Do you really make an impact?

After already living out most of my college career, it was time for my high school best friend to pick the college of her dreams. She had narrowed it down to two choices. Since I lived in the dorms, I didn’t get to visit her as often as I used to. But now it was Spring Break and I was back in my home town of Huntington Park.

By the time I reached her house it was nearing sunset; we sat in front of her front steps. I knew I didn’t know enough anymore to speak about her personal life, so our conversation steered towards the college decision process. She had been excited about both UCLA and UC Berkeley, and I had gifted her a Bruins banner I knew she would adore.

As an academically accomplished woman, she had many mentors in her life. When scholarship companies were deciding who would be the best community ROI (return on investment), they had decided Katia* was the best bet. I may have been the top mentor in her life at one point, but that time had long passed. Everyone wanted to say they helped her. Because there was no doubt she was going to be successful in life, everyone wanted to at least say they played a part in that.

Her older brother had already been successful as captain of the Academic Decathlon, but she quickly surpassed him in high school achievements. These two big acceptances were the inevitable result of her great work ethic and her counselors helping her fill out her applications. I did offer my help on them, but by the time I saw them they were already polished enough to where I didn’t have to do anything.

When she received her acceptance letter to UCLA, one of her mentors, a UCLA grad herself, was ecstatic. She immediately offered to connect her with anyone in case she had any questions.

By the time I visited her, what would be left? She had already visited both campuses and probably had enough information to decide. My head couldn’t stop sending me this nagging signal that I had to do something to be useful. That’s who I am; I love being helpful. I figured there was still something I could contribute to her decision. I still wanted Karen to be a part of my life. Even if we never became as close as we were in high school, I wanted to know how she was doing and be able to connect to her.

Our connection was already getting thinner and thinner. Although I loved politics (and I still do), she wasn’t interested in connecting it to other disciplines like science. I tried to explain why it mattered but in the end she bluntly stated, “I just don’t care enough about science.” I stopped pushing the point and moved on to talk about more practical political stuff like voter registration drives.

That was it. That was the key. If I can stand out among the sea of opinionated people, it would be to talk about politics. I already knew she wanted to be a political science major and I knew that not all political science departments were created equal. UCLA has a huge activist political scene and their politics are more radical than other colleges. UC Berkeley still has activism, but it is also near Sacramento, so it is more accessible to Capitol internships and such. (Note: If you are reading this and thinking What a gross oversimplification! , keep in mind I didn’t attend any of these colleges and I was speaking about this as a 19-year-old without the same knowledge I have today.)

Therefore, I told her that if she wanted to do community organizing, UCLA would be a great choice and that I knew UCLA graduates who got into activism. If she wanted to try a more bureaucratic approach, UC Berkeley might have more connections to make it happen for her.

Then came the kicker. What I knew needed to be said because it could change the type of person she became altogether. My college roommate said it first, and I have to admit its held true over time. She’s said, “Everyone that I know that has graduated from UCLA has turned into a communist.” (Again, hello conservative UCLA students. I’m sure you exist… but I haven’t met you. Stereotypes exist for a reason.) And if there’s one thing Katia hated, it was communists. She was always the kind of patriotic woman who would cheer on the United States even if the rest of the city rooted for Mexico. The kind of person communists make fun of in their memes. The person who starts their sentences with, “Even though communism sounds great in practice…”. You know how that ends.  I recited my roommate’s observation verbatim. Her expression was doubtful at first but then she admitted she’s seen that trend too.

I can’t say she had an epiphany, because that would be overstating my influence. When I left her house that day she was still undecided.

By this point, she was ready to go to a college based on a coin flip. Tails was UC Berkeley and Heads was UCLA. Whatever it landed, she would go to it. She juggled the coin in her hand, still not 100% sure whether she should give it all that power. But soon enough, she flipped the coin. It landed heads. Instantly, she yelled out: “Nooooo!!”. That’s when she knew where she needed to go.

*Not her real name


   Inside each student is a story. Sometimes it has already been scribbled out in paper, with phrases rambling so long they ask the reader to gasp for air. The words, swollen with raw emotions, strike the reader like a paper cut. Other times the story has gone missing. There are no words on the paper. All I see is a student insisting they have nothing to say. They say there is no point in doing a perimeter search and that even if I had a way to dissect their body, all I would say afterwards is, “That’s so average…” But what separates me from other college counselors, and what makes me the ideal candidate over others, is that I’ve always found THE story.

   On a less dramatic note, I’ve worked with countless students who show me their drafts that are “almost done”. They’ve received an 8/10 from their English teacher and their college readiness coordinator told them all it needed was more impactful words. But when I come along, I am not afraid to question the fundamental premise behind their writing. When a student writes that they want to improve the water quality in India, I show up with the “so-what” and the devil’s’ advocate arguments. My strong knowledge in a variety of subjects and innate curiosity for learning more allows me to have something useful to say no matter what the student wrote about. My comments might cause some despair and existentialist thoughts but they are all for a great cause. I believe in the classical idea that college applications can serve as a time for self-discovery. I know how to walk that fine line between playing the college admissions game -getting students to “package themselves for consumption” as William Deresiewicz said in Excellent Sheep – and mediating an application process that is personally useful for them.

   Like John Hammond of Jurassic Park, I relish in questioning common narratives, changing paradigms and breathing life in places where it was once thought impossible. I love college counseling and would want to keep doing it formally or informally for the rest of my life.

Review of Colleges that Change Lives

Bottom Line: Colleges that Change Lives is a refreshing and re-invigorating look at the college guide genre. It suffers from a lack of California options and frank discussions on financial aid.

Most books in the college guide genre have money sign logos indicating that a school is a “great value”, fun-fact information boxes and admissions stats right below each entry’s name. Colleges that Change Lives by Lauren Pope eschews all that in favor of a novel approach. Purposefully, this book asks its readers to contemplate each college individually through an elegantly written narrative. Each college is described through its setting and the words of its teachers and students. No attention is put on its score in the national ranking and admission statistics are mentioned only to give hope to those who are interested in applying.

Colleges that change lives has renewed my belief in a liberal arts education. In these past three years since graduating, it has become easy to get caught up in the hype over technical education, “fast-track” degree options and MOOCs (Massively Online Open Courses). News reports highlight college students with a high amount of debt and high level of underemployment. Many of the schools in this book have a required 1st year curriculum. They laugh at that idea of underclass courses as “GEs you get out of the way”. In these schools, first year courses are a chance to become intellectually stimulated, time to spend pondering the biggest questions humankind has ever faced.

I am fortunate to have attended a college with a comparable experience to that in the book. I took the CORE interdisciplinary critical thinking course sequence, built amazing relationships with my professors and lived in a dorm ranked number 1 in the nation by the Princeton Review.

This book reminds me to always introduce liberal arts colleges as an option, particularly in my community of Huntington Park, where they might not be as well known. Students need to focus on finding their fit, which might be closer to the colleges listed in the book instead of the “big name” schools of USC and UCLA.

My criticism of this book comes in the fact that “only” one college is from California. To me I feel it makes it seemed biased and it reduces its usefulness in my everyday work. For many reasons, there are always students here who are going to want to stay locally and who need  the money a Cal Grant can give them.

When doing my junior action plan, this book has been absolutely instrumental when figuring out how to best serve Jesse Gomez. This is a student with a 2~ GPA but that seemed willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. He showed his potential by having a 20 on the ACT, the 3rd highest score in  his class. He wasn’t on the initial list of students teachers nominated for the M3 math competition. However, during the parent meeting I presented in, his mom came up to me afterwards and asked about opportunities for her son. She said, “He loves math”. I informed her of the upcoming math competition and I promised that  I would inform him about it. He eagerly joined the math team and worked hard preparing for the big day. While I was coaching the team, it was clear to me that he was one of the most talented members.

The book labels these kinds of students as late-bloomers. It offers hope for them to get admitted into college. Every college in the book, except for Reed College, accepts more than 50% of their applicants. This in itself changed my preconceived notions about the correlation between college admissions and college quality. I used to think that the more selective a college is, the more worth it is to attend.

Additionally, I wish the information provided included more of the financial aid available to students. Most of my students are low-income and so I would like the book to have addressed how generous their financial aid packages are when evaluating the quality of the school. If the schools don’t have as much money, it would have been good to learn that upfront so that students with a higher need could easily move on.

All in all, this is a book I see myself photocopying excerpts of on a regular basis, once I do more research on the featured colleges’ financial aid. It also inspired me to find colleges that fit this sort of “changes lives” label that stay within California.

High school counseling and individualized plans are key to student success

Note: This is my entry to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Wonkathon contest.

   Exactly two years ago, March 2016, I was in the trenches as a high school special education teacher. I would leap from classroom to classroom, borrowing them from the general education teachers during their prep time. I was trying to balance my job as an expert in mathematics, life science and physical science with learning the ropes of classroom management and IEP (Individualized Education Plan) creation and implementation. I was exhausted and determined, but in the end, I didn’t have what it takes. One day, my graduate school professors realized I was more of a one-track mind, better at working one on one than a classroom full of kids. The next day, I left the trenches for good, leaving myself exposed but confident in using my experiences to shape our nation’s education policies.

   If schools are to raise outcomes for every student, they need to provide more 1-1 counseling interactions that leave them with a set of actionable goals. Students should graduate high school based on them receiving a base-level liberal arts education and achieving a self-created action plan, akin to the IEPs we provide students in special education. Requiring these personal development plans would mean that schools are responsible for providing the resources for everyone’s success. I know all too well that as kind-hearted as we are in the education field, often the only thing that compels a school to offer more resources to a student is the menacing legal document of the IEP that’s ready to drop a gavel of them.

   Graduation scandals where half the students are absent for more than three months cannot happen in places where counselors are actively building relationships with their students. In my work as a college counselor at a smaller secondary school, I am fortunate to have the chance to build detailed and personalized plans that address personal ambitions and tie them to specific academic and career interests. For instance, when a student is interested in journalism, their plan might include taking a creative writing course, publishing on Medium, dream journaling and submitting an entry to the Signet Classics Student Scholarship Essay Contest. Entrepreneurially minded students always pull my mind in different directions. Their plan can include actions as varied as starting a store on Etsy, researching agricultural trends, taking AP Economics, learning computer programming or investing in cryptocurrencies.

   For high school to be as useful and enriching as possible, guidance counseling needs to be put at the forefront of the graduation requirements debate. Research by Sink and Strough and Gysbers and Sun has found a correlation between strong college counseling and academic performance.

   According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is around 480:1, well above the recommended ratio of 250 to 1. The hesitation to add more counselors comes from their misguided lumping with “administrative costs” and the common trope of school counselors being random people who just stumbled onto the job. In the episode Morty’s Mind Blowers from the show Rick and Morty, Morty says, “I’m sure he’s qualified to be a guidance counselor. I mean, who isn’t?”. And to be fair, I’m probably not helping the cause by going into the profession right after my gig as a teacher.

   In reality, counselors are experts and lower student-to-counselor ratio is key to making sure students feel they have a place within their school. An expertly trained person can come up with a plan for anyone. Schools with an action plan requirement will be doing their part to make sure that the “average student” is getting serviced, when they are often overlooked in favor of highly talented and high behavioral kids.

   In the case of my community, the counselors are a major driver for students to choose the smaller charter school I work at. Uziel Gomez ’19 said, “The teachers here give you more attention. They prepare you and help you meet your goal. If I have to say the people that affected me the most, it would be [the counselors] Mrs. Chavez and Ms. Brown. I like that I can really talk to them. They would encourage me to go far away for college and to not let the money stop me from going. Now I’m not scared to go to an out-of-state college.”

   On a policy level, the way the plans would work is that each year, students will be required to create a set of goals (at least one each) in the realms of mental health, wellness, education, and career. These realms are pulled from the American Counseling Association (ACA) governing council’s official definition of counseling. The plans created from 9th to 11th grade would be non-binding, although they would be reviewed together with their high school counselor. That way a student can put in their plan that they want to sign up for the talent show and take first place at the Battle of the Bands and not be afraid to fail. High school graduation would be contingent on passing the liberal arts curriculum and meeting the goals outlined in the 12th grade action plan.

   To ensure transparency and accountability, every senior’s plan would be uploaded onto the high school’s website with the names blacked out. Community members, taxpayers, and outside agencies would be able to track what students are doing and what directions they tend to head towards. Every graduating senior would also create a resume that’s published publicly in a lookbook in PDF format on the schools’ website.

   It’s my hope that as this idea continues to get scrutinized that policymakers realize how realistic and helpful it is. Rather than fearing a nightmare scenario where a girl puts in her plan that she wants to literally be Cinderella, fails, and then sues the district for a million dollars, I would like to have faith in the power of expertise. After a healthy dialogue, I expect there to be guidelines as to what constitutes a goal that is binding for graduation and legal purposes.

   And if there was anyone hand wringing when reading this piece, I would like to bring us back to why this matters. In this digital age, all too often “personalized learning” has come to mean a software program with an intelligent algorithm. We can’t forget the original personalized learning: one-on-one, human to human interactions. High school counseling, done by a person, is still important. I have seen with my eyes the power of counseling and creating action plans. It’s time that every high school student in America sees it too.