Ds Scholarship

A column raises a question for a college counselor (opinion)

I had that thought last week upon reading Michele L. Norris’s opinion piece in The Washington Post entitled “The maddeningly limited vision of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s guidance counselor.” The column talks about the Supreme Court nominee’s belief that her high school guidance counselor urged her to “lower her sights” when she wanted to attend Harvard University.

The column goes on to say that Post columnist Jonathan Capehart had done a follow-up survey on Twitter and found lots of successful professionals who all felt they had “that” guidance counselor. It also references Michelle Obama recalling her high school guidance counselor suggesting that she rethink her plan to follow her older brother to Princeton University.

I did not serve as college counselor to either Jackson or Obama (although, sadly, I may be old enough to have done so). That doesn’t keep the sentiments expressed in the column from stinging. They are a gut punch to our profession. Counseling is above all about helping students make decisions about their future, and that is a noble calling, one damaged and perhaps even destroyed by the claims against “that” counselor. The perceptions from Jackson and others referenced in Norris’s column should lead to serious self-reflection for all of us.

I’m hoping there is another side to the story, that the truth is more nuanced than a counselor (“guidance” counselor is an antiquated term, supplanted by “school” counselor) attempting to dissuade a student from following their dreams. I have never told a student that they shouldn’t apply to a particular college. That’s not my job. But I have also at times had a little voice in my head during conversations with students and parents, a voice that sounded exactly like Chris Tucker in Rush Hour asking Jackie Chan, “Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?” Is what I am trying to say what is being heard?

That is particularly true when having conversations about chances of admission. As already stated, I would never tell a student they shouldn’t apply to a particular college or university, but I do believe it’s my job to help them understand the realities of the college admissions process.

Not everyone agrees that those conversations are appropriate. My first boss believed that a counselor should never tell a student that they might not be admitted, because if it pans out, it will appear that’s what the counselor wanted to happen. I have had counseling colleagues at other schools prohibited from having conversations about admission chances. I think it’s hard to advise students effectively if that topic is off-limits, and I think that such a policy can boomerang on a school and counseling program.

That’s not to say those conversations aren’t fraught with peril. All of us—students, parents and counselors—process things on two different levels, one intellectual and the other emotional. A student can understand intellectually that admission to a given college is unlikely and yet be emotionally invested in a way they don’t recognize, such that it hurts when the predictable rejection occurs. It is easy for students (and parents) to see college decisions as a measure of an individual’s worth—which, of course, they aren’t—and at those moments, college counseling can become grief counseling.

I decided a long time ago that I would err on the side of more info rather than less, trying to give my students as much knowledge and context as possible. I tell my students that they have a right to be disappointed by decisions, but I don’t want them to be shocked. I’m also careful to make clear that I’d be glad to be wrong.

I hope that Ketanji Brown Jackson’s and Michelle Obama’s guidance counselors were misunderstood, that they were guilty not of limited vision but of knowing too much. Good college counseling is a tightrope walk between supporting students’ dreams and making sure they have a safety net. College counselors should be trail guides, helping students plot a course, telling them what lies around the bend and making sure they don’t miss the scenery as they navigate their personal journeys. We should never tell a student not to take a certain path unless we know that danger lurks.

The tightrope walk is even harder in the era of COVID-19. The pandemic has affected all of us psychologically in ways we are not even aware of and has delayed development in adolescents who have had “normal” upended for the past two years—unable to attend school in person, losing much of the social interaction that is so important and having to live behind a mask. All that is hard enough for us as adults, but it’s producing far more students who are fragile. It is our job to help them even when we ourselves are exhausted and struggling.

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s memory of her interaction with her guidance counselor should cause all of us to think about the messages we send to students. We need to be aware of our implicit biases, and we need to work constantly to communicate both effectively and sensitively. The most important thing we communicate is our love for our students and our trust in them. We are a helping profession, not a profession that hinders. The article tells us that we can do a better job.

Back in the 1960s, Marlo Thomas became famous as “that girl” in the television series of the same name. Neither she nor any of us want to be “that” counselor.

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