Life Beyond ASL
Dealing with the Unexpected; Embracing the Unknown
By Anne Richardson
14 October 2020
Time To Be Slow
My first day out of quarantine, and the last day of fall break, I was raring to go. Having not been further than the wheelie bins by the front door, I was ready for a long walk, a socially-distanced lunch with a friend, and a quick stop at the local shop for milk.
Sitting on the Tube – thankfully, everyone masked and socially distanced – I found myself staring at Poems on the Underground, a wonderful innovation that provides a moment of calm and introspection on the rattling, noisy tracks. And this is what I read:
I love this poem.
I am watching our seniors race through October, frantically finishing and polishing applications while keeping up with their classes. I am watching my colleagues teetering to balance advising and proofreading with writing and polishing recommendations. I am watching our faculty reeling and bracing under the weight of combining teaching, advising and Zooming in new distanced and masked ways. And we are all trying to find balance in the enormous sombre shadows of a pandemic and, for many here, a pivotal, bitter election.
When I meet my advisees today, we are going to talk about how we can reconcile our daily lives with “time to be slow.” We will tackle the “wire brush of doubt,” and encourage each other to burnish the “hesitant light” and “remain generous.” I do believe, I have to believe that there are “fresh pastures of promise … blushed with beginning.” When historians write about 2020, they will undoubtedly focus first on the terrible mistakes and costs of this year; I hope they also focus on the power of individual acts of generosity and kindness that help us all survive.
And I will remind myself to “be slow,” which means taking care of myself, slowing down, accepting that more weeks of self-isolation and lockdown probably lie ahead, along with dark winter days and curtailed holidays and celebrations. Life will continue to be difficult on so many fronts, but I remain buoyed by many individual and daily acts of generosity, kindness and light.
“This is a time to be slow … [but] Time will come good.”
14 September 2020
Reimagining the Admissions World
At ASL this year, our school-wide theme is “reimagining the world,” and in my small part of the world, re-imagining college and university admissions is happening astonishingly fast.
COVID-19 upended the world of college/university admissions, beginning with testing for US institutions. To be fair, admissions testing was already under scrutiny in multiple ways, from the Reuters series of articles on testing difficulties for international students, to the Varsity Blues scandal; from the University of California review of testing to the NACAC Task Force on Testing for International and US Students. The test-optional movement was already growing, particularly amongst colleges with holistic review as the hallmark of their admissions policies, and Duolingo, with its on-demand, at-home testing at a significantly lower cost, was upsetting the applecart when it came to testing English language proficiency.
As COVID-19 gathered speed across the world, it became very clear that the Class of 2021 would simply have to be evaluated differently. Exams and admissions tests were cancelled, moved online or changed; grading changed to P/F for many schools; and curricula and teaching were completely upended by global distance learning. The massive list of clubs and activities is non-existent for the Class of 2021, summer jobs and opportunities vanished.
Reimagining the admissions process has begun.
Test-optional, and even test-blind, has become ubiquitous in the US, and universities outside of the US may also need to examine transcripts and honors courses as substitutes for AP’s and SAT/ACT tests. The traditional selling of the university experience through campus tours, visiting classes, interviews and open days has been forced online. Rep visits this fall are virtual, necessitating changes in timings of visits and webinars. College fairs? Virtual. Most importantly, colleges and universities are rapidly retraining their admissions staff to evaluate admissions files in completely different ways this year.
What does this mean for the Class of 2021 and beyond?
Crystal balls aside, we are encouraging the Class of 2021 to focus on classwork first, and to make sure that the quality of their essays is high, with their own voice clearly ringing throughout. Excellent research on each institution is more essential than ever. With more test cancellations occurring, testing needs to take a backseat, and this is a particularly hard switch to flip for parents and students. In July, the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a statement from more than 300 college admissions deans that clarifies what colleges value during these times: self-care, service to others, caring for families and meaningful learning. Clearly context matters, and it will be important to reflect this both in applications and in letters of reference, as well as encouraging students to take advantage of creative ways in which colleges are focusing on what really matters: short interviews, videos and more. The upside of all of this will be to see if the absence of SAT’s and ACT’s really makes a difference to enrolling a qualified class. The other silver lining in the midst of this pandemic, according to Frank Bruni, is a renewed focus on programs and teaching as the primary value of an institution. In other words, is it the right fit? Is this the place where I can be academically successful?
If reimagining the college and university admissions world brings us back to valuing teaching and learning over testing, and prioritizing fit over the glitz of new buildings and dining plans, then that looks pretty good to me.
18 May 2020
Since the last blog, we have all been rocketing through a global pandemic, where each day brings a whirlwind of uncertainty, contradictory advice, new anxieties, and a sometimes near, but sometimes oh so far horizon of normality. At the centre of this moment, in my world, is the Class of 2020.
What an amazing class they are.
For sure, there have been some classes in the past which have been rocked to their core by dreadful local disasters and tragedies, like tornados, floods, and school shootings. But never before has an entire class of students, throughout the world, had to step out into such a changed world while staying at home, away from their friends and extended families, without their teachers, advisors, staff and administrators being able to hug them, and say goodbye. Never before have students had to finish school while juggling variable technologies and internet access, family illnesses and crises, and the isolation that lockdown has wrought.
The only thing certain right now, Class of 2020, is uncertainty.
Amidst the struggles of finishing school, you have also been casting your eyes ahead to what is now an unclear and changeable future. What does university or college or an apprenticeship or a gap year look like today? What will it look like tomorrow? Will life, college, university, travel, a job ever be normal again?
Yet, as Oprah Winfrey so ably stated in her graduation speech for the Class of 2020, “never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion and energy, and hope.” She adds, “I wish I could tell you I know the path forward. I don’t. There is so much uncertainty. In truth, there always has been. What I do know is that the same values, fortitude, and determination … the same guts and imagination that got you to this moment—all those things are the very things that will sustain you through whatever is coming.”
The ASL Class of 2020 glows with guts, imagination, creativity and determination. They have sustained their community while in isolation. I love their virtual Tube photo, and their weekly philosophical musings in our bulletin. They have thought of others and sought to help those in need, both at ASL and in the wider community. They have innovated and found solutions. They exude optimism and hope in the midst of crises and loss.
The Class of 2020 will rightly go down in history, and I hope each and every one of you boldly steps up and stakes your claim to this historic moment. It’s OK not to be able to see a clear path ahead, it’s OK to feel discomfort and it is definitely OK to feel uncertain. Because, as the former President Obama tells you, the incredible Class of 2020, “with so much uncertainty, with everything suddenly up for grabs, this is your generation’s world to shape.”
Seize it and shape it, ASL Class of 2020; whatever is ahead, you’ve got this.
23 March 2020
Advocacy in New and Strange Times
I was going to write about my day on Capitol Hill, advocating for students in higher education.
Two weeks ago, I was spending my Sunday in Washington DC with college admissions counselors and college/university counselors from across the world, preparing to go to Capitol Hill on Monday to meet with House and Senate members and their aides, to remind them about the importance of international students in higher education – the many and extraordinary benefits they bring to campuses, classrooms, residence halls, surrounding towns and cities. In cold hard cash, international students inject over $50 billion each year to US states. But they do so much more – and I include here all of our students who have grown up abroad. Their presence contributes to and expands the cultural competency and global outlook of all, really so much more valuable and lasting than all of those dollars. In our many visits on Monday, crisscrossing the Capitol, from Dirksen to Longworth, many listened - some more attentively and closely than others - to this strong advocacy for international students.
And now, two weeks later, we are in a different, hard world. In just one week, the world of education as we know it has been turned on its head, and we have been rocketed into the unknown, with all the accompanying fears, anxieties that such a turn of events brings.
School has changed. Shut are the ASL doors like, as Ms. Appleby wrote to the faculty, Sleeping Beauty’s castle; and we don’t really know when it will come back to life. The spring SAT and ACT have been cancelled, IB exams and A Levels/GCSE’s have been cancelled and AP exams have gone to an online format. More importantly, we are now all learning at home, with all the accompanying stresses and strains this brings. We will have to get used to seeing and having our younger co-workers popping up and joining us in online meetings. We will have to schedule our time so that all our co-workers have time to learn and play. We will have to learn to share devices and bandwidth. We need to get outside for fresh air and exercise or bring the outside in. We need to be kinder than ever.
So I am still writing about advocacy, because it is now more important than ever. The classes of 2020 and 2021 need us. But it will look a little different than two weeks ago.
In the AACC office, now more than ever, we are committed to supporting our students so that somehow, and however it happens, the class of 2020 and 2021 not only finish their high school education, but do so with feelings of accomplishment and communal joy. We will advocate for them so that they reach their higher education goals, whatever they are. We want them to be able to celebrate in the middle of extraordinary times.
What I am excited about is all the creative and new ideas that will come out of this global moment when it comes to education and well-being. We are seeing an explosion of educational innovation that has the potential to change the face of education.
We will work with admissions counselors at universities across the globe to be understanding and forgiving of transcripts, grades and scores that will not look like the transcripts, grades and scores of 2019. We hope that thoughts of rankings and standards are pushed to the background, that issues of equity and access move to the forefront, and that all of us think creatively about how we help these classes adjust and move forward, so that their educational dreams can be realized.
Our overall message? The Classes of 2020 and 2021 will be stronger, more creative, more innovative and more resilient than ever.
24 February 2020
The Waiting Game
This month, all across the world, it seems that we are all in waiting mode, holding our breaths for …
… the next tube or bus
… the next coronavirus statistic
… US primary results
… Brexit fallout
… test and exam results
… university & college decisions
… the days to grow longer
Many seniors are waiting … for decisions in March and July that they fear, hope and dream will irrevocably change the courses of their lives. Other students wait anxiously for results of summatives, interviews and program/internship applications. Often we place tremendous weight and importance on some decisions over others, believing that they define our success, and that success defines who we are. Does it really? Are we, as adults, aiding and abetting our students and children in this, or reassuring and balancing?
Some of us wait anxiously, others impatiently and still others with equanimity. Is it true that the older we grow, the easier it is to wait for something? Does a long life lived bring more patience and acceptance? Certainly, lived experience tells us that, eventually, whatever we are waiting for usually unfolds in front of us, perhaps not as we expected and often not according to our own timetables. Some of us stake everything on one outcome, only to be disappointed and then re-routed into another path or prospect. Do we accept this as an opportunity or defeat? As Joseph Campbell wrote, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” I would add “sometimes” to this …
However, if we focus on the summative, we miss the formative – and everything is formative. While it is always good to have our “eyes on the prize,” we mustn’t miss the in-the-moment prizes and joys that come with living life to its fullest each day. It is so important to be present and not to waste the opportunities and blessings that surround each day – sharing a joke, helping someone out, celebrating a friend, or stopping to appreciate a moment of heart-stopping beauty in the world. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” We must not defer life while we wait: we must live it to its fullest each day while we wait.
9 January 2020
New Year; Good Friends and Kind People
It’s January 2020 – a new year, a new decade, new beginnings. In advisories there has been talk of new year resolutions, and the seniors are already looking ahead to new beginnings post-graduation. There are faculty and staff who are applying to explore elsewhere, and administrators studying resumes and cover letters of those wishing to start new ventures at ASL. And the days are growing longer, the darkness of winter diminishing. Exciting times!
In the midst of all this, however, it is often easy to lose sight of those among us for whom this is not all excitement and light. In saying hello to 2020, we also let go of 2019, its decade and all that it held for us.
Anyone reading the news knows that that 2020 is already filled with dark global issues, and ongoing crises that have spilled into it from 2019 and years back. One of my seniors came in today to talk about university and confessed that mixed in with the excitement is more than a little fear of what life after ASL means. What if she doesn’t make any friends? I know that there are parents who are already preparing themselves to wave goodbye at airports and university gates, smiling on the outside, but filled with the triad of excitement, trepidation and loss. What if they don’t make friends? How will they manage without us?
Thank goodness for friends and kind people.
It seems to be that one true and ageless constant is that we all know what it is to be kind and to be a good friend. Amidst the bad news, I look around and see people being good and kind to each other all the time: a teacher stopping in the halls of ASL to ask after a student in tears, students reaching out to each other to celebrate the good news and console over the not so good, the stories coming out of the flames of Australia, and the Canadians who are sewing, crocheting and knitting warm nests and homes for the orphaned birds, koalas and kangaroos. Every time a colleague reaches out via Facebook (betraying my age here) to ask for help counseling a student about higher education, numerous people chime in with suggestions and ideas. Personally, I am humbled by the kindness that I have experienced from former students, current students and families, former and current colleagues, and friends and family in the last six months.
How easy is this?
It occurred to Pooh and Piglet that they hadn't heard from Eeyore for several days, so they put on their hats and coats and trotted across the Hundred Acre Wood to Eeyore's stick house. Inside the house was Eeyore.
"Hello Eeyore," said Pooh.
"Hello Pooh. Hello Piglet," said Eeyore, in a Glum Sounding Voice.
"We just thought we'd check in on you," said Piglet, "because we hadn't heard from you, and so we wanted to know if you were okay."
Eeyore was silent for a moment. "Am I okay?" he asked, eventually. "Well, I don't know, to be honest. Are any of us really okay? That's what I ask myself. All I can tell you, Pooh and Piglet, is that right now I feel really rather Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. Which is why I haven't bothered you. Because you wouldn't want to waste your time hanging out with someone who is Sad, and Alone, and Not Much Fun To Be Around At All, would you now."
Pooh looked at Piglet, and Piglet looked at Pooh, and they both sat down, one on either side of Eeyore in his stick house.
Eeyore looked at them in surprise. "What are you doing?"
"We're sitting here with you," said Pooh, "because we are your friends. And true friends don't care if someone is feeling Sad, or Alone, or Not Much Fun To Be Around At All. True friends are there for you anyway. And so here we are."
"Oh," said Eeyore. "Oh." And the three of them sat there in silence, and while Pooh and Piglet said nothing at all; somehow, almost imperceptibly, Eeyore started to feel a very tiny little bit better.
Because Pooh and Piglet were There.
No more; no less.
(A.A. Milne, E.H. Shepard)
It’s pretty easy. Let’s make being there for each other a New Year’s Resolution. Happy 2020!
6 December 2019
Everything is Going to Be All Right...
Deadlines. Assessments. Brexit (again). Gift-giving. General Election. Impeachment. Holiday Parties. Strikes. Climate Change. University Decisions. Holiday Dinners. Darkness.
Anxiety races around at this time of year, particularly in the higher levels of the school. In the background now dances the younger, golden and eager anticipation of the holidays, replaced, at the forefront, by waking with deadlines and to do lists chasing around our brains, overlaid by the age-old anxiety, “Am I good enough?” For many of us, a weary understanding and global trepidation of “What’s next in the world?” is yet another layer of anxiety piled on top.
December is a time where there will be both wonderful news and difficult news coming for our senior class applying to university; indeed, it has already started. There is elation, and then there are and will be tears. Unfortunately, this is not a science, an "if I do all of this, then this will happen" process. In the microcosm that is ASL and with the magnifier of social media, it is really tempting for students and parents to fall into the pit of “I’m not good enough” because right now, things have not worked out.
But it will all work out.
In the absolute moment of joy, remember to look around and, in former ASL Head of School Ms. Hester’s words, “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” Think about limiting your social media postings and celebrations, and be sensitive about the chatter amongst yourselves.
In the absolute moment of disappointment, it is totally understandable and right to be sad – go for the pajamas, the comfort food, and the binge-watching of an old favorite show. Go for a run or workout, listen to music, cuddle the family pet or stuffed animal and allow yourself to be taken out for a treat by your parents, who hate to see you so sad. They, too, may be struggling with disappointment and asking themselves what they did wrong, and why can’t they make this right for you.
Because, ultimately, this process does not define who you are and your own self-worth. Remind yourself of all that you are and have - a good friend, a team player, a critical thinker, an innovator, a change-maker, a creator - with a strong work ethic, a solid moral compass, strong, deep and abiding interests and ideas, a global outlook, and an exciting vision for the future. As they say, it’s not where you go, it’s what you do when you get there. This is what is truly important. This is who you are.
And then, look around. There will be many other options and pathways for you to consider, plus your ideas may have changed about what you are seeking and where you would like to go. Trust us, there is something just as fulfilling and exciting out there for you; perhaps it is almost liberating to be able to make some different choices. And you have a wonderful team of counselors, deans and advisors, eager to help you talk this through.
There’s a quote about anxiety that goes I need you to love me a little louder today and if ever we needed to love each other a little louder, now is a good time.
And it will all work out.
8 November 2019
So What Does A College Counselor Do?
When I was approaching university, many years ago, there was no such role as a college counselor. Admittedly I was in the UK in an all-girls boarding school, and our careers room was a cold, dimly lit space, papered with out of date information (but with a huge section on the benefits of Cordon Bleu and secretarial colleges) and rarely occupied, certainly not by an informed adult with career advice. My “college counselor” was not the best: it was my father. On the one hand, I am thankful that he steered me towards the liberal arts education in the US. On the other hand, my list was a ridiculous one – so ridiculous that I was denied at six out of the seven institutions on his list, and a spring admit at the seventh. And the only reason that the seventh institution, Oberlin College, made it on to the list is that my father had dated someone who went to Oberlin. Not the best way to pick a college. Thankfully, it all worked out; I loved Oberlin and liberal arts, and am proud to call myself an alumna.
Today, the static careers room has morphed into an industry of counseling: university advisors, school counselors, college counselors (the term “guidance counselor” is being replaced.) Together they span a range of social/emotional/academic high school counseling as well as higher education advice across the world. School counselors support students throughout their high school careers, embracing the entire range of high school including academic advice, family intervention, emotional support and career planning. Other offices, like ASL with deans and college counselors, separate out higher education planning from high school academic/family/social/emotional support.
So what do the three ASL college counselors do?
The label “college counselor” itself is limiting. It implies that all roads lead to college, and “college” is, in itself, a very American term. I like to think of us as life facilitators and empowerment gurus.
First and foremost, we work with students, helping them to understand themselves and find their next pathway, whatever it may be. We love meeting with them, discussing high school, talking through dreams. We realize that they are not fully formed, and understand that they and their plans will change. We encourage them to own their next steps and to be independent. We brainstorm, proof, advise and problem-solve. Most of all we urge our students to use this time to explore widely and deeply, to do their own research, and not to settle for what “they have heard” or others want.
We also work with parents, helping them understand the range of options that currently exist, and how to foster independence and ownership while scaffolding quietly underneath. When students are stressed about applications, we help everyone manage and alleviate this stress. We provide advice about summer programs, gap years, testing, lists, choices and more. Sometimes we say “No” and “Stop.” We often say, “Take a deep breath.” We remind parents that their goal is to be fired as a parent, and hired back as a consultant.
We work constantly with colleges and universities all over the world, not to mention summer programs, apprenticeships, gap year programs, military recruiters and academies, PG programs and more. We work with multiple application systems, different deadlines and application plans, financial aid and visas, and more. We host rep visits and learn constantly. We pride ourselves on our networking and the first-hand experiences we have of campuses all over world. We work in our profession to advocate for treating students ethically.
Finally, we provide chocolate, stress balls, and ears, hearts and love – for everyone.
3 October 2019
‘Tis the season … for meltdowns. From epic public leader tantrums, to outrage over world events, to tears in our office, we seem to be awash in meltdowns. Blistering language, wounding words, panic attacks and quiet sadness – all have walked through our national headlines and into our office recently, as we all try to navigate through the uncertainties that surround us each day.
There is certainly a lot to worry about: scanning the headlines the past few months has not made for comfortable reading. Extreme weather, Hong Kong protests, school shootings, tariff wars and recession worries, knife crime, not to mention the “B” word – all provoke anxiety, uncertainty and helplessness. Closer to home, the Labour manifesto threats to independent schools, the Varsity Blues scandal, the Harvard lawsuit, and the US Dept. of Justice investigation of college admissions give us pause for thought. And still closer, the rapid pace of school life, the race to university deadlines, the approaching holidays and the myriad asks for our time can add up to a runaway train of anxieties that threaten to overwhelm us all.
It’s time for some deep breaths.
We have difficult conversations as an AACC team in our office, and whenever we lean into discomfort to tackle complexities, I look around the table and am grateful for the highly skilled professionals with whom I work on a daily basis. The wisdom and perspective that each brings to the table helps all of us grow, even when the conversations are uncomfortable. I have learned that when things seem to be going downhill, being able to depend on a team is half the battle. Knowing who you have on your team, and asking for help is crucial. So whenever someone heads into our office to ask for help, we welcome them.
One of my all-time favourite mentors, a pragmatic New Englander and legendary head of a female boarding house, dealt with meltdowns in this way. As one sobbed and hiccupped to a halt, she would always ask, “On a scale of 1-10, 10 being a nuclear holocaust right over our heads right at this moment, where are we?” Perspective and balance are important.
Last year the phrase “take care” may have led-to the occasional snicker and accompanying eye roll, but taking care of oneself and others is part of the meltdown solution. Going for a walk, digging in the garden, listening to music, reading a book – this is how I take care of myself. As a parent, I blessed the moments when my husband took over in the midst of teenage mother/daughter meltdowns and quietly said, “Why don’t you go for a walk. Take the dogs. Breathe.” And I did. And it worked.
Hugs are important. And, judging from the rapidly diminishing AACC candy stash, sweet treats are important.
Finally, I love my “That Was Easy” button – because in the meltdown moment, problems take on Everest proportions and the way forward seems impenetrable. I have learned and continue to learn to listen carefully and sympathetically, never minimizing the hurt but also seeking perspective on the problem. We look for solutions – and they are always out there. As the tears lessen and everything is laid out on the table, a way forward emerges and, sometimes, I can press the button.
26 August 2019
If I have learned anything this summer, it is that life throws us curve balls.
As June started I was looking forward to a summer of rest and renewal, some exciting professional development in the shape of a course and a conference, lots of summer visitors, and summer travel throughout and around London with my husband and with friends and family. Then life happened, and my summer was upended by my husband’s sudden death and the need to rearrange priorities and plans not only for the summer, but for life itself. There were times where I was not sure that I would be able to do any, let alone all of this; and I am certainly fearful of facing this unfamiliar new normal. My terrain has shifted dramatically, and the path ahead is no longer the one that I thought it would be. But my children and I survived the summer, and I am slowly learning to embrace the unknown that lies ahead. For while a life earthquake occurred, my inner compass and my support system stayed strong. I find that I have unwittingly adopted the Love Island 2019 mantra: “It is what it is.” According to the Free Dictionary this means: “The situation, circumstance, or outcome has already happened or been decided or established, so it must be accepted even if it is undesirable,” As undesirable as my summer was, it is what it is.
What does this have to do with life beyond ASL for our students? A lot.
Even as I write this, there are students all over the world whose exam results were not what had been expected, and who have had to switch gears quickly and find a new plan. Students in the UK who thought they were studying X program at Y university are now going through Clearing and preparing to study A program at B university. At ASL we are dealing with our own set of extraordinary curve balls with AP exams, which have upended and refocused plans for this fall.
Indeed, the college and university admissions process is all about learning to deal with the unexpected.
Ask any senior in June at the end of the year if their pathway to life beyond ASL was straight, narrow and predicted, and 95% of them will tell you that it wasn’t. On their journey through senior year, these students may have found doors shutting abruptly, but they also found windows and other doors opening. They discovered new opportunities that they hadn’t considered before, and found new excitement in places that they had not previously considered. Each year, students discover different, interesting institutions and programs at our College Fair and some students start their journey focusing on one country, only to end up in a completely different one. Students who are denied at the college of their dreams (or their parents’ dreams) fall in love with their third, fourth or fifth choice. As Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times: “For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Besides, life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.” Ask these seniors in June if they are excited about their futures, and they will say yes, even if they are not where they thought they would be the previous September. Ultimately, each year we hope that our seniors, with the help of their friends, teachers, counselors and families, use their inner compass to keep themselves focused on all the possibilities that lie before them. We urge them to know themselves well so that they can set aside the noise. We ask that they focus on where they will find success, and refuse to be derailed by setbacks and unexpected changes in direction. They will be stronger and better for these lessons learned.
Ultimately, it is what it is – and it will all work out.