Gwen Hackett hurried into a meeting with guidance counselor Tory Parsons and apologized for being a few minutes late. She’d just come from rehearsal for the school play.
“I’m playing a princess, a sailor and a maid,” explained the junior as she settled into a chair opposite Parsons. “My mom is running late. Oh gosh. I’m gonna text her that we’re starting.”
Every year for the last four, Parsons and fellow guidance counselors RJ Boudro and Nicole Deckrow have spent three months meeting one-on-one with nearly 100 juniors each — many along with their parents — to select their senior-year classes and discuss post-secondary options including college and career planning. This year’s round wrapped up on Jan. 18.
Parsons’ first question to Gwen: Where do you see yourself right out of high school?
“I want to go big; I just don’t know if I have the finances to go big,” said Gwen, who will be the first child in her family to go to college.
Her Plan A for as long as she can remember: to become a high school English teacher. “Writing is my thing,” she said. “I love to write.”
Wait. Back that up. “If my dreams all worked out and the stars aligned,” she said, her major “would be something in music, something with vocal …
“And if something happened and I couldn’t go to college, I would pursue cosmetology, a trade school.”
Whatever which way, while she doesn’t plan to live at home after high school, she doesn’t want to move too far from family, Gwen said. Unless she got offered a full scholarship. Maybe.
Parsons took careful notes, and told her she was approaching planning “in a very smart, conservative way. I’m not worried about you getting in anywhere, because your grades are so strong. But it’s good to know all this information.”
Time to Think Ahead
Parsons, Boudro and Deckrow hatched the idea to interview every junior while the threesome was driving home together after a professional conference.
“The first year our goal was that 60 percent of parents would show up, and we had nearly 80 percent,” Deckrow recalled.
It’s information the trio wants to make sure is getting to every single junior. Boudro still smarts about the student who didn’t get into the University of Michigan because she applied “regular decision” versus “early decision” — something he could have advised her about.
Before the one-on-one interviews, counselors met with students in groups of five. Not ideal, Deckrow said, because “students would pick classes because their friends were picking them, not because they’d truly thought about it as a good fit. And with parents (in the meeting), they know their own kids, so their input is really valuable. And I think students have better classes because of this.”
Boudro said it also comes as somewhat of a surprise to juniors when he tells them that they are nine months from applying to college.
“It definitely makes it real,” he said. “It also lets them know that they are applying with their junior-year grades, so they can’t rely on better grades their senior year to bring up their GPA.”
Other benefits to the junior interviews is that the timeline is explained to juniors and their parents together in a single appointment. “I’ve heard that this starts a lot of conversations at home,” Deckrow said.
The trio of Lowell guidance counselors is well used to being able to offer guidance besides the college or university path. Parsons said they also help students navigate to military, career training and trade-school options.
“I have a student right now who is planning to go be a missionary right out of high school,” Deckrow said, “and one who is looking for some mechanical (aviation) certification, then plans to start a business and take a gap year, then go to a two-year school, then a four-year school after that.”
Not to mention, Boudro said, that “Sometimes the goal is just getting through high school, and then we regroup.”
Step by Step, Gwen
Christy Baldwin likes the financial sense it makes for her daughter to attend Grand Rapids Community College for her first two years. With three younger siblings, most of the financial burden of college will fall to Gwen.
“As far as (four-year) colleges, I don’t really have a preference for her,” Baldwin told Parsons. “She’s good at a lot of things. She’s very good at writing, really good at language and music. She definitely takes after me, a lot of English and foreign language classes. That’s what’s hard, getting her to nail down a career.”
Gwen and her mother wrapped up the roughly 1-hour meeting with Gwen being 95 percent certain of her senior-year schedule, plus a list of assignments from Parsons: research top college choices online; narrow choices to two campuses to visit once the musical is done; then return to the counseling office to explore scholarships. Shadow a teacher to see what the daily rigors are really like. Get letters of recommendation.
And make a list of all the extras she has been involved in, such as Girl Scouts and volunteering. Surfacing her extracurriculars will help Gwen explore more than 50 scholarships available in Lowell alone.
“We’re going to need a lot of paper,” Baldwin said.
Even with a hefty to-do list, “it’s not as complicated as I thought,” said Gwen. “Mostly with calming my mind about college. … I’ve been, like, not getting sleep over this.”
Not if you take it step by step, Parsons said. “The whole idea is to do the work now, so when you walk into your senior year you already have a plan.”