Guidance counselors' blind spots can hurt minority students
CHICAGO -- We all harbor little hurts in life, ones that never go away no matter how long ago they happened.
One of mine is that I didn't get to participate in my high school graduation ceremony.
Instead of walking across the stage of my college-prep school -- a prestigious school I had dreamed of attending since I was in first grade -- getting cheered on by family and friends, I sat with the band. I cried as we played "Pomp and Circumstance" for my classmates who commenced into their bright futures.
It wasn't bad grades or discipline issues -- I was a good student. It was just an administrative blunder.
There had been a scheduling mix-up and I ended up taking the second half of chemistry without having completed the first half. So in June, after all my friends had begun their summer of pre-freshman-at-college fun, I sat in a stifling hot classroom making up that half-credit that had gotten lost in the shuffle.
Now: Is it possible that my adviser didn't think of me as college-going material and wasn't on top of my credits? Sure, it's possible.
My mom did 100 percent of the legwork and research necessary to get me in to college -- she was the one who helped me write applications, send transcripts and basically everything a college guidance counselor is supposed to do -- and my actual counselor never even broached these topics with me. It seems feasible that as someone with no family track record of attending college, I just wasn't a priority for anyone in the guidance office.
Though I am very proud of the education I received at a state land-grant school -- and super glad I ended up there since it's where I met my husband -- it boggles the mind to imagine where life might have taken me had I been treated like other students who were expected to not only graduate on time, but go to the top-flight universities my majority-white peers had been encouraged to apply to.
I tell this story not because I felt victimized, but to illustrate just how outsize of an impact high school guidance counselors have on students' future school and career trajectories.
With such high stakes, it's only right that these post-secondary gatekeepers reflect upon their power and potential biases as they do a job that literally puts students' lives in their hands.
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This is exactly what happened at the National Association for College Admission Counseling's national conference earlier this month when keynote speaker Shaun R. Harper told the mostly white high-school guidance counselors and college admissions officers that their race has the potential to color their work.
According to a write-up in the trade journal Inside Higher Ed, Harper, the director of the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center, excoriated counselors for a plethora of life-changing professional sins. These include counselors not investing the same amount of time and energy in helping students of color apply to college as they do with white students, "undermatching" minority students by encouraging them to apply to less selective universities or even dissuading students of color from reaching for elite schools by telling them they aren't smart enough.
The conversation was continued at a conference panel discussion on race titled "Counseling While White." One participant, April Crabtree, an assistant vice provost of undergraduate admissions at the University of San Francisco, noted that nearly 80 percent of professors are white and even more administrators are. (A 2012 survey by the College Board found that 78 percent of high school counselors are white.) Crabtree told the crowd: "If you're blind to whiteness in your personal life, you will not be aware of this in your professional lives."
At best, these blind spots leave the adults who play a major role in the lives of minority and first-generation college students at a disadvantage. At worst, it keeps them from seeing potential scholars where they might otherwise perceive kids who aren't going very far in life.
But it doesn't take heroic exertions to shake this inability to understand minority students' special needs -- it just takes effort.
At minimum, there are several works of fiction (including "Make Your Home Among Strangers" by Jennine Capo Crucet) and documentaries (like "First Generation") that can open doors to the appreciation that a short quarterly appointment with unfamiliar students simply can't match.
Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com.
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