At public high schools with hundreds, even thousands of kids, students are often left on their own as they try to navigate the complex higher education system in the United States.
Elizabeth Gaskins was one such student at a public high school in Pinellas County, a region in the Tampa Bay area. After her sophomore year, Gaskins needed a change.
“There were a lot of discipline problems," Gaskins said. "There were fights all the time. In public school, there are so many kids; you don’t even meet all of them. Everyone does their own thing because there are just too many kids to take care of everyone.”
She transferred to Admiral Farragut Academy, a private college prep school for students in pre-K through 12th grade in St. Petersburg, Florida, for her junior and now senior year.
She said she didn't have much school support to map her career and educational goals before she transferred to AFA.
“I never had any college help … until I came here, I didn’t even know it was a thing,” she said.
At the beginning of her junior year as a day student, Gaskins began meeting with Valdis Gailitis, the academy’s director of college placement, to make postsecondary plans.
“He helped me pick out colleges that would be right for me," Gaskins said. "He gave me a lot of scholarship opportunities, which is awesome, and that would have never happened, and that’s really helpful for me. He told me where I should be right now, how to do it … basically (he) guided me through the whole process. It was amazing because I had no idea about any of that."
Gaskins applied, and she was accepted to more than eight postsecondary institutions. She said she received generous scholarships and financial aid packages with Gailitis' guidance.
“With his help, I got so much financial aid," Gaskins said. "He guided me through that. He would call me in and say, 'I came upon this scholarship opportunity, and I thought of you.' He goes after the individual person to help. I would have never been accepted to as many schools as I was, and he helped me find the right match for me.”
Gaskins plans to study criminal psychology and international affairs at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, this fall.
"I felt it was close enough to home where I’m not going to be lost, and they gave me pretty much a full ride, which is nice because I’m paying by myself,” she said.
Gaskins credits Gailitis for helping her discover her course of study.
“He has lists and lists of majors and what you can do with it, and you can go in at any time and look at that," Gaskins said. "That helped me a lot. He helped me do a lot of different research on what I need to be focusing on in order to reach that goal. I don’t think I would have ever been able to do what I did without his help.”
As a new student at AFA, Gaskins dove into leadership roles in athletics and the school's Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program. She said she didn’t experience culture shock as a transfer student.
“I feel it was very accepting," Gaskins said. "You come here, and you’re right in. I stepped up for leadership roles. It’s easy to have a good role — you don’t have to be here all four years."
Being a natural athlete was a bonus for Gaskins. As a lifelong soccer player, she became captain of the girls’ soccer team both years. She also ran track and field and discovered a knack for volleyball, despite having never played.
“When I first got here, I started doing volleyball for the first time ever," she said. "They were very helpful and accepting. The atmosphere was really good."
The academy’s NJROTC program helped Gaskins discover and develop her leadership potential.
"Before I came here, I was involved, but not really, and when I came here...the whole military ideals of stepping up and being a leader in my platoon...has really brought a lot out in me and helped me discover a lot about myself with leadership, and being able to work together with a lot of different people with a lot of different ideals,” she said.
Gaskins is a day student, but the academy also offers boarding programs to provide further college preparatory experience. For example, some colleges find one in three college students do not return for their sophomore year because of homesickness, culture shock or financial problems, according to US News and World Report. AFA boarding students learn self-management and discipline as part of their education.
“I’m friends with a lot of boarders, and I can see they are very independent," Gaskins said. "They have to take care of themselves now."
Gaskins said she appreciates the academy’s diverse and welcoming campus community.
“In college, there are a lot of different ethnicities, and there are a lot here, and it’s very valuable to understand how other cultures work, and that’s something Admiral Farragut has really helped me with,” Gaskins said.
“I love the school in general. It’s like a whole family. Everyone knows each other and helps each other. They’ll just help out, and I really like that. Everyone’s really accepting.”