College Counseling Runs in the Family

Shelley Arakawa remembers how popular her father, Myron, was when she was a grade schooler in Honolulu. “Everywhere we went, we were stopped. You’d think Dad was running for mayor because so many people shook hands and chatted.”

Was Myron a rock musician? Star athlete?

Try college counselor.

Myron’s work enveloped his family so much that Shelley, who’d grown enchanted with college campuses, took a part-time job at Dartmouth College’s admissions office as an undergraduate there. When that became full-time work after graduation, Shelley got hooked on the profession for good, inspired by the chance to expand educational access for underprivileged students.

The Arakawas are among two-generation families working in college admissions, recruiting and counseling at U.S. universities and high schools. Exact numbers aren’t known but they’re plentiful enough that professional development conferences occasionally feature panel discussions on the topic.

Michael Sexton, the Santa Clara University vice president for enrollment management, says children of such families learn about the parent’s work. As a 20-year veteran of college recruiting and admissions, he believes the work has a cyclical ebb and flow. His daughter, Lauren, used to alphabetize hard-copy applicant files as a child. Young Lauren tolerated her father’s 12-weeks’ worth of out-of-town recruiting trips every fall because it meant getting free hotel toiletries once he came home. By the time she reached adolescence, she grasped that his business travel meant frequent flier miles for family vacations.

“As our kids get older,” Michael says, “they learn what all our travel is for, what the applicant files mean for kids wanting an education, and they get interested in the admissions process.” Today, Lauren Formo is transitioning into college counseling at a private middle/high school in Kirkland, Wash., although she remains associate director of admissions there.

Indeed, Shelley recalls “high school kids calling our house at all hours” asking for Myron. Some youths wanted last-minute help meeting college deadlines. But in other cases, circumstances were more dire. Some students had parents in and out of prison, rendering them on the brink of homelessness with little idea how to stay in school, much less shop for colleges. “We lived on campus, and college kids returning for visits would pull me aside to say they wouldn’t have gone to college if it weren’t for my dad,” Shelley says.

Shelley works for the College Board as senior director of higher education for the Board’s western regional office, heading a team of managers who try to ensure that a university’s use of standardized tests is appropriate.

Myron’s 30-year career, meanwhile, has taken him to two private Honolulu high schools where he has steered students into colleges in Hawaii and the mainland. It’s particularly poignant considering the economic and educational disparities faced by native Hawaiians even now. According to the 2008 American Community Survey, 11 percent of native Hawaiians lived in poverty, only 35 percent held a high school diploma and only 12 percent eld a bachelor’s degree.

Shelley considers Myron a mentor. Whenever she plans panel discussions, for instance, she asks his opinion about her choice of panelists “because he knows the profession so well that he’ll know how something will play out in the public eye, whether counselors and officers are actually going to benefit the way I hope they will.”

Among her accomplishments so far, Shelley helped found the College Board’s Native American Student Advocacy Institute, which aims to improve postsecondary educational access and success for American Indians, Alaska natives and native Hawaiians. “Given my dad’s history in Honolulu, I was obviously committed to causes like this,” she says.

Some parent-child conversations can take unexpected twists. Dr. Arnaldo Rodriguez, vice president for admissions and financial aid at Pitzer College in Los Angeles, has developed longstanding friendships with numerous high school counselors in his 35-year career. But only with daughter Elise, who’s co-director of college counseling at a private Los Angeles high school, does Arnaldo sometimes review applications after-the-fact in order to analyze why seniors were denied university admission. “That’s when I’m trying to help Elise understand what an admissions officer might have been thinking. Yet even with my closest friends in this business, we don’t do that for each other.”

Spirited talks can become disagreements, Arnaldo says. “It gets delicate. Just because a kid attends private school doesn’t mean he’s a stronger college applicant than high-performing students from public schools, especially if those publics have few resources. I mean, if the private schools truly are better, why aren’t some of the students performing better academically?”

Shelley says observing the relationships among her father, Arnaldo, Michael and others of their generation has inspired her to cultivate deeper relations among her peers. She has concluded that members of her generation tend to have more acquaintances, thanks to online social networks, but members of Myron’s generation are more likely to act as advisers and allies to each other, relationships they have enjoyed for many years thanks to visits and phone calls. Shelley calls such camaraderie crucial in the national industry because recruiters and counselors who trust their counterparts are more likely to propose joint ideas or even potential policies for consideration by College Board or other broad-based entities. “All of the people and personalities in the industry are different,” Shelley says, “but in the end, if all our philosophies really center on what’s best for the kids, then we really ought to be working hand-in-hand.”

Note: For continuing coverage on the topic of two-generation families in higher education, catch the Nov. 11 Careers edition of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education in which we share the stories of parents and grown children who work as professors and in other academic positions.