Two members share their approaches to “student-centered” and “whole-child” college counseling.

Contract to Care: Infusing College Consulting with Social-Emotional Intelligence

By Yvonne Espinoza, CEP, Yvonne Espinoza College Counseling Services, IECA (TX)

Before becoming a full-time college consultant, I was employed by an alternative public high school in Austin, TX. As the sole college counselor on campus responsible for assisting all students with postsecondary planning, the diverse population allowed me to regularly advise students from varying cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. On any given day, I could be advising students who were first generation, aging out of the foster system, from the highest socioeconomic backgrounds, or transitioning gender identities. Effectively meeting the unique needs of each student necessitated a perpetual learning curve. Although I didn’t quite recognize this as student-centered advising at the time, I did, however, realize its significant impact on the confidence and motivation of the students I engaged with. When I eventually founded my college consulting business, I naturally incorporated a student-centered approach to my services.

What does it mean to be student-centered? Student-centered learning refers to an approach “that truly focuses on the desired outcomes for each individual student, while accounting for the differences of each student” (Harrington & DeBruler, 2019). As it relates to consulting, effectively evaluating each client and adjusting college planning to specific situations and needs accordingly is essential to this concept. Utilizing a universal college counseling blueprint for each client does not allow for adequate nurturing of individuality and resilience, important aspects also increasingly relevant in the college admissions process.

The incorporation of social-emotional intelligence training into our routine professional development enables us to understand and connect with our students and families more adeptly, which is central to student-centered advising. Although I am not a licensed counselor, nor do I attempt to provide any type of psychotherapy, it is common for students (and parents) to shed tears of anxiety and frustration throughout our relationship as they try to balance the college process with the challenges they may be facing in their personal lives. With the mental health crisis affecting today’s adolescents, in addition to the impacts resulting from a global pandemic, it is understandable that our clients may not have the emotional capacity to expend on the college planning and application process.

As a member of the Counseling Department in my last high school, I had the privilege of being included in training on social-emotional learning, as well as adolescent psychology, and have continued this professional development through the resources provided by college admissions counseling organizational memberships. This understanding has not only assisted me in better empathizing with my clients but has also enabled me to adopt an advising approach sensitive to the intricacies of the family dynamics and backgrounds so integral to a student’s life experience. Appreciating the diversity of our clientele entails embracing an equitable approach to consulting; recognizing when adjustments or additions need to be made to provide each student the specialized support needed to successfully plan for and apply to college. 

Ultimately, being chosen by students and families to support them during this pivotal moment in their lives is a privilege that deserves our vested interest in the overall well-being of each of our students.

Flexibility is Key

By Shannon Bergeron, CEP, MEd, Core College Consulting, IECA (TX)

What brought me the most joy as a school counselor for almost two decades was watching the growth that happens in adolescents throughout their high school years. Building trust and relationships with my students is at the heart of my work, and a huge part of earning that trust is being present with them.

My approach of “whole-child college counseling” means that I invite students to engage and participate in this relationship in an authentic and genuine way (and recognize and respect that vulnerability), have fun throughout the journey, and to reduce stress and anxiety as much as possible. It’s not a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

While there are “big picture” milestones that students will work toward, the pace at which we move is individualized. I have regular conversations with students about what is going on for them, and we make a plan together about due dates for specific tasks. Depending on their particular activities and commitments, some weeks are busier than others, so we plan around that. The more the client has some control over each piece, the more empowered and engaged they are.

As adolescents, our clients are navigating social and emotional ups and downs on a daily basis. If a student is stressed about a class or something happening with a friend and I’m asking them to engage in conversation about researching a college major, they aren’t engaged with me. And when I see that a client is shutting down because they are overwhelmed and avoiding tasks, I acknowledge how they are feeling. I gently remind them that I care about them and I’m there to help and tap into the trust we’ve built to provide reassurance and encouragement.

I start each of our meetings with a check in, asking what is on their mind, or what is particularly stressing them out. That might lead to conversation about how to talk to a particular teacher, or problem-solving whatever is going on. 

I also focus on empowering the student. The college application journey can be incredibly stressful for students and one of the main reasons is that students have limited control over much of the outcomes. Helping each of our clients to identify where they do have control is essential and can be empowering for them. The student is “driving the bus” and the independent educational consultant, parents, and other people in their lives are all on the bus, in supportive roles.

For me, this means that I meet with the students one on one, and my expectation is that the student will update the parent(s) about what they are working on and the student has control over how that conversation will go. I also talk with each client about how to include their parents and even help with some of that language. This is incredibly empowering for teenagers and also helps with family communication. Parents love this as well!