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The road to college: New college counselor guides students through application process

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College counselor Maria Aguirre works with a student in the VICCI center. Photo by Tobi Kawanami

With the fall semester underway, one constant thought lurks in the back of most senior’s minds: the dreaded college admissions process. Faced with personal essays, dozens of college choices and SATs, many seniors struggle to keep the stress at bay as they juggle their applications on top of the rest of their schoolwork. Last April, after numerous requests, Lowell’s School Site Council decided to fund an official college counselor.

Maria Aguirre, who was an academic counselor at Lowell for eight years, is now Lowell’s college counselor. Her job entails getting information about colleges out to parents and students, guiding them through the admissions process, and providing information and support through registry visits and individual meetings with students during the day, according to Aguirre.

Aguirre’s desk is in the College Counseling Information Center, and she is accessible to students from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. when she’s not leading workshops.

Since 97.73 percent of Lowell students plan to go to college, according to a senior class survey by the Lowell Alumni Association in 2016–17, Lowell has a high demand for college counseling services.

The workshops will focus on different areas of the college admissions process and applications such as personal statements, types of colleges and how to get financial aid and scholarships. Some will be held after school, but they will also be held during the day so that students who work or have extracurriculars after school can still attend.

Senior Alvin Zhang attended a workshop on starting UC applications during fifth block on Aug. 28. He started his college search this summer, but he said he would have begun earlier if Lowell had had a college counselor last year. “I know in my junior year I was definitely interested in a few colleges, but I didn’t really know how the application worked, so I think having an actual college counselor would have been really helpful,” he said.

Senior Sierra Kirkpatrick set up a group meeting with the college counselor and some of her friends on Sept. 5. She was already fairly knowledgeable about college, having already worked on her common and UC applications, but she said Aguirre was able to answer a lot of the more specific questions she had about the college admissions process. After worrying about having to get letters of recommendation from eight different teachers, Aguirre immediately alleviated Kirkpatrick’s stress by telling her she only needed one letter. “Being able to get the answers immediately is amazing because a lot of people don’t have that opportunity,” Kirkpatrick said.

Senior Claire Garcia, a 2016–2017 student representative on the SSC, suggested hiring a college counselor for the VICCI Center at the Feb. 27 meeting. “I believe that having a college counselor at Lowell will help students manage their stress,” she said. “College applications are already very stressful, as is Lowell, but having some who can help guide you towards success helps manage the stress.”

Garcia was not the first to try to get a college counselor at Lowell. Many other students have been asking for one for years, saying they want more support getting into college, according to assistant principal Margaret Peterson. “A lot of people worked really hard to get this,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming and we’re excited to be able to help more students.”

The SSC is funding half of the position, and the Lowell Alumni Association voted to pay the rest.

“College applications are already very stressful, as is Lowell, but having someone who can help guide you towards success helps manage the stress.”

Since 97.73 percent of Lowell students plan to go to college, according to a senior class survey by the Lowell Alumni Association in 2016–17, Lowell has a high demand for college counseling services. For years, it fell mostly on the academic counselors to take on that role, as well as juggling schedule changes and overseeing their designated registries.

The school board initially believed there was no need for a college counselor, since academic counselors could provide the necessary college help, but “through the years, as college has become more competitive to get in, [they] have sensed more pressure and more stress from the students, and when that’s the case, they need more support,” Aguirre said.

Since VICCI Center volunteers aren’t trained to help students with college and often have full-time jobs, they are limited in the number and depth of services they can provide for students, according to VICCI Center volunteer coordinator Beth O’ Leary.

As a result, Lowell has relied on academic counselors to take on a college counseling role, and Peterson said that with their 350 student caseload, the highest workload in the school district, they weren’t able to do as much as they’d like to in terms of helping students with college. “Our counselors are organizing and calling colleges, getting them to come in, and doing all this work on top of all the other work they’re doing to try to meet the needs of their students,” Peterson said.

Over the past eight years, the number of letters of recommendation each counselor had to write increased from around 45 letters per year to 70 per year as more students started looking outside the UC system, which doesn’t require recommendation letters, according to Aguirre.

Aguirre says that her position can reduce the workload of the academic counselors while providing more college workshops and services for students. In previous years, they were only able to hold three or four workshops a year, and never before were they able to hold events in the first two weeks of school. The number of workshops will likely double from last year, Aguirre said.

The amount of individual support a student can get is based on their own needs, according to Aguirre. Some students have visited her almost every day to work on their applications, and some have already started attending workshops.

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It will still fall on the academic counselors to write recommendation letters, but by helping with individual applications and scheduling colleges to come in, Aguirre will reduce their workload.

Academic counselor Amber Wilson said that Aguirre can reduce the time that she would have spent working with individual students that were just sitting and working on their applications, allowing her to focus on the needs of other students. Working with individual students is very time-consuming, “so what’s helpful is that [Aguirre] can alleviate some of that time.”

Though she plans to focus on seniors, Aguirre welcomes juniors and underclassmen to get information and attend visits from college representatives so by senior year, they feel confident about the expectations for applying to college.

She’s also planning to redecorate the VICCI Center to make it feel more welcoming for students. “I want the college center to feel like a student space where they feel welcomed and inspired, not like a conference room,” Aguirre said. Some of the file cabinets and bulkier furniture have already been removed, and one of the tables will be taken out to make room for comfortable lounge chairs donated by Wikipedia. She said she also hopes to write a grant and get laptops for students to use during their visit.

Aguirre looks forward to “getting to know students, being a support, somebody that they could talk to and feel like they have the tools and the knowledge to make the best of whatever path they choose to follow.”

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The road to college: New college counselor guides students through application process