This is the final entry in my “Beyond the Cubicle” series. I must admit that when I was presented with this opportunity, I was nervous that I wouldn’t have enough material to carry us through more than one or two months. But here we are, preparing the seventh post, and I enjoyed the exercise much more than I thought.
I don’t know how many people have stumbled upon this blog, but for those out there who have, thank you for reading. I continue to try and be a better professional, a better admission officer, and most of all, a better manager, and I hope the recap of my journey up to this point has been somewhat meaningful. If nothing else, the blog has provided a monthly opportunity for my mom to read up on how I’m doing at work, and I know she has enjoyed that. So, on behalf of my mother back in Metairie, Louisiana, “Thank you, WACAC!”
So now what? How do I wrap this all up? I took a few moments to read my previous entries, and I can attest that the lessons I wrote about were sincere. Whether it was a post on learning from my mistakes, or figuring out ways to motivate a staff, or learning to embrace the data of college admission while not losing that vital human element, these topics are something I continue to work through each day. And for anyone contemplating a career move within the higher education network, I would imagine that some of my experiences would cross over with the ones that lie ahead for you.
But as I move forward, I want to articulate a rule that underlines everything I hope to gain from this profession. And to do that, I harken back to August of 2005, when I was a fresh, overwhelmed, and largely clueless School Counseling Intern at Zachary High School in Zachary, Louisiana, just north of Baton Rouge. Zachary High is a public high school that at the time contained about 1,100 students over grades 9 through 12. I joined a staff of three school counselors who had decades of experience between them. While I have lost touch with my counselor colleagues from Zachary, I don’t know if I have had a better group of professional mentors over the course of my career.
Two weeks into my time at Zachary, Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, displacing hundreds of thousands of citizens, many of whom found their way to Baton Rouge and to Zachary High. 250 displaced students showed up at our doorsteps in the two weeks after Katrina. While my counselor colleagues took on the task of registering the students into already full classes, I was asked to monitor students’ social transitions to Zachary. In the early weeks of Katrina, we were still at the lower tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy where students’ basic needs, such as shelter and security, were paramount. But over time, we predicted that the stress from Katrina would start to reveal itself, and the Chair of the Counseling Department thought it would be a good learning experience for me to try and help students deal with this stress.
I didn’t want to force students to talk to me, but I wanted them to know that I was there to listen if they needed someone. To try and meet the needs of the most students in the most efficient way, I informed them that I would be starting group counseling sessions, if they were interested, of course. Only 12 students took me up on the offer: 6 girls, and 6 boys.
The makeup of my two groups was diverse. There were white students and black students; students who lived in fancy subdivisions in New Orleans, and others who lived in public housing projects; freshmen and seniors. But over the course of our 8 sessions, students started to make connections that were quite powerful. Even if they came from very different walks of life, the students in each group found a common ground, and while they may not have carried the relationships in the groups out into the hallways of the school, they at least knew that they weren’t alone. And to come to that realization with students who, prior to Katrina, they would have never imagined they could connect with was truly special, and I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
Like my former colleagues at Zachary, I haven’t kept in touch with any of the students I worked with in the groups, although we became close over the course of the school year. I often wonder how they are doing, and it’s hard to believe that the students who were freshmen at that time would now be in their early twenties.
But as I move on as a professional, I want to seek out opportunities that will provide me the opportunity to learn from people who are different from me, like my group counseling sessions with my students who were displaced from New Orleans. I want to have my beliefs challenged and I want to participate in discussions that challenge others. I want to find new ways to do things. This is largely why I enjoy working in college admission. Not only do I get to work with a diverse staff, but I get to meet students and families from across the country and from around the world, and while the interactions are often brief, the times I spend with them in their communities is thrilling.
So that’s the next step as I continue to move beyond the cubicle. I’ll try and get better at what I do, but to do so, I hope to avoid environments where groupthink is prevalent. While I hope that my experiences have been interesting, I also hope that there are folks out there who disagree with what I’ve written. Maybe our paths will cross someday, and we can chat about that. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.
By Michael Gulotta