Monday, August 25, 2014

Notes from a PCACAC Summer Institute First Timer

Contributed by Michelle Illar
Admissions Counselor, Stevenson University (MD)
My third week as a college admissions counselor called for a 2.5 hour car ride with a new colleague, spending two nights in a dorm room at a college I had never been to and being surrounded by tons of people I had never met before. I had no idea what I was in for.
My adventure began on Sunday night when we arrived at the University of Mary Washington and were greeted by the smiling faces of their admissions staff. It was a nice touch that allowed us, as new visitors, to feel welcome as soon as we arrived on campus. After checking into our rooms, my colleague Brett and I decided to venture out for some dinner. We took a self-guided tour through campus where we thought we were lost at least a dozen times before finding a great Mexican restaurant across the street. We told our waitress that we were on campus for a conference with other admissions and school counselors and she could not stop gushing about how amazing that was- what a great opportunity! I thought it was pretty exciting as well but still did not know what those two days were going to hold for us.
Sleeping in a quiet dorm room and having breakfast in the dining hall took me right back to my college days before the first session of Summer Institute 2014 was underway. The first general session was all about building relationships with counselors on the other side of the desk. The panel really set the tone for the next 48 hours; that admissions is all about relationship building- relationships with fellow college counselors, high school counselors, parents, students, coaches, data, and anyone else involved in the admissions process and decision.  The panel really honed in on the fact that meaningful relationships are the most beneficial for all parties involved.
After the panel, I went to a session focusing on how to leverage parents in the process of college admissions. Parents nowadays want to be more involved in the college process then their own parents were with them, so making sure that the parents trust and confide in you as an admissions counselor is important. As a new admissions counselor, I definitely took note of this trend and plan to communicate with parents as well as the applicants throughout the fall. Another session on territory management focused on building relationships with other colleagues. They talked about creating relationships with alumni and current parents to be able to leverage them during the travel season. Having a loving relationship with data (and being able to read it) is also an important piece of the profession so that you can see what tactics or areas are successful and which ones are not. Again, fostering relationships with the counselor across the desk came into play. You need to get to know the counselor, high school, and the community to really understand and recruit the students.
As we sat on 495 in DC rush hour traffic on our way back to Maryland, I was able to reflect back on the whirlwind that was Summer Institute 2014. I realized I’m not sure how I slept on a dorm bed for two years and that the waitress at the Mexican restaurant was right- our profession and this conference is pretty cool. It was a great opportunity for us, as competing institutions, to get together and share best practices and ideas about admissions. It’s pretty cool that we can all come together either in a classroom, over dinner, or on a trolley ride around a beautiful historic city, to not only talk about our profession and our institutions but also to really talk to and get to know each other. All in all, Summer Institute 2014 was very informative, but the thing I enjoyed most was getting to know you all and be able to start building relationships. Because after all, isn’t that what this job is all about?  
*** Are you interested in contributing to The Anchor? Email Rosemary Martin at to get started! ***

50 for 50: Barbara Conner

Barbara Conner
Director of College Counseling, Foxcroft School (VA)
How long have you been in your current position at Foxcroft School? How long have you been there total?
I have been at Foxcroft School as Director of College Counseling for almost four years - I came midyear and my fourth class of seniors just graduated - time flies!
How did you get started in college counseling/admissions?

 I was working in Fairfax County Public Schools when I learned about the College and Career Center Specialist position in each of the high schools.  When I read the job description, it sounded like they had designed a perfect job for me and as soon as one of the jobs became available, I applied.  I was hired at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Virginia and spent five years working with the incredible students and families in that school community. During my final year at West Potomac, I had a cadre of 23 weekly parent volunteers whose time and dedication allowed me to work with the students (2100 in all) in meaningful ways.
Prior to this, I worked in different areas including as a human resources director, an organizational consultant, a parent liaison, and a special education coordinator.  The common element I have found throughout my career is that I enjoy working with people, helping them discover their strengths and their goals then helping them develop strategies to achieve their goals.  Making connections has always been important to me.
What's your favorite counseling memory?
Wow - this is a tough question - there are so many incredible moments, conversations, and events which mark my time in college counseling.  When I left West Potomac, the parents hosted a bon voyage celebration and I was honored and stunned by the hundreds of previous students, current and former parents, and current students who attended.  To see the impact my work had on these individuals was humbling.  During the celebration, one of my football players came over picked me up off the ground and whispered, "It won't be the same here without you.  Those Foxcroft students better know how lucky they are to be getting you!" which made me cry. I will cherish that memory as one of my most poignant.

What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue leadership in PCACAC and/or NACAC?
Being involved in PCACAC has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my professional career.  I want everyone to have this experience.  Imagine an organization where when you walk into a meeting, people cheer and hug you.  The networking opportunities are unparalleled and the opportunities for personal growth are boundless.  How do you make this happen in your life?  Step up. Volunteer.  Talk with current PCACAC leadership to learn about the different opportunities.  Fill out and submit the online volunteer form found on the PCACAC website.  No matter what your interests, there is a PCACAC opportunity for you.

If not working in college counseling, what would you do?

I plan to do this forever, but if I HAD to change fields, I would go back to being a Human Resources Director.  I loved the staff development and training aspect of that work and found it very fulfilling.

What's one thing most people don't know about you?
The saddest/coolest thing I've done - being a pall-bearer for my grandfather. With my brothers and cousins, I was honored to make that final walk with him at his funeral. Spending every summer on Cape Cod was the binding fabric of my early life which included 12 U.S./international moves (my Dad was in the Army).  Summers meant spending time with my Papou fishing on the boat, sitting with him at Fenway, or watching him regale a roomful of aunts, uncles, and cousins with hysterical jokes while tears of joy streamed down his face. He taught me about honor and integrity.  He showed me the value of family.  He lived his life fully every single day.
Current trend/future issue I am most passionate about right now?
Changing the language we use when talking with students about college exploration and the college application process.  The old model of "reach/zone/safety" no longer works in this unpredictable admission landscape.  When the old models no longer reflect the current reality, it is imperative that we adapt.  I've done this by using a different approach with my students for the past few years - Five First Choice Colleges.  By asking students to focus on at least five schools that MATCH their current academic profile, their social/cultural goals for college, and their financial realities, I have begun to shift (slowly, but steadily) the way our students and families approach the process.  My goal is better outcomes and less stress for students. I don't want to be a lone voice in the wilderness on this important facet of our work, so I will be submitting an article for the PCACAC website soon and I hope this will begin a conversation among folks on both sides of the college admission desk.

*** To Celebrate Potomac Chesapeake's 50th Conference Anniversary, we're highlighting some of our current members. Each week until the conference at The Homestead in Spring 2015, a new member will be posted. Interested in participating? Email Aundra Weissert at to get started.***