Project Achieve advisor helps first-generation students navigate college


Charlotte Reilly

Constance (Connie) Sorensen-Birk’s saving grace on her first day of college was a mailman.

It was her first time on campus, and she didn’t know where any of her classes were. Her parents didn’t go to college. They couldn’t help her.

“The mailman took me to all of my buildings,” Sorensen-Birk said. “I wished I remembered to thank him. I was just so happy to get to class on time.”

For 21 years, Sorensen-Birk has been that “mailman” for first-generation students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). She is an advisor for Project Achieve, a federally funded program that aids first-generation and low-income students.

“I just want to make sure Project Achieve students don’t make the same mistakes I made years ago,” Sorensen-Birk said.

Sorensen-Birk started her undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL) as an early childhood education major. Then, she switched to psychology. Then to sociology. Then studio art. Finally, she landed on journalism.

“I think part of the reason I jumped majors so much is because I had no one to guide me,” Sorensen-Birk said. “I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to decide what I really wanted to do.”

After she graduated from UNL, Sorensen-Birk met her husband and began working in corporate communications. Later, she went to UNO for her master’s degree in English. She began teaching part-time at UNO. Then, she saw an ad in the newspaper for an advising position at Project Achieve.

“I just thought wow this has my name all over it. Now, I’ve been here for 21 years. So…I was 10 when I started,” she joked.

As an advisor, Sorensen-Birk helps students figure out what career path they want to go down, and how to get there.

“Connie is a goal-giver,” Project Achieve Director Shannon Teamer said. “Regardless of what our students need she works with them. She helps students believe in themselves.”

On top of helping students decide their major and get through classes, Sorsensen-Birk provides students with service opportunities.

“Service not only helps those in need, but it feeds you and your soul,” Teamer said.

Volunteering opportunities have bonded Project Achieve students, and they are always willing to serve, Sorensen-Birk said.

“Project Achieve students have a generosity of spirit,” Sorensen-Birk said. “When there is a call to the community, people step up. I don’t see that kind of unselfishness often.”

Sorensen-Birk also holds the Project Achieve “match-making” title.

“I claim the award for linking the most students to a permanent relationship,” Sorensen-Birk said. “I’m the matchmaker. Even when I’m not, when they link up, I claim it.”

But what Sorensen-Birk loves more than advising, volunteering and match-making, is watching students’ success after graduation.

“You can’t help but feel like the world is going to be a good place,” Sorensen-Birk said “There are all these amazing people going out into it.”

Sorensen-Birk keeps in touch with students she advised. Years later, she corresponds through email and meets with them for coffee. She rarely lets them pay. After all, they’re family.

“Project Achieve is a family,” Teamer said. “At the core, lies Connie.”