If you haven’t already seen it, much of what I was thinking about in Social Justice College Counseling Part 2: The Other 2% is discussed really well in “Dear White People.” Check it out!
And with this last letter from Fullerton, students have received acceptances to all of the CSUs! So proud of these young people and all their hard work.
I often times joke that over-thinking is my super power. So I have been using my super power to think about who needs a college counselor and why and putting these thoughts in a few manuals: for students; parents and families; K-12 school districts; and colleges & universities. I’ve also been playing with the idea of creating something for large companies. As you know, we all can easily say there is an issue with the outcomes and maybe I’ll say, productivity, in public education. Yet we are quick to point the finger to someone else: Universities say it’s the fault of K-12 for not preparing students; K-12 schools say it would probably be easier to just prepare students for work because college is expecting too much; Large companies say they have to go abroad because students are not prepared well enough in the United States; and families are wondering what is happening.
But imagine something different.
One of the great things about living in the Bay Area is that we are surrounded by alternative thinkers in various fields. It’s way outside of my wheel house but I really enjoy reading anything I can get my hands on as it relates to design thinking. Designers take a problem and use the tools available to solve the problem right then and there. Sometimes they agree on what the problem is before getting to work; sometimes they let people know that the problem is something way different than they thought. I remember reading something from Steve Jobs where he said we would have been perfectly content with the portable CD player, having to carry all those CDs, skipping all the time, and being too large to fit in your pocket. We probably thought, well at least it is better than a cassette player. Or worse, I’ll just wait for someone else to think of something better while the technology to create smaller phones, digital television, and whatever else was happening all around us. I absolutely love music. When I was in the Peace Corps and we had discussions about essential items to bring in case we had to evacuate the country, I actually went back to my luggage, emptied out my medical kit and filled it with CDs, rationalizing that enough people would have their medical kits and we would need Rage Against the Machine if faced with the apocalypse. Imagine if I had an iPod!? I could have survived the revolution and gangrene!
Now imagine that same sort of thinking being applied to schools and schooling. In education, we are taught to go with one method for as many students as possible for as long as possible. In a conversation with a colleague, I might say, “The unit on Haiti is pretty sparse.” And get a response such as, “Well, we’re getting new textbooks in about five years so maybe we update the curriculum then.” To which I respond, “Who cares about a textbook when it takes as long as it takes me to type ‘Haiti’ in a search engine to pull up thousands of articles? We can do that now, without waiting for textbooks.”
With regards to college, most teachers, families, workplaces, and students will say they know nothing about college. This is always shocking to me because in my near twenty years in education, I’ve had colleagues with degrees from Berkeley, Princeton, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Georgetown, Harvard, Cornell, and everywhere in between. If their experience is anything like mine, I know they are getting calls and letters from alumni associations regularly so even if they don’t know what it’s like there today, universities absolutely love to share swag and whatever else to help them find out.
With workplaces, is it really cheaper for Intel, Google, or Microsoft, to go halfway around the world to recruit and retain employees rather than creating programming in the high school down the street? Hard to believe.
Point is: design thinking looks at problems as all having viable solutions in the immediate future.
And that’s where I come in. 😉
There are a lot of college counselors out there and we all certainly have various strategies. One thing I’ve noticed about everyone else is that the strategy is applied to that one person, in that one scenario. But we know the lack of matriculation is systemic and there are quite a few systems in play here.
As an example, a friend of mine talked about how independent middle schools are pushing to have students take Geometry in grade 8 because studies are showing that most students in universities have taken Geometry by grade 9, at the latest. If I am hired by the family of a middle school student and as I am reviewing her transcript I see that she is ready to take Geometry in grade 9 and I absolutely don’t want her to fail, I may recommend a number of tutoring programs so that she does well in the course. But what if her school says she can not take Geometry then regardless of her readiness, most likely because it is full and they cannot afford to hire another teacher qualified to teach Geometry? I could recommend that student take Geometry in a community college, be super intimidated and lose the age-appropriate support she would receive at her school. Or I can work with the school myself, having worked in multiple public and private institutions, to think creatively about how to offer this young person Geometry. Sometimes this is how I coach families to advocate for themselves and ask the right questions to the right people. On rare occasions, I can make that contact myself especially if I happen to know someone who works there. In this situation, it is about asking the school to think differently about what drives curricula and course offerings: need or budget or a different combination of both?
Most people will then say they are not concerned about what happens with other students, just their own. And this is where I came up with the tagline I’ve been using thus far–creating a better student, not just a better applicant. In the above example, learning to advocate for oneself, understanding school structure to know who to talk to about various needs, is a major skill that should be applied throughout one’s life. A good college counselor, like any counselor, doesn’t want you to keep coming back with the same questions and problems. The next year when the English she needs is full, she should know what to do. When she is in college and needs a course to graduate, again, she knows what to do. And when she is in her workplace and needs something to advance to the next level, she knows what to do. It’s about knowing how and why the problem exists in order to appropriately address it.
So you need a college counselor and you is a lot of you.
I am able to take clients now for the remainder of this school year and the next. Usually 11th graders get wise around April or May and by then my hands start to be tied and I’m full so my preference is to start working with 11th graders in January of their Junior year. But I work with 7th graders all the way through college students and the institutions that house them all.
I offer scholarships and tiered pricing but there are limits to both options the later one inquiries.
If you would like to know more, please contact me and take a look at some of the services I offer here.
A few things happened this week that reminded me of some of the reasons why I may call what I do–attempting to close the achievement gap by interrupting the pipeline to college at multiple access points–my passion.
1) Muhammed Ali was taken to the hospital for pneumonia. Of all the great quotables that he has provided the world, one of my favorites is “I hated every minute of training, but I said, don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” He also said “I can’t get mad at what boxing did to me because all that it did for me.”
2) Two NYPD officers were shot, point blank in the head, while sitting in their police cruisers. And a good number of people, folks that we look to as authority figures, blamed protestors and supporters of #blacklivesmatter campaign for it. The shooter was a mentally-ill Black man: no mention of what sort of treatment he may have received for his illness; nothing about how he was able to attain a gun; no mention of whether he was even a part of the organized protests. He is Black, so there you go.
3) Azealia Banks broke my heart on Hot 97 when she talked about Iggy Azalea and cultural appropriation especially in light of Mike Brown and Eric Garner and Iggy Azalea’s response. I applauded when I read Q-Tip’s response. Where I get confused is in the Robin Thicke/Miley Cyrus/Iggy Azalea/Kim Kardashian world where cultural appropriation is just sort of okay, why Azalea would also think it okay to chime in on the greatest movements for Black people since the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1960s? As Q-Tip said, we are okay to some degree if you are a white hip hop artist, but know what you are doing, know that you are doing more than rhyming over a beat, know that you are participating in a political movement.
4) Obama basically said our strategy with Cuba is hella wack, let’s do something else. I heard some Florida Cubans comment (as a Nicaraguan with most of my family in Florida that statement alone might cause some issues with fam), but one of the more interesting moments was in “Meet the Press” this week when Chuck Todd asked Sen. Marco Rubio essentially what has the current strategy done, and Sen. Rubio said something along the lines of making them a democratic country and Todd’s response was similar to mine–when did that happen, player?
So how in the world did I come combine all of these events into a cohesive thought other than to say stay up on current events?
I try to intentionally work with families who would not typically attend college. It’s a bit daunting because as human nature dictates, when we don’t do something, or don’t know something, we are quick to either blame someone else and deflect. So I hear a lot of excuses about college being for someone else or who actually needs that anyway. I believe there are a few givens that may seem obvious but are worth explaining here:
1) Education is a long term commitment that can be painful but has major outcomes for everyone around you and everyone descending from you. I was shocked to encounter this statement from a client: We can’t submit her college applications this week because she has a big Physics test. When I countered with all the data I could muster about how the odds are dramatically higher the earlier one submits applications, I was told they wouldn’t be interested in “that type of school.” While that stuck with me, I was more struck by the idea that one exam could outweigh the decision that impacts a family for generations. Literally, generations. I didn’t know what to do with the decision that would lead to one’s family being “alright” rather than having some guarantees at being more than okay for your kids, and their kids, and so forth.
I also think about something I read in a psychology course in college. When you ask someone about the best time of their life, or the most important thing they ever did, or any superlative, pay attention to the time period they go to; that’s the era of their life where they think they did their best. When you talk to people who seem especially reminiscent about high school, it’s because they feel like high school was the best they’ve ever done. I’ve challenged people on that a few times: you have a one-year old and own a small business but that game against whatever high school back in 1992 was the most important thing you’ve done? The same families that prioritize that one test, the prom, and homecoming, are the same ones who will say let’s not worry too much about those application deadlines or what college their child attends. So the trick for me is to get them to talk about their best whatever being something they did yesterday, or last week; it’s to help them understand that it’s your long term end game.
Don’t get me wrong, I do it sometimes too. I can tell you my best mile time to the minute and date back in 1998 but totally overlook the fact that today, only five months after surgery to remove five tumors I am running about five miles per day and probably healthier than I was back in 1998. I beat myself up about my son being spoiled and forget that he speaks two languages, loves dancing, and wants to make sure he tells me he loves me before he goes to bed each night.
Your best was what you did yesterday and it took a lot to get to yesterday.
2) Violence is cyclical; in order to break that cycle, you have to change the way you arrive at conclusions. But you also have to understand that everything is related to violence. One of my advisors in graduate school published this amazing book titledAgainst War. He writes, “The year 1492 is a crucial point for understanding the constitution of the episteme and social order that I define here as a paradigm of war. By a paradigm of war I mean a way of conceiving humanity, knowledge, and social relations that privileges conflict or polemos.” He writes about how we only know war, violence, and conflict because that was how the modern world was created, under the guise of war, violence, and conflict. Of course police officers and neighborhood watch and a middle-aged man at a gas station shoot anyone they deem to be dangerous or minutely threatening–that’s all we know. We kill each other, because that’s all we know, the paradigm that brought us to this hemisphere to be enslaved.
Where that translates in education is the idea of conflict. Being asked to compete for a slot in a university or in society is wrong. Another professor in graduate school listened to my colleagues and I discuss the problems in public education for about an hour before he interjected with, “You know, public schools are public, meaning in theory, they could operate like community colleges and accept everyone who applies. Same goes for private schools. They could just hire more professors too. But they don’t because their rank depends on how many students they reject and the higher one ranks, the more they can charge tuition.” By creating conflict, there is a financial benefit at the other end.
That statement alone blew my mind and it continues to blow my mind.
When I work with families, I really try to get across that they aren’t competing with the other kid in their class or affirmative action that doesn’t exist in public schools in California anymore. They are competing against the competition that the college created. They are trying to beat the admissions office at their own game.
Understand where the conflict is originating and address that rather than the conflict they want you to believe exists.
3) Education is a political movement. In undergrad, I took a course titled “Education as a Social Institution.” I don’t remember much about the course except for debates I got into with a fellow athlete about sports and a project on education in Cuba that I did for my final. I read tons of speeches by Castro and read all that he said to that point about the importance of education on the island and that everyone has access to it. While I understand where critics might say there is a difference between theory and practice, I liked the theory and I just sort of felt like if we think education is so important in this country, why don’t we put our money where our mouth is?
In addition to that, I realized soon into my teaching career, that as students, teachers, and administrators, we are participants in that movement regardless of if we want to be or not. While I hate being the authority on all things Black at the school where I teach in a small town, I realize that for most of the students, I will be their only interaction with a Black person or Black authority figure in their youth, quite possibly ever. So I come to work pretty fitted, try to limit the public “mistakes” I make, and always smile and greet the jackasses I work with when in public even when those same folks have said some of the most despicable stuff about me. When I worked at a private school with a pretty good number of wealthy students, I realized they probably didn’t encounter many Black Cal doctoral students in their day, so again, smile, nod, and use the words with extra syllables.
But every once in a while I had to remind those young people that they were part of that movement just by going to school in this country, just as I was by standing in front of them:
“When you say ‘society’ is to blame, you understand you are part of ‘society,’ right?”
“The media is a business, meaning it has consumers. What are you consuming?”
“While I appreciate that you feel comfortable enough to say that in front of me, realize that was racist. Fix it.”
“It’s not about the discomfort you feel in talking about this topic; you have to think and talk about it because it costs people their lives when you don’t.”
The larger issue with privilege is when you don’t recognize you have it and continue to operate in the world like things are just the way you think they are supposed to be.
4) What might be broken is your approach. I meet a lot of students who will say to me the reason they failed a course is because the teacher didn’t like him or her. And then I’ll ask about the number of failed courses and say, “That’s a lot of people who dislike you. I guess you should tell me what there is to like.” Once they get over being mad at me for saying that piece, I ask them, “Seriously, what are you going to do to change the routine you’ve established?”
I once worked as an administrator in a school that was nearly 100% students of color attempting to be the first in their families to graduate from college. One student was regularly absent so I made a point of catching up with his mother one day when she came to school to take him out early again. I asked why he was leaving early that day and she said because he needed his line-up fixed and this was the only time the barber had to see him. When I said she should possibly reconsider her priorities, she asked me what the teachers were doing that day anyway. “Each day couldn’t possibly be that important,” she challenged. “I didn’t go to high school every day but I turned out fine. I mean, I didn’t go to college but I have a job.” I stared at her for a moment and then nodded, turned, and walked away. I have never been the best at confrontation but when she pulled her son out of the school a few weeks later so he could go to a high school with a football team, I realized not saying anything more was probably the best decision at the time.
I’ve never quite understood our inability as people to be self-reflective and then unable to connect that to how we make changes in our lives. I was doing a little coaching in the long jump and watched a kid practically walk to the board and then attempt to jump. “You have to run faster, or actually run. Either one,” I said. “I don’t like running. That’s why I do long jump,” she replied. “But most of the long jump is running. Fast. That doesn’t make any sense,” I countered. She shrugged and went back in line to walk down the runway, attempt to jump again, and look at me for more advice. “I can’t. You’re barely running.” Damn if she didn’t keep trying to jump hella far walking up to the board each time. Had to give it up for persistence (although it bordered on insanity). Point is,
Change your approach.
I think one of the worst things in the college counseling arena is when you are in that spot to tell a student, “I told you so.” I won’t say it; it really breaks my heart because “I told you so”s always come after the fact when you can’t do anything to fix the issue. And this particular “I told you so” has to do with due dates.
I have definitely hit a new level of paranoia when it comes to due dates, and only after college counseling. It really is true that on-time essentially means too late in these cases.
Years ago when I was applying to law school at Boalt, I met with the admissions counselors for the law school in September. When I walked into their office, it was completely dead and a few people clicked away on their computers. The admissions counselor said for me to take note of that. They are super available then, can even review your application for you before you submit it. But when you get within a month of the deadline, forget it. Considering this was law school and not undergrad, I did some investigating into how that translates for undergrad applicants. It’s worse.
You almost want to view your application as a credit application. Each component is buying you more time with the admissions counselor. They are going to review the numbers first regardless of what they’ve said and especially if they are a prestigious university. In order for a Stanford to take a 2.0 student, that student has to be pretty extraordinary but the reality is that getting through that first gate is pretty difficult. In the Fall, you have more time to buy from the admissions counselor. So your weird transcript that might have something funky happening with your language requirement–you need that extra time so that they can actually read your explanation for why that was so funky. In December, January, and hopefully not February, you have way less time to buy and therefore less time for the counselor to weed through whatever weirdness you have going on.
Let’s say you went through that first gate and they are going to read either your statement or letters. Most students use their personal statement to show off their script-writing talents and get to the all important “why do you want to go here” part at the very end. You’re buying time, remember? If you only get them to buy thirty seconds, you better have said what you needed to in that first paragraph. And if that paragraph is great, and they keep going, good on ya! But the chances of the counselors going past that first paragraph in December, January, and February, not so likely.
I’ve said a few times that one of the most disheartening things that I’ve heard about admissions is that most students lose their admissions due to things other people have done. Your letters of recommendation are a great example. Some students go to schools that send 100% of their students directly to 4-year colleges/universities. Most likely those schools are providing their teachers with letter-writing workshops. Most public schools in the country are lucky if they are getting 25% of their students into 4-year colleges and universities directly from high school. So I’m going to say one reason might be because of those letters. If your transcript is looking good, your statement really shows your character, but your letters are just sort of retreads of those previous two components and not advancing your application, things aren’t looking as good for you. But if you are submitting that application early, a weak component of your application is easier to overlook.
I was reading a few articles about this recently. It really isn’t that the schools have a quota where they are intentionally filling more spaces in the Fall. It’s just the time to consider the applications. And the data is staggering. Something along the lines of 25% of Fall applicants are accepted while 4% of those January ones are accepted.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately as the students who really listened to that piece of advice and handed in their applications early are now receiving acceptance letters from MIT, Hofstra, University of Oregon, Vassar, and Purdue and in a position to request larger financial aid packages, if they needed it. But they don’t. The other reality is that the earlier applications are submitted, the more likely you get more money because they have more money to give. So these guys have full rides for the most part. And it’s December and they’re done. Making plans to enjoy the end of high school, finish strong, and move across the country.
Then I have clients who didn’t listen and still have applications they haven’t submitted. A super important Physics test came up or something else that they thought was more important in the short term, so they waited and they’re still waiting. And for some of the schools on their list, I would almost say at this point, don’t bother. Because I’m going to absolutely hate that moment in the Spring when I’m not going to say “I told you so.”
I found this article that discusses what many in the college-access community are using to push schools with higher tuition: the high-tuition/high-aid model. The article describes are critical piece that we often forget when considering financial aid: while the universities are raising their tuition but advertising an increase in aid, especially for low-income families, the rate that the tuition is increasing does not match the rate of the aid increasing, most often because the universities are using the extra monies intended for scholarships and grants to go towards anything but financial aid, and things that appeal more to middle- and upper-income families who would not receive aid. In other words, you’re still better off going to a school with lower tuition. I’ll add the smaller private colleges to that equation as well. In California, I’m thinking of schools such as UC Merced, University of Redlands, St. Mary’s College, and San Francisco State. Great schools. Lower price tags or consistent aid-givers. Take a look.
Many of you may have already heard about the student from Oakland Tech high school who earned a 5.0 and admissions to top universities. The young person has the enviable dilemma of having to choose between a few Ivy Leagues and Stanford, among others. You may have also heard about the young person who managed to gain admissions to all eight of the Ivy League universities, something that happens close to never. Both young people attained a feat only few can imagine.
And both are Black males.
As families, students, and college counselors talk about what the two young men have managed to do, often the commentary returns to both being Black: “Well, they are African American so…?” (shrug, wink, nudge). I can’t speak to where the young man in New York went to school as well as I can to the young person from Oakland Tech, having worked in Oakland Unified for a number of years and public schools in the Bay Area for even longer, so I would like to take the opportunity here to discuss the “so…?” for this young man.
1) Oakland Tech is one of the better public Oakland high schools and if I am living in Oakland when my son is high-school aged, I would probably send him there. But when we are talking about rankings and test scores, violence and urban schools, access and college admissions, OT doesn’t quite get up there, especially compared to its private school counterpart down the street. There is a major difference between a school culture where everyone is saying “I will definitely go to college” versus one where *shrug* “I might do that one thing one day”.
2) OT doesn’t offer AP or honors courses until the 11th grade assuming a student is taking the standard course-load. That means that in order for this student to earn a 5.0, he would have had to take every AP and honors course available in the 11th grade, something that the College Board (the committee that creates the AP courses) doesn’t recommend since it is too rigorous and can’t be done to fidelity.
3) His 5.0 also means that he would have needed to take the prerequisites for those AP and honors courses. Some schools allow students to take AP and honors if they want to; OT isn’t one of those schools. Students have to qualify. I am a fan of either option but either way, it isn’t easy. I am a heritage Spanish speaker who took five years of Spanish in middle and high school before the AP Spanish Literature Exam and I still found that to be impossible. I believe there were about ten students in my high school who attempted it that year and that was all they could attempt. As a teacher of AP US History, I know that how difficult that curriculum is to master. And my students who are taking multiple AP and honors classes are slightly…unpleasant…with their lack of sleep and social skills. So for that young man to manage the course-load and not get jumped or kicked out of his house or be an all-around jackass is a feat in itself.
This young man managed to get the grades, complete the prerequisites, and create his own college-going culture, despite everything around him doing and saying something different. That is nothing short of amazing. And shame on anyone who thinks otherwise.
When I applied to college in the fall of my senior year of high school in 1994, things were very different than they are today. I was completing my applications during discussions around Proposition 187, wondering how this would affect my immediate family, being immigrants from Nicaragua and Panama. The other end of my high school career saw a verdict and our own demonstrations against police brutality. Within those four years, in my large suburban Bay Area high school, we saw our own versions of the conversations happening around the state: “It’s a Black Thang, You Wouldn’t Understand” published in the school newspaper; the gang murder of a parent at the exact same time as our band performance just fifty feet away; and our first AIDS Awareness Week and the request for a health center, the first of its kind on a high school campus. While my experience may seem similar to students today having to understand Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, mass deportations, and Proposition 8, when I sat down to apply to college, I knew something very different than what students know today: I knew I was going to college and I knew that I would have a fruitful career afterwards. This is how I knew: my high school prepared me both academically and socially.
I was always a good student mostly because I like to read and I could spit back information quickly. But I was extremely shy; if I needed help, I was too embarrassed to ask, not wanting anyone to know I could possibly not be as smart as they thought I was. In my African American History course, we took a quiz that everyone failed but me. As the teacher lectured the class on their lack of responsibility to their studies, I sat with a small smirk on my face, as I decided that this lecture was not relevant to me. Ms. Allen stopped in the middle of her lecture and stared directly at me.
“Are you thinking this doesn’t apply to you, Vielka? Do you think the grade you earned really demonstrates what you are capable of? How much does it really mean if everyone around you failed? Did you study with your classmates? Did you do anything to help anyone other than yourself?”
With that I learned something that led me to my career in education today: the dilemma of my shyness has little to do with me and what I am missing but what I am not allowing other people to learn through me.
The problem with education today is that young people are not learning these lessons in a time when it is perhaps more critical to learn them, at least compared to when I was in school. Competition to get into colleges whose rankings are based in part on the number of students they reject, is fierce. When I applied to college, I applied to one and by the end of November, I received my acceptance letter and a decent financial aid package. I graduated in four years with my credential and preparation for graduate school, if I so chose. Today, I advise students to apply to anywhere between fifteen and twenty schools. There are “reach” schools and “safety” schools; schools that are known to fund students; schools that one has to be creative in how one markets oneself; schools that one should not consider without a specific GPA and SAT score; schools that value teaching, character-building, or a name; schools with a five- or six-year graduation plan; and schools that one attends with the intent to attend another.
So while the climate seems similar, there is one stark difference: the prospect of getting out and returning to make some change has severely diminished. And for the students who the possibility of college is a little more real, they are missing the character lessons that will help guide them through to the completion of their degree, in favor of purely academic ones that will only get them as far as enrollment. While we work towards changing the landscape of degree-giving, I’ll put some of the onus on students today, experiencing some success in school amongst verdicts, and DREAM acts, and unemployment rates in the form of the questions Ms. Allen posed to me:
Do you think your current success is really indicative of what you can be doing? How successful are you if the achievement gap still exists? What are you going to do to help someone other than yourself?