and presented new barriers, and how organizations/programs have supported them
  • Current needs students face and recommendations for stakeholders in the college access/success space to address them


  • Nada Abdelaziz, College Success Counselor, LEDA
  • Abel Berhan, LEDA Policy Corps Member and Student, Harvard College
  • Amber M. Briggs, Project Project Director, LEDA
  • Carolina Espinal, LEDA Policy Corps Member and Student, Tufts University

Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) is a national nonprofit that empowers a community of exceptional young leaders by supporting their higher education and professional success in order to create a more inclusive and equitable country. The LEDA Policy Project trains and positions young leaders from the LEDA Community to lend their voices to federal policy discussions pertaining to postsecondary education.

Through the work of the LEDA Policy Project, we had hoped to bring students to the National Partnership for Education Access (NPEA) Annual Conference to discuss higher education institutions that can partner to help students overcome hidden barriers to college success. The event was canceled, but the conversation is still critical, so we have converted our panel to a written Q&A.

Hidden barriers have existed for first-generation and low-income students before COVID-19 disrupted our way of life. The impact of the pandemic has and will continue to exacerbate these barriers. We hope that as institutions and policymakers respond to the situation, they consider solutions that address systemic and historical inequities faced by historically marginalized students.

In this written interview format, we hope to highlight some of these inequities and propose solutions that nonprofits, higher education institutions, and other stakeholders can implement in order to address these barriers to college success.

About the panelists:

Nada Abdelaziz: Nada is a College Success Counselor at LEDA. She helps students navigate the transition from high school to college and assists them throughout their college careers to become exemplary students and campus leaders both by connecting them with resources at their colleges and supplementing those resources according to individual Scholars’ needs.

Abel Berhan: Abel is a member of the LEDA Policy Corps, a LEDA Scholar, and a student at Harvard College.

Amber Briggs (Moderator): Amber Briggs is the Director of the Policy Project. In this role, Amber manages the LEDA Policy Corps, a select group of students from the LEDA community who are trained in key federal policy and higher education topics and participate in various activities to ensure that student perspectives are at the center of higher education policy and practice.

Carolina Espinal: Carolina is a member of the LEDA Policy Corps, a LEDA Career Fellow, and a student at Tufts University


Amber: What are some hidden barriers that students face while completing college and how do you think college access and success programs can help students overcome those barriers?


Abel: I think that one barrier is transitioning to the college environment and not being able to fully understand how to take advantage of the resources colleges have to offer. When talking to previous LEDA scholars and other first-generation, low-income (FGLI/FLI) students during admit weekend, they emphasized that we should lean on upperclassmen for support and advice in navigating the college process.

When I transitioned to Harvard, I made sure to immediately find an upperclassmen mentor who came from a similar background as me. This mentor told me how to take advantage of office hours, the Bureau Study Counsel (Tutor/Study Guidance), student clubs on campus, etc. All of these things were sort of unsaid rules that many students were already using and taking advantage of, but I wasn’t really aware of how important they were and they have positively impacted my academic performance and social experience at Harvard. College access and success programs can help support students by preparing students to utilize the resources that colleges have to offer.


Carolina: One of the biggest hidden barriers first-generation, low-income college (FGLI/FLI) students face in their higher education journey is navigating these uncharted territories with surmounting pressures and little to no guidance. FGLI students are disproportionately affected by imposter syndrome and are usually juggling overwhelming expectations—expectations from their communities but, mostly, expectations they place on themselves.

This means that, oftentimes, FGLI students carry the weight of so many pressures on their shoulders, as many of us have to constantly obsess (many times, in unhealthy degrees) over our academic performance because we don’t have the luxury to fall short or to fail. Many of us are dedicated to giving back to our parents and to our communities, and this means constantly pushing ourselves. Navigating college and, with it, an environment of privilege, has felt paralyzing at times. Whom to turn to during times of distress, where to go and where to look for resources—these questions are unknown for many of us.

College access and success programs can mitigate that information gap and, even more importantly, they can establish mentorships, which are crucial for minority students. Having a network, people, mentors and other students you can turn to, makes higher education seem a little less intimidating. There’s solidarity and support.


Amber: Nada, are there other barriers that you see students face?


Nada: I would have to agree with Abel and Carolina. Those who do not understand the hidden curriculum particularly struggle with reaching out and seeking resources. It’s important that college access and success programs support students by advocating on their behalf and providing additional advising and socio-emotional support. Other challenges include getting used to new academic rigor, adapting to the different class structures, and assimilating at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) with affluent students

Amber: Nada, can you tell us how COVID-19 has impacted your work as a College Success Counselor? What are some things that you’re doing to support your students moving forward as a result?


Nada: The College Success team at LEDA has been closely monitoring the situation since the beginning of the pandemic. The first thing we did was check in with our Scholars about their whereabouts and assisted them with travel plans/advocacy to stay on campus. Our next focus was on their immediate well-being such as basic needs, internet access, and mental health and wellness. As things rapidly changed, the pandemic placed new and unexpected financial burdens on many in our community as they have had to evacuate their campuses.

LEDA established a COVID-19 emergency fund to provide direct support to our Scholars to ensure that they continue to have access to key resources – food, technology for online learning, stable housing, access to medical care, safe places to study and engage in self-care, and resources for basic necessities.


Amber: Abel and Carolina, can you tell us how campus closures as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you? Has this transition presented new barriers?


Abel: The campus closure was very abrupt and we only had 5 days to pack everything and find our way home. Fortunately, after petitioning twice, Harvard allowed me to temporarily stay on campus for about 3 weeks because I was worried about going back to Seattle and bringing the virus back to my family because some of my family members have pre-existing health conditions.

I normally work 20 hours a week on campus and that was a huge source of income for me that I’ve now lost. I know that a lot of other FLI students who are not on campus and may not necessarily have access to the internet or have a lot of family responsibilities at home, making it difficult or nearly impossible to engage in classes.


Carolina: When Tufts announced its decision to close campus and transition to remote learning, I felt overwhelmed. Similarly, we had 5 days to book a flight, pack everything up, and return home.

I know that many students had already purchased flights in anticipation of spring break, which was scheduled for the next week. I usually remain on campus during short breaks due to financial constraints and I did not have the resources to book a flight. The abrupt campus closure forced FGLI students, like me, to scramble to find assistance. Fortunately, I had support from the FIRST Resource Center on my campus; the Center purchased my ticket back home and provided ongoing emotional support.

I am still feeling the impacts of COVID-19 at home: my parents have lost a lot of their work and income. Another barrier has been the loss of the support system I had established at Tufts: an environment where my friends and I routinely checked in with one another.


Amber: Abel and Carolina, what organizations or programs do you feel have done a good job supporting you through college? Are these programs doing anything in particular to support you through the COVID-19 pandemic?


Abel: LEDA has been doing a tremendous job of supporting me throughout college, especially through career support. From my participation on the LEDA Policy Corps to providing bi-weekly career newsletters of internship opportunities and programs through the LEDA Career Network, LEDA has been able to expose and connect me with various career related opportunities. This has been a vital aspect of my development in college with helping align my academic interests with internships and programs.

During COVID-19, LEDA has continued to keep us updated with new opportunities and also continues to check-in to ensure that we are safe, healthy, and situated.


Carolina: My involvement with the LEDA Policy Corps has been one of the defining features of my college career so far. Beyond the opportunities to learn about, and do work around, higher education policy, I’ve gained a strong support system through LEDA.

LEDA Scholars, Fellows, and Policy Corps members hail from similar backgrounds and many of us are first-generation, low-income students and children of immigrants. As we’ve navigated college with these identities and triumphed despite the obstacles, we’ve also uplifted and empowered each other. Having a strong support system is crucial. The newsletters that I receive from the Career Network have been extremely helpful in providing access to information about jobs and internships which makes the process far less daunting if I were on my own.

LEDA has continuously provided emotional support through COVID-19. Mentors have continued to place students’ needs first and have regularly checked in with us. Especially at this time, that has meant everything to me.


Amber: Nada, how have you adapted your approach in your role as the College Success Counselor during this time?


Nada: Remote advising is something we have done prior to the pandemic so we made sure to continue to meet our Scholars where they are. Text messages and phone calls have been the most successful for us. Colleges and universities have been sending out an abundant amount of emails and overwhelming Scholars is the last thing we would want. We continue to referral Scholars to resources and urging them to advocate at the institutional level for additional funds and assistance. We also created engaging and interactive materials on various LEDA platforms and social media as a means to keep the community connected such as LEDA spirit week and bingo.


Amber: What needs do students have at this time and what are some final recommendations that you might be able to offer to stakeholders in the college access/success world that might address some of those needs?


Abel: I think FLI students have two main needs. The first is financial support. FLI students are facing various financial obstacles. Families are losing employment and sources of income at a time when they might also be facing additional medical and funeral costs due to COVID-19. It’s really important that we push the government, institutions, and organizations to work towards relieving these financial burdens by providing additional financial support.

The second need that I see is more advocacy around ensuring that FLI students are having an equitable educational experience. FLI students are facing various barriers at home that’s impeding their ability to learn.  Institutions should be pushed to implement Pass/Fail grading policies and assist FLI students financially with things like internet access.


Carolina: A lot of what I’ve been seeing in educational reports in the wake of COVID-19 have been attempts to center issues of equity. One of the main issues that has been highlighted is the barrier to internet access and that is extremely important, but why do we stop there?

Remote Learning Guidance reports from states need to address the lack of safety and security in homes, given that many students aren’t returning to safe environments (let alone environments that are conducive to learning). We need to address food (in)security and mental health at home. We need to address the fact that families are losing jobs yet the bills continue to pile up and students are witnessing all of this but feel helpless.

The impacts of COVID-19 are not insulated; the impacts are not solely affecting education and we need to do better at disrupting this notion.


Nada: It is important that stakeholders start off by simply listening to the student and then repeat back what you are hearing before offering resources, support, and making referrals. It is important to be empathetic, demonstrate attention to detail and strong follow-through, and help the student prioritize what they need in a sensible/logical order. Advising students to take it day-by-day is also helpful as well as role modeling healthy behaviors and habits in our own personal and professional lives as helpers to students.


To learn more about the LEDA Policy Project, please click here