Scheyer Scholar Ethan Liebross, a psychology major from Frenchtown, NJ, always dreamed of starting an organization while being a college student but has been waiting for the right idea. As COVID-19 struck the United States this spring, he noticed the strains that the pandemic had on higher education. This strain prompted him to create Professor Owl, an organization that helps high school students with the college and scholarship application process.
Professor Owl is composed of student mentors from different backgrounds and areas of study. These mentors are assigned to clients to give them tailored advice and resources pertaining to college applications, scholarships, and much more. According to Liebross, Professor Owl can even guide students through the athletic recruiting process as they now have a mentor who is a Princeton rower with firsthand experience.
Liebross’ passion for Professor Owl largely stems from his own experience. “As a high school student, I felt overwhelmed, discouraged, and lost throughout the college application process,” he said. “By the time I started thinking about college, my two older siblings had dropped out of high school, so I felt like I had no clear path to follow…Thousands and thousands of high school students—especially from low-income neighborhoods—receive practically no guidance,” he said.
“Many high school students from low-income neighborhoods apply to colleges, but a shocking number fail to ever enroll. Maya Shankar, founder of The White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, and her team found that sending just eight text messages to college-accepted high school graduates led to a nearly 9% increase in college enrollment among low-income students,” Liebross said. “This statistic continues to motivate me daily. If something as simple as text messages can change the course of a student’s life, imagine what a mentor can do.”
For Liebross, Professor Owl is a way to provide the guidance that he acknowledges many high school students are not receiving. “The way I like to think about it [Professor Owl] is that we are like social workers. Through extended mentorship, we connect high school students with the tools, resources, and people they need to succeed,” he said. “Our goal is to be a one-stop-shop. Helping students find the right college, locate scholarships, edit college essays, explore career options, and build time management skills are just some of the many services we provide.”
The concept behind Professor Owl was also partially inspired by Liebross’ experience with F.O.R.M. Consulting, an organization created by recent liberal arts graduates Cory Steinle and Daniel Zahn a couple years ago that shares a similar purpose to Professor Owl. Liebross noted that Steinle and Zahn have been important mentors to him. “Daniel is literally the sole reason I ended up coming to Penn State and enrolling in the honors college. He helped me better understand my college options…I stayed with him on an overnight visit during my senior year of high school, and that’s when I really got to know how special of a person he is. Cory was also one of the first Penn State students I met, even before freshman week started,” he said.
Liebross was briefly a member of F.O.R.M. Consulting, and his involvement is what showed him the potential in peer-to-peer mentoring. Professor Owl diverges from F.O.R.M. Consulting in that F.O.R.M. Consulting mainly works with first-generation students, while Professor Owl is geared toward all high school students regardless of first-generation or socioeconomic status. Liebross says Professor Owl hopes to collaborate with F.O.R.M. Consulting in the future.
Additional instrumental resources, Liebross noted, are Penn State Law’s Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic and Launchbox. He also explained that he worked with a great community of students who helped him turn the idea behind Professor Owl into a reality.
Currently, Professor Owl has around 500 clients that are subscribed to a weekly newswire, which offers free tips for tackling college applications. Working remotely has been advantageous for the organization as it has allowed for a broader reach across the country. Liebross explained that they have clients from New York to California, and the vast majority attend public high schools or charter schools. One day, the organization hopes to have an international reach to guide students from around the world.
One of Liebross’ goals for this academic year is to pair the Professor Owl mentors with at least 100 students but ideally 200 or more. “The same philosophy I use when helping students applies here. The philosophy is that metrics—whether it’s an SAT score or a letter grade—should not limit an individual’s ambitions,” he said.
Achieving long-term sustainability is another important goal for Professor Owl. While Liebross acknowledged that turnover is inevitable, he believes that sustainability will come from transparency, effective communication, and clearly defined values. “What’s going to outlive all of the inevitable changes are our core values as an organization and whether or not we live by them,” he said.
The organization is also brainstorming how to tailor payments according to their clients’ financial needs. The hope behind this is to make these valuable consulting services more accessible for low-income students. Thus far, charging a fee for their services has allowed the Professor Owl team to create a scholarship fund, invest in the organization, pay their mentors, and start to build a long-term business plan. Students can apply for the $250 scholarship on the Professor Owl website. To apply, students must write a 500-750 word essay on the prompted topic.
Liebross attributes much of his success to the fact that the College of the Liberal Arts has encouraged him to take risks, which has afforded him many opportunities. He was able to partake in a unique independent study through the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences, co-author a paper with a psychology professor titled “Group Behavior and the Genesis of School Shootings,” make a TEDx-style talk about the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill through CAS 138T, write a children’s book with a psychology doctoral student, and create a blog series investigating sexual assault on college campuses.
“None of this would have been remotely possible without the endless support of staff and faculty within the College of the Liberal Arts,” Liebross said. “A liberal arts education has allowed my mind to wander, my ideas to grow, and my relationships to strengthen. A liberal arts education has allowed me to take risks in a time when a lot of mentors recommend the safe route.”
In January, Liebross plans to attend St. Catherine’s College at the University of Oxford. However, he still plans to play an active role in leading Professor Owl. This passion project has given him an empathic world perspective. “In our deeply polarized world, many people stereotype others and jump to conclusions,” he said. “Mentoring students from diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country has been a true blessing in disguise. Hearing their stories of triumph and terror has taught me to start listening more and judging less.”
To learn more about Liebross and other Liberal Arts Change Makers, visit la.psu.edu/changemakers.