Agents of the American Dream?
Sandy Jimenez has been a College Access Counselor at the Options Center at Goddard Riverside Community Center since 2000. In 2006, she helped design the first iteration of the Options Institute’s Foundation Course for College Access and Success Counselors. She has worked individually with over 500 students and trained thousands of professionals. Most recently, Sandy has joined NYC College Line as a Senior Adviser, where you can reach her through the Ask an Adviser feature.
It takes a village
Picture this: an average student who wants to go to college. Her GPA is below 80 and her SAT scores below 1000. She’d like to be an environmental scientist and has some concrete ideas of how she might save the world. Based on my experience and ideas of where students should apply, I might recommend a particular set of schools.
Add mom to the picture and, while I might eventually recommend the same schools, I lose a bit of my power. No offense—but in some ways parents are my Kryptonite when it comes to college counseling. One of the tenets of youth development is “it takes a village.” It recognizes that there are a number of influences that play a role in a young person’s development. It also tells us that, in order to provide good college counseling, we must give a nod to the family and to parents. They must be part of the process.
What a mom wants
Back to the story: so we’ve got this average girl with a mom who is my kryptonite… After meeting her and getting her profile, I start talking about SUNY colleges of technology, community colleges, CUNY schools, a few four years schools for good measure.
Once we’re done with our part of the appointment, I bring mom in. She gives me a bit of her own story. She’d come to this country from Latin America for a better life. She had attended a community college and then a four year school. She’d gotten a ton of financial aid. When I mentioned some of the schools we’d been talking about, she nixed the whole thing with, “I want better for my daughter.”
Listen, I am a parent. I get it. I want a good life for my kids too. I am willing to sacrifice a number of things now so they can possibly have a better life than me. This woman had done so much more than I plan to do. She moved to another country. She’s taken on a ton of debt in order to buy a house for her kids. I could tell she was a great mom.
The Neverending Story
The conversation that followed was a long one and continues several months later. We looked at the grades daughter’s dream school required. Of course, we’d support her application there but she should balance it out with some safety and target schools. I told her we’d find support programs that would help her daughter succeed at the community college level. It would be a great way to save money. Besides, there were many wonderful programs. We could be very concrete about our plan to transfer to Syracuse.
We would communicate about the right classes to take.
Later, when the daughter didn’t get into Syracuse, the conversation turned to how to cover a nearly $20,000 gap at the new dream school. The whole time it felt like my student and I might have been on the same page but mom’s passion was in a completely different, yet understandable, book. She was turned down for a parent loan and she seems to be looking at a private loan to cover the rest. These seemingly blind sacrifices are a trend for my students' parents. But is it worth it?
Moms and dads are my kryptonite. If a student and I were not on the same page, I’d find a way to get on the same page. Of course, I’d do it in a totally youth centered way. We’d do research together and we’d talk to other students and we’d come to realizations together about how I was right from the beginning. Maybe it’s because parents have so much more invested. Students are still trying to figure out where they want to invest their efforts. That’s where their big decisions lie.
The American Dream, A Universal Story
Last week, in our foundation course, we had our participants do mock counseling of difficult student cases in order to practice different counseling tools. Half of the scenarios involved parents and students. Our participants sat in groups of four. One was an observer, the other a counselor. The last two pretended to be the student and the parent. It was hilarious! The counselors in our course let off some of their pent up steam by pretending to be parents who wanted to decimate their child’s dancing dreams because it wasn’t practical, or parents who were set on having their kids apply only to ivy league colleges and nothing else… We’ve all heard these stories. Heck, we might be these parents ourselves. It was all funny because it was true.
The resulting mock counseling sessions were all over the map. Some counselors got all jumbled up because they couldn’t figure out how to deal with these strong parents. It was a lot of “I hear where you are coming from” or “How do feel about that?” My line is “As a parent, I hear you.” I told the counselors I spoke with that they are the experts when it comes to college counseling and, while we must respect the student and the parent’s experiences and opinions there are times where we must also be the information givers. It can be difficult, though.
So I write you from across an ocean, in Puerto Rico. Today, I am training counselors here. The conversation yesterday was about making good college matches. It turns out that parents are a huge factor here. Culturally, parents play an even larger part in decisions and youth development suddenly becomes something else. Parents here, it seems, make huge demands from counselors and sometimes even fill out applications for their children. Counselors want to know how to move them away from college rankings and big name schools. Sound familiar?
What can we do?
So how do we make it work? In the training room, I've heard some great answers! Some counselors do parent orientations at the beginning of senior year to tell parents what to expect. Some even used other parents as presenters. These parents talk about their family's experience with college applications. Some counselors include parent coordinators on their access team. They're at the table and then can bring the message back to other parents. Others are working with parents starting in 9th grade-- by 12th grade they've come around.
How do you ensure positive working relationships with parents?