Yuleni Curiel
Yuleni Curiel

Eighteen-year-old Yuleni Curiel will be the first to tell you a lot goes into preparing for college. During her senior year at Ottumwa High School, her days were filled with college admission applications, various deadlines, scholarship and financial aid paperwork. So how did she get through it all to successfully start her first year at Indian Hills Community College? She had a not-so-secret weapon: Juanita Zavala, her college and career transition counselor.

Juanita Zavala
Juanita Zavala

Zavala is one of two college and career transition counselors, commonly known as CCTCs, at Indian Hills who provide services to the seniors at Ottumwa High School. She works with students on anything related to postsecondary preparation and career readiness, such as college applications, individual career and academic plans, career assessments, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other needed supports.

"I'm here to support our students with anything college- and career-related, which also includes apprenticeships, trades and the military," she said. "Many are first-generation students. We want them to know how affordable college is and what’s available, so it’s helpful to meet with them individually to work on their goals.”

Although Curiel has known Zavala since middle school, the two officially started meeting during her senior year to discuss college plans and resources. Curiel notes that Zavala’s individualized attention to her goals and future plans was a benefit in preparing for college.

“She kept me on track,” Curiel said. “She was always checking in on my grades and applications for college. I felt like I could tell her anything I needed help with, whether it was my classes, career goals or my personal life.”

Part of Zavala’s work with Curiel included completing the FAFSA, which helped identify what scholarships and assistance Curiel was eligible for during her first year at college. It proved to be a fruitful experience, to say the least.

“I ended up with around $18,000 in scholarships for college,” Curiel said.

Assisting with the FAFSA paperwork is one of the priorities for CCTCs. Students who complete the FAFSA not only receive funding assistance for college, they are also more likely to follow through with enrollment. Notably, Ottumwa High School has recently seen an uptick in FAFSA completion rates, in part to Zavala’s work as the CCTC.

“Ottumwa has a 12 percent increase in FAFSA completion,” said Erica Woods-Schmitz, CCTC consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. “That is tremendous growth and shows that Iowa school districts benefit from offering CCTC services to students.”

Indian Hills College Fair
As CCTC, Zavala helped organize college fairs for students.

Currently, over 50 CCTCs are providing services to students in nearly 100 Iowa high schools. All CCTCs are housed within Iowa’s 15 community colleges and through partnerships with school districts, meet with students in grades 11-12 on college and career readiness. Additionally, CCTCs are unique as they also work with first-year college students transitioning out of high school. The CCTC program is forecasted to continue its growth in the 2024-25 school year.

"We would like to see the CCTC initiative expand as an opportunity for any interested Iowa school district," Woods-Schmitz said. "This is an excellent opportunity to continue to support students to be ready for whatever postsecondary path they plan to pursue."

The role of each CCTC depends on the school district’s needs and collaboration with other school staff, such as teachers, school counselors and work-based learning coordinators. At Ottumwa High School, having a CCTC dedicated specifically to postsecondary preparation is seen as advantageous for not only the students but also the staff.

“The ratio between students and school counselors is high,” Zavala said. “They often don’t have time to focus solely on postsecondary issues. Through collaboration with counselors, teachers and other staff, we communicate and refer students to one another based on their needs.

“I can work specifically on college and career readiness issues, like scholarships, applications and student advocacy, which is helpful for everyone.”

In addition to her meetings with students, Zavala’s work as the CCTC also includes providing outreach and informational events. Throughout the year, she holds college fairs, FAFSA nights and informational lunch and learn sessions. This year, Zavala also plans to collaborate with the Iowa Association of College Admission Counseling for a new college fair and career fair.

“I want to help students with whatever pathway they choose,” Zavala said. “Some students may not know what that is yet, and that’s ok. We want to show them their options and how to get there.”

Curiel’s own college and career pathway is centered around a future dental career. She is enjoying her first few weeks at Indian Hills and is taking courses heavily focused on science. She hopes to become a dental assistant and eventually a dental hygienist and knows that her assistance from Zavala helped set her up for this moment.

“She definitely helped me set my goals and reach them,” Curiel said. “She is a good counselor.”

For more information on the CCTC initiative, view the CCTC information sheet and toolkit or contact Erica Woods-Schmitz at erica.woods-schmitz@iowa.gov.