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School Counselor of the Year: ‘We Are in This Together’

This week is National School Counseling Week! We asked 2022 School Counselor of the Year Alma Lopez for her insights on how her experiences have affected her profession, as well as the magnitude of representation, and the ongoing implications of the pandemic on student success. We would like to thank Ms. Lopez and every school counseling professional for the critical work being done every day to help all students succeed.

How has being the first Latina School Counselor of the Year brought attention to the benefits of having diverse counselors in schools?

The fact that I have been named the first Latina National School Counselor of the Year has been an incredible honor, and I am most grateful. Almost immediately after the announcement was made, I received a number of calls, emails, and messages from throughout the nation that have demonstrated how important representation in our profession is. 

While I heard from national, state, and local leaders about the significance of being the first Latina SCOY, the most significant voices were from my peers and students. Several school counselors throughout the nation reached out to request my mentorship, as they were the only Latina/o school counselors in their communities and felt that I might be able to support them. These have been humbling moments for me. Additionally, I heard from several young people who were interested in becoming school counselors themselves. In fact, our local high school held its annual College & Career Day and I was invited to present on how to become a school counselor. This was a full-circle experience for me as my former students shared that I had inspired them to want to help others and, possibly, to become a school counselor! How remarkable is that?

As a school counselor, I believe it is important to explore our own knowledge and understanding of diverse student populations. It is important that we advocate for all students to have access to a comprehensive school counseling program. We must address the effect that family culture, social class, and poverty have on student achievement. All school counselors must continuously enhance our own cultural competency to best serve our diverse student communities.

As the daughter of immigrants who weren’t experienced in U.S. higher education systems, you have noted the importance of providing as much information as possible to students and families about their postsecondary options. What do you think are the biggest information gaps that students – especially those who would be first in their family to attend college – must overcome to set themselves up for postsecondary success?

For first-generation college students, information is essential. 

It is important that students know what level of higher education and/or training is required to hold a specific job. For example, as a high school student, I naively believed that any college degree would suffice. I majored in psychology and only later in my college career did I realize that a graduate degree was required to become a school counselor. Fortunately, I was selected as a 1998 California State University, Fresno McNair Program Scholar and was matched with a faculty mentor, participated in a summer research project with a stipend, presented at a McNair Research Symposium, and had role models who had obtained doctoral degrees. It was through this experience that I learned about the GRE and benefited from staff dedicated to ensuring I had information and access to resources.

My story worked out for me, but it was by happenstance, and that should not be the case. Opportunities for information and resources should be equitable and accessible to all young people.

Another information gap has to do with understanding the different college systems: two-year colleges, four-year public universities, and private universities. Each system has specific requirements and deadlines for application submission. I was unaware of all of this as a high school student. It was purely coincidental that I was able to apply and take the ACT test for admission to the CSU system. The test location was at a CSU campus that was about 1.5 hours away from where I lived, and I required an early-morning ride to the college, as I was only 17. I also borrowed money to take the test, as I did not know about fee waivers. And, when I received the scores, I did not know what they meant. Fortunately, my score was enough to gain admission to Fresno State. 

Once again, I believe that this should not be the norm; all students should fully understand the necessary requirements so that they can work toward fulfilling them. All students should know that fee waivers exist and how to apply for them. And, all students should understand what test scores mean.

A third information gap is understanding how to access student support in college. Somehow, I was fortunate enough to have been a part of CSU’s Educational Opportunity Program, which offered me a comprehensive support service program. I had access to an orientation, summer program, financial aid, academic advisement, tutoring, and personal education and career counseling. At the time, I participated in every service offered because I thought I had to. However, as I reflect on it today, I realize how important this program was in my college success. There are many programs like EOP that offer intentional support for first-generation students who do not have access to anyone who has experienced college before. It is these programs that can contribute to a student's success in college, and all students should know about programs like these and how to apply.

You’re the lead counselor at a rural school serving grades six through eight in California, which is home to the largest four-year university system in the country. What are some pillars for success that counselors can instill at the middle-school level to help propel students through high school and into college?

Yes, I am so grateful that California is home to the largest university system in the country, because that means more opportunities for students! School counselors can help middle schoolers be successful throughout middle school and high school and into college in a variety of ways. 

The first is helping students establish good study habits. Many schools have an AVID program or something similar, where students are instructed on effective study habits and organizational skills. This is something that can intentionally be a school-wide effort. In my school, we provide all students with an agenda for organization. We incorporate the Cornell Note-Taking System, Socratic seminars, philosophical chairs, tutorials, and many other study habits into all of our classes. Additionally, we can encourage students to take challenging courses.

Another way that school counselors can help prepare students for future success is to promote the exploration of extracurricular activities. This might look like an art club, athletic opportunity, book club, community service, music program, science, technology, engineering, or other activities. Students should explore their interests during middle school and further develop those interests in high school. Those very interests often help motivate students and might even help them gain access to additional opportunities in college. For example, student-athletes or musicians could receive a scholarship to help cover college expenses, or students who are actively involved in their communities could continue to contribute through the vast array of college activities.   

Also, quite simply, talking about college is crucial. School counselors and staff can encourage a college-going culture by sharing stories and evidence of their own college experience. For example, displaying their college degree, cap and gown, or even a T-shirt could help encourage a student to ask questions about college. 

At my school, we provide our students with college T-shirts as incentives throughout our College & Career Week as well as throughout the school year. This simple act has allowed our students to learn about the many, many colleges that exist. College fairs are also a great way for students to learn more about local colleges. School counselors can work with college outreach staff to set up these opportunities. And, visiting college campuses is another important part of the college decision-making process. School counselors can help students begin exploring colleges through virtual campus tours or in-person campus visits. We intentionally take our students to all four college systems in the state throughout the school year: California Community Colleges, CSU, the University of California, and private colleges. 

School counselors overwhelmingly told ACT and ASCA that social and emotional learning is just as important as academics for student success. How are you incorporating it into your programming, and how do you see it affecting your students?

Social and emotional learning is critical to student success. Our comprehensive school counseling program intentionally addresses the five evidence-based competencies according to CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Our district has prioritized social and emotional learning and our teachers have been trained in providing the Second Step Program’s SEL curriculum on a weekly basis. At the elementary level, teachers also have daily check-ins with students. 

This intentional teacher-led instruction has enabled our entire staff to use similar language, and our students are benefiting. Students and staff are learning what empathy means and they are putting it into practice with greater frequency. Student voice is important, and students are learning to speak up and advocate for themselves and their peers. For example, the first unit in the Second Step curriculum was about mindsets and goals. Our students are working on developing growth mindsets, and often they will say, “I do not understand yet” … such a powerful statement! Another example: The second unit is on bullying and harassment. Students and staff are learning the difference between rude, mean, and bullying behaviors and are speaking up when they feel they are being harassed. Our school has even added an anonymous reporting app so that students can share their concerns with administrators. Future units include Thoughts, Emotions, Decisions and Managing Relationships and Social Conflict. School counselors also instruct all middle-schoolers using the Signs of Suicide curriculum and other social and emotional topics.

Social and emotional learning is positively affecting our students because they are becoming more aware of themselves and others. Our students are learning to self-manage, create healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. As our students develop these competencies, they are better equipped to understand and manage their own emotions and others, as well as to prevent and resolve conflicts in healthy and effective ways. This allows students to be able to focus and ready to learn.  

COVID-19’s disruption to students’ learning and education journeys is well-documented, from lower ACT scores to altered college plans – but the pandemic has taken its toll on exhausted educators, as well. What is your message to colleagues as we enter this third difficult year?

As we enter a third difficult year in education, I want to say thank you to every single educator for all that they have done to ensure that their students thrive during this unprecedented time in our country. 

I know educators – from superintendents to teachers to bus drivers – who have gone above and beyond to ensure that students, their families, and staff are OK. District leaders have created wellness opportunities for their staff and accessed every available resource for their students' benefit. Site leaders have extended grace and compassion to students as well as staff in their buildings and served as substitute teachers whenever it was necessary. Cafeteria staff have ensured that students, families, and staff are aware of available food resources. Bus drivers transported students and created Wi-Fi centers and meal distribution hubs. Teachers and paraprofessionals have continued to bravely teach and support our children through their own heartaches as COVID-19 devastated and forever changed their own families. And, school counselors have provided virtual counseling services, made home visit after home visit to ensure students were OK, sent meal deliveries to families – often using their own pocketbooks – and quietly sat and supported student after student and staff members, too, who experienced the death of loved ones. I want you to know that you have been amazing, and the world is grateful for all that you do. Educators have always been essential, but the pandemic let it be known to the entire world.    

I want to add that we must remember that we are in this together, and that is the silver lining. Take time to rest and recharge, but know that you are appreciated, valued, and very much needed. It is still essential that we support one another and educate (and support) our young people during this difficult time.

The poet Amanda Gorman said, “For there is always light in the world, if only we are brave enough to see it, if only we are brave enough to be it.” This is a call to action. We must continue to see the light and be the light for ourselves, for one another, and for our students. We can do this, we really can, and we must!

Lopez is lead school counselor at Livingston Middle School in California’s Central Valley and is also Livingston Unified School District’s school counseling coordinator. She has been a school counselor for 15 years, serves as a Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP) reviewer, and is a board member for the California Association of School Counselors.