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

Finding THE STORY

   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.

Reading the room

   Master teachers, when mentoring their newest crop, always zoom in on the power of reading and reacting to the energy levels of the classroom. As a teacher, you have a great deal of control over the students’ energy levels. When it’s low, it’s a good idea to get students to move around and do group activities. When it’s too high, the best action is to dim one light and have students write independently.

   A single day of this reading in action was so memorable that it ingrained this lesson in me forever.

   As students were walking into their math readiness class at Claremont High, my master teacher noticed one of the tall, grungy-haired boys was carrying a ping pong paddle and a ball. She challenged him to a game. If he won, the class would play a game instead of completing the lesson for the day and they would have no homework. If she won, the class would continue like normal.

   Every student was on board, as shown by how they rearranged two desks into a pseudo-table and cleared the chairs in less than a minute. The gap between the desks marked an invisible net line. All of us, save the teacher and student, crowded around to see the action play by play. Both players showed a high level of skill; my master teacher was proving her talent. It was a race to see who would get to five points first. At the end of it, the teacher lost by a single point! The kids rejoiced and for the rest of the period they played a math review game- the classic one where teams of students compete to solve the most problems correctly.

   After the class ended, my master teacher came up to me and said, “If you want to know why I did that, it was because I wanted to bring these students some joy into their lives. Since I know them so personally, I know they’ve been dealing with a lot lately, like multiple deaths and illnesses. I lost on purpose, but I wanted them to feel like they had earned that time. And because we played the math review game, they were still learning for the day.”

   As a teacher, it is important to get a sense of the room, have a bag of on-the-spot teaching strategies, and be able to adjust your day as needed.