Wednesday, January 29, 2020

On Grief and Grieving

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


It looks like we have some work to do on our grief curriculum. As much as I’d like to find some other way to protect our students from the challenging face of loss, the avenues of social media just leave them far too vulnerable to the news of tragedy and the unexpected to hope we could shield them from bad news. So, it’s better to prepare them instead—and in light of the way some adults have been handling tragedy lately, it looks like we have a long way to go.

Here’s what I hope you’ll find a way to include in your unit on loss.

People attend funerals for one of two reasons. Some will attend to honor the life and the memory of the person who is gone. It may be they knew that person from work, or school, or through some social network, but if they’re attending the funeral to honor the person who has died, it’s likely they don’t know any surviving family members. Of course, it’s still important to greet them, offer your support at this time of loss, and share some memories of the person that’s gone. But it’s really more than OK if the real reason you’re there is to remember that person, and all they meant to you.

Other people attend funerals for those who are still with us. When someone we know loses a loved one, attending the funeral is a show of support that can mean a great deal, even if you didn’t know the person who died. When this happens, it’s pretty natural to offer support to the person who has experienced loss, since they are a friend, or colleague, or someone you care about. Keeping them at the center of your thought makes it easy to know what to say, and what to do. Let your care for them be your guide, and all should go well.

Whether you’re attending a funeral for the living, or for the person who’s passed on, it’s pretty safe to say you would not use this as an occasion to bring up the mistakes and missteps of the person that’s died, and share those impressions with others. That’s not to say we should pretend those mistakes don’t exist; it’s pretty likely the survivors are well aware of the deceased’s limitations, since they’ve been an integral part of their life. But people who have experienced loss are taking a lot in, and are looking to those around either for support, or for space. Reminding survivors of the character flaws end errors made by the person who’s gone, no matter how egregious, doesn’t achieve the goals of offering support or space. In many ways, it makes the loss that much harder—and that’s not really the goal of the day.

Some may consider this approach na├»ve, an effort to put a happy face on a life that was less than perfect, but that overlooks the purpose of the day. We aren’t going to a funeral to render judgement, or to consider the person’s place in history; we’re there to consider what the person meant to us, and how to help those who knew them move forward. Those goals should be the sole motivators behind the feelings we share and the stories we tell. There will be plenty of time to create a balanced picture of the person’s life later on, if indeed that needs to happen at all. For now, the sole focus is on the loss, not the limitations.

Losing someone in your life is hard enough without having someone around saying “I’m sorry for your loss, but you know, they really weren’t perfect.” Perfection is a standard for discussion among historians, and that can wait. For today, let’s think about those who loved them, and how we can support their efforts to take all this in.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Dangers of College by Checklist

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


My client just couldn’t understand what went wrong. They had earned great grades in some pretty challenging classes, and had earned test scores that would be expected for someone working in the classroom at a high level. They had secured letters of recommendation from two of the most respected teachers in the school, both of whom knew the student well, so they were able to write with great regard and particular focus on who the student was. The student’s extracurricular list was peppered with leadership and accolades that clearly indicated the student had gone more than the extra mile in their out-of-school pursuits, and summers had been spent in fascinating programs. Still, when the admissions decisions came in, the student had been denied admission at their top choices. What, they wanted to know, had exactly gone wrong?

Welcome the world of College by Checklist, the natural conclusion that’s too easy for students—and particularly parents—to make if they take their college guidance from mainstream media. While it’s better than it used to be, too much coverage of applying to college is focused on the mechanics of forms, lists, and scores. It’s also far too focused on the thirty or so colleges thought to be the most desirable institutions, the ones where a student would be thought a fool if they were admitted, and opted not to attend. These places are promoted as the Golden Ticket, and best of all, the ticket is easy enough to obtain with the right recipe of numbers, achievements, and name-brand classes. 

What’s missing from this calculus of college admission is, of course, the soul of the student. It’s certainly true that a good amount of the history of holistic college admissions—where colleges ask students to write essays and submit letters of recommendation along with their grades—were designed in part to limit college access to certain groups of students. Happily, a good many colleges have flipped those purposes on their head, and see the same mixture as an opportunity to understand the student beyond their grades, and past their achievements. It’s a rare college applicant who successfully reveals what it is that makes them tick—indeed, it’s rare to have an eighteen-year-old who understands what makes them tick. Still, when an application shows a strong glimmer of something more than just a score and the obligatory responses to Why Us, admissions officers clamor over each other to bring that student to their institution, and rightfully so. More than just another doer, that college has found an actively engaged thinker.

It was clear that what was missing from the client I was talking to, who had only sought my advice after they had applied to college. The client had ample good choices from colleges who knew the student would do well enough at their institutions and serve the school with distinction, but all the student’s top choice schools were places looking for students interested in turning over the rocks and wondering what lay underneath. That was something the client had never bothered to consider en route to what he thought was fast tracking his way to a top school.

A television news magazine once interviewed a judge for one of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions, and the interviewer’s first question was simple—what are you looking for that separates the best performer from so many qualified performers? It’s simple, the judge said—it’s what they do with the notes. Everyone knows the notes once they’re at this level, he said, and sometimes they don’t always hit them in any given performance. But the notes only go so far; after that, it’s what you do with them.

As we begin our work with the next classes of college seekers, here’s hoping they will embrace the opportunity as something beyond a checklist.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Your Alumni Dad Can’t Help You Get into Johns Hopkins Anymore—A Look at Change in College Admissions

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


At first, it seemed like a monumental moment of change, the kind of shift that comes out of nowhere but changes things forever. Conveyed by a photograph on Twitter, the small paragraph on John Hopkins’ admission page simply indicated that, in the interest of creating a class as rich and diverse as possible, the storied college was no longer using legacy status in admission. In other words, it no longer mattered if an applicant’s parent, uncle, or other relative had gone to Hopkins; that was no longer a factor in their recipe for admissions soup. 

It’s easy to see why so many people see this as a big deal. Giving special consideration to the next generation of applicants is as much a part of selective college lore as elbow-patched corduroy jackets and secret societies, a part of doing business that encouraged alumni to be actively engaged in the life of their alma mater, both in and around the development office. Even when studies suggested legacy admissions had little effect on the bottom line of a school’s donation ledger, it was seen as a way of engendering a sense of community and continuity.

It’s certainly true that institutional memory is needed to keep the traditions and quirks alive that distinguish one school from another (I’m looking at your Hey Day as an example, Penn), but do next-generation students fill a special niche in that memory? If so, is that a role that’s worth restricting a good percentage of scarce seats in the class, for students whose high school credentials alone might not be enough to garner the admissions committee’s attention? Hopkins evidently decided it was not, and a new day in college applications emerged. 

But for those who are convinced this move was made at a moment’s notice, take care. Subsequent research has shown Hopkins has diminished the use of legacy for about ten years or so, using the data to confirm what many have long suspected. To be sure, the college still admits students who have family ties, but the percentage of legacies is down substantially—by about 75%—now that it’s not a part of the admissions algorithm. Further, no reports exist of declines in alumni giving, the area seen as the chief beneficiary of legacy admission. That’s not to say every Hopkins alum is thrilled with this change, but those concerns, at least for now, seem to be more personal than institutional.

The approach Hopkins used here is reminiscent of the approach many colleges took when deciding to make the ACT and SAT optional parts of the admissions process. Rather than wake up one morning and simply flip a switch, most of these college approached the question through data gathering, discussion, and review of the college’s mission. What additional information did test scores provide that weren’t part of other sections of the application—and even if there was some gain, did that come at too high an institutional price, or at the cost of the well-being of the students? The test-optional movement has made incredible gains over time, but it is more the result of deliberate engagement of key questions than the snapping of fingers.

The test-optional movement and the Hopkins decision serve as strong reminders to those eager to make sudden shifts in higher education policy that there is sometimes an upside to change being glacial. A ten-year deemphasis of legacy gave Hopkins alumni the opportunity to embrace the change and celebrate it, and the thoughtful approach colleges have used to review the role of testing in admissions has led to few, if any, colleges going back to requiring the tests once they made the change. Progress can be infuriatingly slow at times, but these changes are reminders that, more often than not, slow but steady is a powerful element in lasting change. The key is to begin, and to persist.


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Word About December Vacation—Did You Really Get One?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, because I don’t want to sound as if I’m telling you what to do with your job or how to work with your students—counselors don’t tell anyone to do anything, so I’m really not interested in doing that. At the same time, my social media reading over the holiday break revealed some disturbing posts that lead me to ask an important question:

Exactly how much did you work over the holiday break?

I ask this because I’m a pretty strong advocate that vacation time is, well, vacation time. “Vacation” comes from the root word “vacate”, which means to leave behind in its entirety. You don’t get to take part of your apartment with you when you vacate it, nor should you; the same is true for vacating a job. When you’re done, you’re done, if only for the weekend—or for the time you aren't working.

This leads me to wonder just how much serious vacating went on in the last few weeks. My social media posts were flooded with remarks from counselors like “Student sent me her college essays on New Year’s Eve (sigh)” and “Student said they had to know if they passed their Algebra midterm.”

This doesn’t remotely sound like vacating, my friends, and that’s not good. It’s not good for you, because there are other parts of your life—and most important, other people in your life—who get short changed when you work over a holiday. One of those parts is your mental sanity. You work too hard for too long, and bad things happen—and if you’re thinking “but I only spent five minutes a day on email,” go back and think about how much time you devoted to responding to that five minutes of email, or thinking about what you’d have to do with that email once you go back to work. No matter where you were, you were mentally back at work—and that’s not vacating. 

I’d also argue this state of perpetual availability isn’t all that great for students. The student needing to know if they passed Algebra can just as easily ask the teacher on the last day of school as they can email you over break, and the student writing college essays could knock out rough drafts the weekend before vacation and send them to you then. With a heads up from you that says you’re offline for two weeks, students get to develop self-care and time management skills that are essential to being healthy adults. That’s part of our job, too. 

Counselors give two kinds of pushback when I urge them to consider using vacation for vacation. The first is that the students need counselors, and we should be there for the students. That’s certainly true—but just how much do students need us over break? Classes aren’t in session over break, so there’s no real need for academic guidance. Any college application that’s due January 1 can be submitted by the student without a transcript. As long as the student asks you to send the transcript once school reopens, they’re going to be fine.

That leaves supporting students emotionally. It can be hard to leave a student in need on their own for a couple of weeks, especially if it’s clear there are no other resources for them to lean on over break, or if the holidays themselves will likely be a stress-inducer. At the same time, other mental health workers find ways to take breaks, and make contingency plans for their clients while they’re away. With a little advanced planning, you can provide a list of resources for your students to use in case they’re needed, allowing you to take care of yourself and those in your personal life.

The second argument is a contractual one, where a supervisor or a contract requires you to do some kind of work over a break. I’m raising this point now so you have time to fix that. Provide some data to your boss showing just how much you weren’t needed over break, or negotiate a change in your contract that allows counselors to take turns checking in over holidays, leaving the task of being “on call” to just one counselor, instead of all of them. 

Our students need us, to be sure, but we need us too. There’s a way to support both in meaningful ways when school’s out. Let’s add that goal to our list of New Year’s resolutions.