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A student and her VSAC counselor find more in common than education

Written by
VSAC Staff

November 29, 2023


Tia Stillman and Olivia Scher

VSAC Counselor Tia Stillman and Orwell student Olivia Scher bonded over their goals and drive to help people – as well as being people of color in a small Vermont town.

As a kid, Olivia Scher was one of very few people of color in tiny Orwell, Vermont. One other person was her elementary school counselor at Orwell Village School – whom most kids assumed was her mother. 

“We’d say, ‘No, we’re not related,’” recalls Tia Stillman with a laugh. “We’re just the only Black people in town.” 

Parallel small-town experiences meant “blending in”

As young girls, both Olivia and Tia, who grew up in Glens Falls, New York, had similar experiences. Both stood out as the only non-white people in small towns, and both, having lighter complexions, often tried their best to “blend in.”

“I would try to hide the fact that I was a person of color. I’d say, ‘I’m just tan,’” says Olivia, who was raised in the small town of 1,200 people by her paternal grandparents, who are white. “Although I had friends and played sports, I was different, and people weren’t always nice about it.”

Both women now recall the time they took every morning to straighten their hair before leaving the house – one of many things the two bonded over, both at Orwell Village School and when they later reconnected at Fair Haven Union High School, when Tia had moved to a new job as an Outreach Counselor for VSAC’s GEAR UP program, which offers application support and financial counseling to young people looking to apply to college or job training programs. 

“Living in a very small, rural town and seeing me as another person of color, I think she connected with me very quickly and with ease,” says Tia. 

For Olivia, Tia was also the one person in town who had a parallel experience.   

“There was a long time where I would talk to Tia about things because she was the only person who could understand. There were things my grandma could never prepare me for because she hadn’t experienced it. And my mom, who came here from Ethiopia at age 12, was an immigrant, so she was still learning about American culture. So I would talk to Tia about things sometimes. She knew what I was going through,” says Olivia.

Gearing up for more than graduation

When Olivia enrolled in the GEAR UP program as a high school junior, Tia immediately understood that for Olivia, that next step meant so much more than graduation readiness. It was also an opportunity to connect with her identity. 

“When Olivia joined GEAR UP, she was eager to pursue a college education, and I noticed she had become more confident in herself. She really knew what she wanted. She researched different colleges, but her heart was set on attending college in Massachusetts. She was so excited to begin this new adventure in an area that was geographically close to her father and significantly more diverse,” Tia recalls. 

Olivia says she’d long had her sights set on going to college, partly due to her reconnection with her parents during her early adolescence. 

“My parents were really young when I was born, and they weren’t in the right mindset to raise kids when they were still growing up themselves,” she says. She now has a good relationship with all of her family members – her mom, who lives in Boston and works as a nurse, and her dad, who lives in Dracut, Massachusetts, where he runs a nonprofit coaching and tutoring organization. She’s also grateful to her grandparents, who Tia says were always very involved, and who Olivia says “gave up their retirement for me. I’m so thankful for their support over the years.” 

Olivia says her dad, who got his degree in communications, also encouraged her to go to college. And her mom, who initially didn’t finish high school, but then went back and earned her GED, as well as training as a nurse, served as a strong example for her. “I’m really proud of my mom. Seeing how much she struggled without finishing her education – that made college a must for me,” says Olivia. 

Growing up, Olivia spent summers with her dad, who lives right down the road from Merrimack College. “He coaches football nearby, and I went to lots of events with him on the Merrimack campus. I think I always knew I would end up coming to Merrimack.”

Her grandparents drove her down to Andover for an official campus visit in late 2019, at the beginning of her senior year in high school. She was sold, a fact that was immediately obvious to everyone around her. Olivia recalls, “Driving home, my grandma was like, ‘that’s your school, isn’t it?’”

Olivia says Tia was very helpful during the application process. “Merrimack is expensive, and with Tia’s help, I applied for every scholarship and grant under the sun. Now, I pay almost nothing to be here,” adding that she paid off her student loans her sophomore year by working full-time while going to school. “VSAC has been so helpful, and I can’t thank them enough.” 

Says Tia: “I felt so proud of Olivia for deciding to pursue her dreams in an environment where she felt comfortable and knew she would be successful. That’s part of the growing-up process for every young person – figuring out who you are, who you want to be, what’s important to you and who you want to surround yourself with – but there’s an added layer when you’re a person of color who’s grown up in the minority.”

“Find out who you are away from what you know” 

Olivia notes that, for her, going to college felt like starting over. Instead of denying her identity and trying to blend in, she says, “I wanted to find out who I was and who I wanted to be.”

Now a senior at Merrimack, Olivia is majoring in psychology, with minors in political science and chemistry. After she graduates in May, she plans to keep working at her current job, where she supports children with autism. Olivia has been with the organization for a year and a half, and she loves it. 

“I really enjoy the relationships I form with the children,” most of whom range in age from 5 to 7. “Especially when you’re going into someone’s home, you become almost a part of their family. It makes me feel really good that these kids see me as a ‘safe’ person,” Olivia says.

Eventually, she’d like to go back to school to earn her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health. But for the immediate future, she’d like to move from the suburbs into Boston and enjoy being 21 years old in the city, without having to juggle work and school. “It’ll be nice to focus on just one of those things,” she says. 

Olivia advises high school students a few years behind her, whatever their identity or circumstances, to get out of their hometown. 

“I would say to anyone: You have to find out who you are away from what you know. College is the time to try new things and figure out what you like and don’t like. Then, bring that back to where you’re from if you want to. But learn who you are, and once you do, always stand your ground.”

VSAC’s GEAR UP program provides additional supports to first-generation students at the middle and high school level to help them aspire to, and enroll in, higher education. For more information from VSAC on college and career planning and help with financial aid, see our events and resources. You can also email us or give us a call at 800-642-3177.