Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Michael Sorrell and Our Ability to Innovate

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

One of the stars of higher education is at it again. Michael J. Sorrell., president of Paul Quinn College in Texas, announced last week that 400 students were admitted to the college—along with two other family members. This means that these 3.0, Pell-eligible students who live locally will have the chance to bring their support team with them to college. Part of the motivation behind the program is giving up on the notion that, according to Sorrell, “engag(ing) in a hero narrative about one person (will) somehow rescu(e) everyone”.

This kind of innovation inspires counselors and admissions professionals across the globe. Just as counselors are about to begin a new round of scheduling for next year, and begin meeting with juniors to discuss college plans, along comes a real-life example of doing things differently. To those professionals caught in a mindset of “Here’s what we do, and there’s nothing we can do about it”, along comes a new approach that isn’t just an idea—it is an idea with wings.

And that leads us to an important question. Long before he was superstar Michael Sorrell, we had lawyer Michael Sorrell, a talented team member of many organizations, who could have gone along with the system he was part of, or presented just enough change to keep his bosses off his heels. But the goal or the vision was never sustaining a system that helped kids, if a different system could help more kids, or help kids more. There were doubtless days of business as usual before he attained positions of leadership, but those days weren’t the focus. Education was; students were; society was. As a result, 400 kids are now starting college with a built-in, on-campus support team. I wish I could say I did that; this is just one innovation of many for President Sorrell.

So here’s the question. What are we doing to emulate Michael Sorrell in our own world? Sure, it’s important to be inspired by him, to see what he’s done as a leader and let it energize us through another round of meetings or transcript reviews. But it can do more, and it should do more. It should lead you to ask three questions:

What needs to be changed that I can change? This new program is a boundary-stretcher to be sure, but it was built by asking a key question—what needs to be different, and can be different? Every one of us has control over some aspect of our work, and we can make it better. It’s important to remember that; it’s more important to act on it.

How do I go about changing it? This is where many good ideas get lost. The mechanics seem too complicated, the processes too overwhelming. Keeping the goal in mind, and organizing a plan of action, brings more change than you can imagine. Get it in writing.

What’s the timeline and budget? Ideas also get lost when we share them with others without a realistic eye on the resources the institution will have to contribute. Planning these out ahead of time gives you plenty of time to rework the plan, anticipate objections, and Make. Real. Change. This may require working with others, but isn’t a little profession collaboration (and humility) worth the progress for the kids?

It's easy to see Michael Sorrell as inspired. But his example shows something else—he can be inspiring, too. What change will you make, thanks to him?

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Umbrella, Pager, and Heart in Hand

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I was part of a conference planning committee, and they asked me to put together a session on the importance of diversity in higher education.

It’s OK—you can take a look at my picture again and wonder just what made anyone think I knew something about diversity 20 years ago. The request surprised me, but I had a surprise for them in return—and best of all, he was on speed dial.

He showed up about ten minutes late, but given that he was press secretary for the Detroit mayor, I was grateful he was able to show up at all, since the only advance planning we’d made was one 40 second phone call. He had an umbrella in one hand, and a pager was popping off his hip every 30 seconds. Right then and there, I was humbly grateful—he showed up, even though he and I weren’t the closest of high school friends, during a time when squeezing stuff like this on the agenda wasn’t really supposed to be a priority. But we went to a high school that nurtured instinct, and he knew what an event like this could do, and since you don’t get to move mountains every day, he was here.

I introduced him, making sure to highlight his success as an all-state basketball player and one of the best non-DI college players of his time. I talked about how he came to our private high school in the Detroit suburbs as a Detroit resident, who was promised a better education in exchange for making us a better basketball school. That handful of scholarships brought our high school enrollment to maybe 10 percent black. Maybe.

I meant to ask him if he knew that before he agreed to leave Detroit every day for one of the richest suburbs in America, but once I gave him the mike, it was clear I should, as every good counselor does, shut up and let the client talk. He talked about how proud his family was to have a child honored like this, going to one of the best high schools in the country on a full scholarship, and how his athletic accomplishments were legendary. He was pretty tall to begin with, but when he told this story in that room full of counselors, his 6-5 frame easily expanded to 6-10. He couldn’t wait to start school.

Until he got there, and he couldn’t wait to go home. He’d put on his best clothes—not the stuff he had to wear to church, but the green open collared shirt and matching pants and cap that, in his words, emulated Curtis Mayfield of Superfly. He walked up the stairs to the front door, ready to have the entire school impressed, and walked into the chaos that Roeper School is known for to this day. Brilliant kids—and I mean, truly brilliant kids—going to a school that believed you helped the students understand the big picture of learning, then got out of their way, coaching more than teaching, seeing learning as a mutual journey of exploration. If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, the guy—at least, he thought it was a guy—with the mop head of hair and ripped jeans that welcomed him with a “Hey Man” was enough to remind him; he wasn’t in Detroit anymore.

I asked him for about 35 minutes of time, and for the next hour, the pager popped and he flowed—what it was like to live in two worlds at the same time, and how it shaped his view of the world. One particular conversation he mentioned was from a party he went to in his hometown neighborhood, where everyone else was celebrating the local high school’s qualification for the state basketball championship. He was supposed to be on that team, but he took the scholarship instead, where his team got to the district championship, and that was it. Worst of all, when that announcement was made at his new school’s weekly assembly, about 6 people clapped. Half-heartedly.

After about an hour, his pager had been jumping on and off, and he had to stop a couple of times to compose himself. I kind of figured he wouldn’t have time to write a speech for this, and I was right. This had been an hour of speaking from the heart, and when his heart was too full, he had to let it even itself out, all in front of a room full of counselors who knew what they were witnessing; catharsis, humanity, honesty, and power. We asked for questions, but the participants were smart enough to realize that would only spoil the effect. That was why the only question he had to answer was “My high school needs to hear you. When can you come?”

He hurried away because the pager finally showed a number that had to be answered. For about 15 years after that, we saw each other at basketball games (where he coached and sang the national anthem), talked to students of color about what college and life meant to him, and the philosophical space he thought our high school should move to. His advocacy for movement, for doing things, for helping those society had too long ignored, inspired his work as journalist, coach, teacher, civil rights advocate, and citizen of the world.

Cliff Russell left this world far too soon, before he got to make all those speeches, before the larger world could see what I had witnessed every time I spent time with him. This was a mighty man with a heart of gold, who treated the world fairly, and worked to show the world how it could be more fair. His story kept a room full of counselors at full attention for a Friday afternoon; his legacy left Detroit poised to be a better place. We close Black History Month promising, as we always do, to find new ways to work toward that goal. I close this day, as I always do, grateful for the role model I had who changed the world of counseling for an afternoon and forever— umbrella, pager, and heart in hand.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Parent Time, Post-Applications

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It would seem something has happened since you first carved time out of your week to talk with your parents about college. To begin with, they’ve learned to give you space; most parents think it’s crazy to limit themselves to 20 minutes or so a week to talk about college, especially during the weeks in the fall when you were working on applications and telling them absolutely nothing beyond their allotted time. They’ve learned to trust you more, which will come in handy over time—like when you go to college, when you buy your first couch, and name your first child after a Game of Thrones character.

But something else has happened. Because you met once each week when no one was rushing to get you anywhere, your parents had a chance to see what you’ve made of yourself since the last time things weren’t so crazy—which for most families is when you were about four. I have to tell you—they really liked what they saw. And they’d like to keep seeing it every week for 20 minutes.

This probably makes no sense to you, but when you came home and said “Last Winter exam! Yes!”, they said, “Last Winter exam? No!!” They told you they cried when you went to this year’s Sadie Hawkins Dance because they thought you looked nice, right? Nope—last one. And remember how they once dreaded having you home from school for any reason? Not so much now.

Through the 20-minute meetings, your parents realize they have a child who is smart, knows who they are, and understands a little about how the world works—and that child is moving out of the house in six months. Giving you up then is something they’ll figure out; giving you up now is something they would just as soon not do.

Of course, you don’t have to talk about college—now is not the time to sit in the living room, holding hands and listening to the cuckoo clock chirp away until the college decisions arrive. Order some food in, catch up on a movie, work a jigsaw puzzle—do something, and do anything together.

Love is as much a verb as it is a noun, and showing them what you feel at a time of uncertainty (for you and them) can make a memory that will last far longer than whatever East Coast U has to say in a couple of weeks.

No college decision will change the way they feel about you, just like it shouldn’t change the way you feel about yourself. Twenty weekly minutes of meeting time that isn’t “required” will bring that home as nothing else can, and build a stronger base for whatever is waiting after Decision Day.

Give it some thought as you work on your next scholarship essay. They’re sure thinking about it—they’ve told me as much.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Why You Should Celebrate National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It just figures that National School Counseling Week starts during Super Bowl preparations. The country gorges on guacamole-covered chicken wings for football, and when America’s most misunderstood group of educators asks for three nacho chips and a high five, no one notices.

In some ways, we don’t mind. The last time we made headlines, most people surveyed felt that school counselors were more of a hindrance than a help in applying to college. Before that, we were the punch line of a car ad — “Your guidance counselor drives a minivan” — or we were known as the washed-up teachers who were given offices close to the principal so he could keep an eye on us.

But Jenny doesn’t see us that way.

Jenny was the quiet, slender girl who didn’t cause anyone trouble, except herself. When two or three students saw Jenny needed help, they went straight to the school counselor, who called Jenny into that office close to the principal to talk about it in a safe, confidential place. Jenny got help, and became an even more beautiful person.

Steve doesn’t see us that way either. Three weeks into school, he had his fifth unexcused absence, and was on his way to flunking a required course. He told his school counselor he was working late to support the newborn son no one knew he had. His counselor asked the teacher to give Steve one last break, but never mentioned why. Steve got it, graduated, and got a full-time job that paid enough to take care of his young family.

If you didn’t know that, you’re not supposed to. When someone’s life slips or they don’t know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don’t know we’re doing our job, we’re doing our job pretty well.

Of course, we aren’t perfect. Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number. Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don’t have as much time to help students as we’d like, and most of us were never — never — trained how to help students apply to college.

I bet you didn’t know that either.

Old habits die hard — school counselors know that for sure — but if you have a minute this week, stop by and thank your school counselor for everything you don’t know they’re doing, and put in a good word for them with the principal. We might not score winning touchdowns or drive fast cars, but when the goal is to drive 450 students to win their own big game, the minivan really rocks it.