Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Painful, Important Reminder of Dear White Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

She had never met her school counselor, but that didn’t keep her from bursting into his office once the bell rang.

“I know what I want to do with my life!” the student said, excitement in her eyes.  “I want to go to college to become a musician in a jazz band.”

The counselor turned sized up the student, and drew in his breath.  “Shows what you know”, the counselor said.  “You don’t have to go to college to join a band—you just join one!  Lucky thing for you.  No college in its right mind would take you.”

Undeterred—or, perhaps motivated in an odd way by the counselor’s remarks, the student went on to graduate high school and go on to college.  After earning a degree in music, she returned to her hometown, where she became the school’s choir director, and went to school at night to earn a Master’s degree.  Her timing was perfect; she completed her last class one June, just as the man who had served as her school counselor announced his retirement.

She was able to take his job, you see, because her Master’s degree was in Counseling.

We’d like to think these days are behind us as a profession, but then there’s Dear White Counselor, the narrative poem of a student of color who jumped into his school counselor’s office with a list of colleges he wanted to apply to, only to watch the counselor rip up the list, and suggest the student get more “realistic.”  As you can imagine, the student went on to high academic achievement at some pretty powerful colleges.

These two stories are gentle reminders that the lone key to successful counseling is humility.  Years of experience may tell us a student and his true love are likely to break up by prom, that cosmetology isn’t really going to work out for the student who has their heart set on it, and that the student with a B average isn’t likely to get admitted to the college of their choice.  But this real-life certitude doesn’t excuse us from treating our clients with anything but dignity.  It also shouldn’t let us forget the element of surprise.

Both of these qualities are essential in building a strong relationship with our clients.  “You’ve picked a pretty great college to apply to, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy reading your application.  What exactly do you like about this school?  I ask, because they have way more students apply than they have room to admit, so I’d like us to think of some other schools that offer the same things you’re looking for in a college, just in case.”

Reads a little better than “no college in their right mind will take you,” doesn’t it?

If this sounds like we’re being less than honest with the student, it’s time to remember the students who got in despite the odds.  College admissions isn’t an automatic decision based solely on grades and test scores, especially at high demand colleges; that’s why they ask for letters of recommendation and essays.  The right phrase, the right life experience, the right amount of support at the right time can lead a college to decide a student is worth taking a chance on.  That usually creates so much joy in the student, they don’t come back to the counselor and say “I told you so.”  But sometimes, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

As we approach the release of spring decisions, it’s helpful to remember we’re not school counselors; we’re school counselors of students.  I can’t wait to be surprised. 

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