CTCL director kicks off guidance counselor event at Clark University

Martha “Marty” O’Connell, executive director of Colleges That Change Lives, speaks with guidance counselors in the Bassett Admissions Center at Clark University.

Guidance counselors from as far away as San Juan Capistrano, Calif., to as near as Shrewsbury, Mass., packed the John and Kay Bassett Admissions Center on Sunday to hear words of wisdom from Martha “Marty” O’Connell, the executive director of Colleges That Change Lives.

O’Connell’s remarks supplied a fitting kick-off for the two-day symposium that introduced about 50 guidance counselors to Clark University, which is one of a select group of schools included in the CTCL organization’s influential guidebook “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges.”In an animated presentation, O’Connell weaved together vignettes from her own past with keen observations about the nation’s “name-brand culture” that drives high school students (often in tandem with their parents) to pursue admission to well-known colleges and universities while dismissing lower-profile schools that may be a better fit. She said the media will soon be abuzz with stories about the difficulty of getting into certain schools, when in fact 86 percent of students earn entry to their first college of choice.

Much of the pressure is self-imposed, O’Connell noted. She told of a woman who bombarded her with a series of questions about an upcoming CTCL program she planned to attend. When O’Connell asked what high school the woman’s daughter attended, the reply was, “She’s in kindergarten.”

O’Connell stressed that hidden gems, like the schools profiled in Colleges That Change Lives, can be a better fit for a student who, often with his or her parents fanning the flames, may believe that admission to an Ivy League or other well-known school is a ticket to a prosperous future. Through his research, the late Loren Pope, the original author of “Colleges That Change Lives,” recognized that students from smaller, less identifiable schools were forging successful careers in business, law, medicine and many other fields, just as their counterparts from big-name colleges were, O’Connell said.“Just because someone can get in somewhere, does that mean they should go there?” she asked. “That school might be good for certain people, but not for everyone. At CTCL we’re trying very hard to get back to student-centered conversations.”

A panel of Clark University students engaged in a Q&A session with counselors and college advisers. From left: Marcell Lyu ’13, Jenny Six ’14, Shay Jones ’14, and Katie Horigan ’13.

College rankings in publications like U.S. News & World Report have skewed the way people think about colleges, O’Connell said, adding that it’s important to realize that the values reflected by the editors of those rankings don’t necessarily reflect the things a student will value during his or her college experience. Too often, students are “doing a lock-step” through the college-applications process, she said. They may ask the “What” question — What colleges will I apply to? — while neglecting the “Why” question: Why am I applying to this college, or college in general?

Parents are inquiring about the kind of preparation their child will receive for the job market, a natural concern given the price tag for a four-year college degree. But O’Connell cautioned against funneling students into job tracks at a young age.

“Who knows what they want to be when they’re 16?” she asked. O’Connell then posed the question to the guidance counselors, asking who among them knew this would be their chosen field at age 16. No one raised a hand. “These 16-year-olds don’t have any idea. You didn’t; I didn’t. We often take advantage of the opportunities that come up later, and often we do more than one thing.”

Five years ago, the Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs and educators to determine what is the ideal undergraduate education. The results of that study “determined the exact same thing Loren Pope was talking about,” O’Connell said. The ability to think critically and creatively, to collaborate with others, to write well and synthesize information, are all highly prized in the professional world. Lesser known schools that produce students with these attributes are sometimes regarded skeptically. “I’ve never heard of these places, they can’t be any good,” is a typical reaction, O’Connell said, followed by “So how can [students from those schools] be outcompeting students from name-band schools?”

O’Connell added that students who are actively engaged in co-curricular life during their college years “are the ones who are getting out and getting jobs.”

O’Connell urged the guidance counselors to resist using such terminology as “reach school” and “safety school” with high school students who are considering their college options, but rather to help the student devise a list of schools that all would be a great fit.

Prior to O’Connell’s presentation, Don Honeman, Clark University dean of admissions and financial aid, asked the counselors to introduce themselves and talk a bit about their schools. One theme that emerged was a sense among counselors that their students existed in a “bubble” — academically, socially, geographically — and the challenge of convincing students to explore less obvious college options.

After a lunch break, Honeman and a panel of Clark students traded questions and ideas.

Honeman asked: What is the number one frustration for students in the college search? “Fear,” the counselors answered, almost in unison. What has changed most about the process over the last 20 years? The Internet. Students have easy access to a host of often conflicting sources.

The student panelists:

  • Katie Horigan ’13, of southern Maine, majoring in history and Holocaust studies
  • Shay Jones ’14, of Pawtucket, R.I., majoring in political science
  • Jenny Six ’14, from Chicago, a biochemistry major
  • Marcell (Jun Ha) Lyu ’13, a geography and political science major who claims “Planet Earth” as home, explaining his Korean roots, upbringing in Australia and plans to ultimately join his parents who currently live and work in Mexico.

The students candidly answered questions about Clark, the city of Worcester, and their impressions about their own college-search experiences. One counselor asked, “What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?”

Jenny Six’s emphatic reply: “It’s gonna be all right.”

On Monday, the guidance counselors were treated to tours of the campus and of Worcester, as well as presentations by Honeman, President David Angel, and Dean of the College Mary-Ellen Boyle, who outlined Clark’s LEEP model for higher education.