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College Counseling in the Age of COVID

By Robbie Jefferiss
College Counseling in the Age of COVID

One of the joys of working in a college counseling office is helping our students to visualize their future, clarifying their goals and exploring opportunities—many of which they have never considered. You can see their eyes shift upwards, seeing themselves on a campus, in a new city, or learning a new language. Asking a busy high school student to stop and consider what life beyond high school might look like can be empowering, but sometimes it provokes fear as young people consider moving from a fairly structured life timeline to one that is now theirs (and their parents’) to decide.

Here in Singapore, we do an exercise with our Grade 11 students where we ask them to visualize their future lives at age 30. Where will you live? What kind of city will you be in? What does your home or apartment look like? Where are you working? Our students find this exercise challenging, to say the least. Teenage brains are not well equipped to think beyond lunchtime, let alone 15 years into the future.

In the past, for our office, the graduates’ immediate future felt predictable, as students chose pathways well-trodden by their older siblings to recognizable universities or gap-year programs. We felt secure in advising our students to consider such options.

In March 2020, however, COVID-19 threw all of this into disarray, and the near future became fraught with thousands of unknowns. Will I be able to enter that country? Will my university be teaching online or in person? Will my parents be willing (or able) to pay US$45,000 for an online learning experience? Are my gap-year travel plans completely blown?

For the first time in my career, quelling those normal pre-departure anxieties became much more difficult. As students turned to their trusted advisors asking about the fate of their plans, we had few answers. Many of these anxieties were wrapped in a tight jacket of grief. The Class of 2020 had no “Grand Walk” when departing campus last May. Instead, they had an online graduation—a poor substitute for walking across the stage and embracing your friends, teachers, and family on graduation day.

Some of our boarding students left town with 24 hours’ notice, with no closure or time to say goodbye. In our offices, we had to acknowledge their loss and associated grief. But while taking their next steps into an uncertain world, we also must acknowledge that we, as a community, have spent the last 18 years preparing our graduates for an independent life, and this important life event has been put on hold as many start university in their childhood bedrooms.

As I evaluate my role this year, I begin to question: “If I can’t help students envision their near future because it is filled with too many unknowns, what is my purpose here?” How can I support my students at this time, beyond the normal application process of recommendation letters and editing college essays? I’ve boiled it down to a few key elements that are related but perhaps not identical skillsets:

Teaching Flexibility

Some of our students have envisioned for themselves a path to a certain country, city, or university. Many of us have seen them around campus. They’re the ones wearing the sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of the college they aspire to attend… even in Grade 9. Teaching these students that there is more than one university out there, and perhaps multiple countries or cities where they can be successful, has been a key element of our counseling. This type of discussion is normally baked into our counseling but can be especially important in the COVID-19 era. Having a backup plan (or two), and spending time envisioning an alternate future can be time well spent. Considering your home country or current country of residence might be a good back up plan, avoiding visa and travel restrictions.

As a sailor, one of my favorite quotes sits above my desk “We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” Flexibility of thinking may be one of the greatest strengths we can impart to our students at this time.

Teaching Gratitude

The Class of 2020 faced a great deal of loss, and there is a chance that the Class of 2021 may experience a similar reality. It was easy for our students of all ages to focus on all the things they’ve lost out on. No football tournament. No graduation. No outdoor education trip… the list was quite long.

Taking time to shift the narrative with our students is challenging but important. Yes, those things are gone, but let’s focus on what we do have. Access to education (although mostly online), living in a safe city like Singapore, having our family close at hand… The list of things to be grateful for quickly becomes longer than those that were lost. At the start of Grade 12, we ask all students every morning to write down three things they are grateful for on a post-it note and place it on a whiteboard in the hallway. The things they post are often hilarious (sleep, my mom, caffeine, and bubble tea often top the list) but they also provide an avenue for students to shift their thinking each morning—an exercise we have found to be powerful, especially when in the depths of Grade 12 IB coursework.

Teaching students to focus on the things they can control, not on what they can’t

In the “new normal” of COVID-19, there are many things beyond our control. For our students, looking at universities around the world, enduring online learning for months at a time, SAT cancellations, and shifting admissions requirements, there can be a feeling that the ground is moving underneath their feet.

Our students have no control over these external factors. Like many of our schools, our students are highly engaged outside of the classroom in the arts, sports, and service work; with these being cancelled comes a growing sense of anxiety that their records will not be robust enough for their university applications.

Quelling these anxieties can be challenging but reminding students to focus on the things within their influence should be paramount. Newfound free time absent of extracurriculars may allow them to focus on their own health and wellness, diving into reading beyond the curriculum in their favorite topics or exploring ways to support their own family and friends from afar. Also, reminding students that there is a human on the other side of their university application who understands the activity list may look slim, but doing the right thing—in this case, staying home, staying safe, and contributing to class during online sessions—is just as admirable as being captain of the rugby team.

Accepting uncertainty

Moving into university life and young adulthood is filled with uncertainty, which now feels amplified for our students. Despite their best efforts, and despite all the best laid plans, they simply may change. In the past, our families (sometimes led by parents more than students) have visualized a timeline or pathway that fits their narrative for a successful entry to young adulthood. But this summer we have seen students shift their plans from one continent to another in the matter of weeks.

Telling these tales of adaptability to our current students, we hope to engender a culture in our office that accepts uncertainty, rather than fighting against it. Over the years, and particularly now, we have highlighted students in alumni panels who may have taken a zig-zag pathway to their desired destination or career, reminding students that life is not always a straight line from A to B. As adults, this may be easy to understand, but not always for teenagers.

The first term of the year is never easy for college counselors, so please go easy on us! But beyond the essays, recommendations, and ultimately the matriculation list, our work in the COVID-19 era can hopefully recenter on some of the key skills of self-reflection and self-advocacy that make the university application process more than a paper-passing exercise. Additionally, as counselors and school communities, it is our task to counsel our students towards embracing the “new normal” with confidence and an open mind.

Robbie Jefferiss is a university advisor at UWCSEA East Campus in Singapore and has worked in counseling and university admissions for over 15 years in London, Washington, Dubai, and Singapore. 

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