College Counselor Blues - Fact or Fiction?
Jeffrey C. Makris is the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology's first Director of College Counseling. He served as the Director of College Counseling at the High School of Economics and Finance since 2004 after beginning his school counseling career there in 1999 as a guidance counselor. Jeffrey has been active in the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling, and the College Access Consortium of New York, Inc. In June of 2009 he completed a three -year term on the Executive Board of NYSACAC as Co-Chair of the School - College Relations Committee, and in June of 2011 he was awarded the NYSACAC Distinguished Service Award. In July of 2012 he completed his term as Chair of CACNY, Inc.'s Board of Directors after serving on the Board for four years. For five years Jeffrey taught Counseling the College Bound Student, a graduate level course introducing students to the college counseling profession, for the University of California, Los Angeles through the UCLA Extension program. He earned his BS in Psychology from Binghamton University, S.U.N.Y. and his MSEd in School Counseling from Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.
What a lovely way to end an evening…
It seems as if it almost always ends this way. The college night program looks like a big success; the event is well attended, the audience engaged, and a line of parents come to me afterward with individualized questions. I should be thrilled to see a response like this, particularly at a school serving first-generation, socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and I am…but as is so often the case, someone rains on my parade.
This time it was the parent of one of my top students, a senior, who I had spent considerable time with the prior spring. Mom was very upset that I had helped her daughter register for the May SAT without asking her permission. I calmly explained that her daughter had come to me for help, that taking the exam in May was a good idea, and that her daughter had actually been on the phone with her to help choose a test site during the two hours I sat with her to help her register for the ACT and SAT that day.
The real issue here was about control over her daughter. I explained that I couldn’t possibly check in with her before her daughter makes each and every college planning decision, and that in college, she would no longer even be able to access her daughter’s records with her permission. I know this may violate every known law of biochemistry…but I swear I saw smoke coming out of her ears.
Sympathy for the Devil
I worked hard to prepare for, market, and conduct that event so that parents could be informed. That was a 13 hour day, with many more long days to follow…and in spite of my efforts, I went home knowing someone was very upset with me. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. But I know this is sometimes how it has to be.
Being a good college counselor means being honest, objective, and realistic…and that means we are often the bearers of bad news. In this case, it meant letting a parent know that her daughter would be far more independent than she was ready to accept. In the schools in which I have worked, it means not sugar coating brutal financial aid realities when dealing with families, or making sure a student understands that their dream school is unlikely to admit them and a backup plan is required, or that they may need to begin their college education at a community college.
While many students do appreciate the candid advice, others do not. Instead, I am the villain who ruined their dreams.
“I’ve had just about enough of your Vassar bashing, young lady!” –Homer Simpson
I wonder if things would be different if I worked in another setting, one in which students have ample financial resources and stellar scholastic accomplishments. In some ways, things would be quite different…but in such settings, pressure and high expectations result in college counselors playing a similar role.
There’s an old episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa, the eldest daughter, is concerned after her teachers go on strike. She laments to her father “I’ll never get in to the Ivy League now! At this rate, I probably won’t even get into Vassar…”
Imagine a world where getting admitted to a school like Vassar is considered a disappointment. Sadly, that is the case with some families, and college counselors will at times face the brunt of their disappointment. Bearing the bearer of bad news applies to the one percent, too.
Personally, I will be thrilled if my daughter ends up so fortunate…we have no tolerance for Vassar-bashing in the Makris household.
Little Miss Sunshine and the Zombie Apocalypse
Speaking of Vassar…I had the pleasure of touring that lovely campus as part of a counselor tour a few years ago. My questions to the students we met centered on the experience of the underrepresented student at Vassar…after all, that’s who I have always worked for. The adjustment to life on campuses where one represents a socioeconomic or other minority group can be a challenge.
There was another counselor who seemed irked by my line of questioning. Other than when I spoke, she had kind of a “perma-smile”. She asked questions like “what’s the most wonderful thing you have experienced at Vassar?” A good question…but I just couldn’t help but wonder if she was really paying attention to the larger college admissions landscape. College costs were exploding and financial aid, in most instances, inadequate for too many. The most selective colleges were more selective than ever and an increasing number of students here in NYC were graduating unprepared for the rigors of college.
Maybe she had learned not to let these realities bother her, or had served students who almost always go exactly where they wanted. Or, maybe she was just one of those “glass half full” people of which I am so envious. Bus is late? Hey, at least it’s a nice day! The dead are rising to consume the living? “Well, maybe now we’ll get to see your great aunt Shirley again. Won’t that be nice?”
Dealing with being the Bad Guy
A few weeks ago, I spoke to my principal about a parent who, again, left a parent night feeling less than enamored with me. Thinking out loud, I asked if I should just be a little less honest, and maybe a little more political. “Do not change!” she said. “We need you. Our students need you. This is your job.” She’s right, of course…I just need to accept that.
I reminded myself that students and families may sometimes react poorly to unpleasant news in the short term, but end up being more understanding in the long run. I can’t count how many times I have been surprised by unexpected heart felt “thank you’s” at graduation or friend requests on Facebook years later. I will focus on the one negative experience in a given week rather than the dozens of positive ones where students readily expressed their gratitude in one form or another…even just a smile or fist bump.
And I remind myself of the importance of this work, particularly with my students, who are among the most at-risk in the college going process. Yesterday my day concluded with a parent conference. Their daughter is undocumented, and we were meeting to see if she could truly afford to attend a community college full time next fall without any financial aid. Clearly, it was going to be a challenge. But the entire family was committed to the cause. Her father said to me, at the end, with tears in his eyes “you don’t know what this means to my family. No one has ever gone to college before.” This family used my honest feedback to make sure they were putting a plan in place for their daughter that could really work.
If it helps families like this, I’ll keep playing the villain for years to come.
How do you stay optimistic in what is often a difficult profession? What methods do you employ to help students and families handle disappointment, and remain enthusiastic about their future plans?