JimMcLaughlin, Associate Director of Freshman Admissions at Drexel University,speaks to the Principal of Sarala Birla Academy, Santanu Das, to understand the landscape of career and college counseling and how educators can shape this field to positively impact many young lives.
Jim McLaughlin (JM): What are some of the challenges faced by career counselors? How do you as a senior administrator tackle such challenges on an ongoing basis?
Santanu Das (SD): There are quite a few challenges in this space and the most common one is the lack of awareness regarding careers and counselling. There are also situations of conflict between students and parents, particularly in India. For example, I have met many students whose parents and grandparents have been in the medicine field, and they often assume that the future generations will traverse the same path. Contrary to their assumption,these children may have other career interests, and this often leads to a lot of friction between students and their parents. There are also situations where students are brilliant in academics, but the parental financial support may not be very forthcoming. In another scenario, there are parents who pressure their children to take over and manage the family business. In my school, we see a number of students from affluent families and there is this lack of motivation in the students. As an educator, this is very painful to witness. These students are also reluctant to explore their innate qualities and strengths,and therefore limit their own potential.
JM: How do you see counselors addressing some of these issues and, then from a senior administrator’s point of view, what are some of the ways that senior administrators can help support counselors?
SD: Counseling is important, but high-quality counseling is the need of the hour! Counselors must first understand the situation to effectively pass on knowledge to parents and students. Counselors need to convey the message: “while money is important, it is only a tool to help us get the things that we need on a daily basis.” Counselors must help students and parents realize that careers play a much bigger role – that the most prudent decision is to select a career path that offers a source of income,as well as provides a source of happiness, fulfillment and excitement. If a counselor can articulate this and make people understand and believe in this ideology, much of the job will be done.
Additionally,counselors need a lot of help. Here at Sarala Birla Academy, we try and help them in various ways, including through the support of our alumni. Alumni know what it’s like to be outside the protective environment of the school, on the practical side of it all, and when they come and talk about the balance between aspiration and ability, it makes more sense to the students. So, we have a lot of alumni interaction that we bank upon, and they have delivered in a big way for us.
University visits also help a lot because when university representatives come and speak to students, students can really begin to understand about the latest courses, requirements and the opportunity that exists in various universities across the globe. We also have a lot professionals come in from various career paths and share their excitement, difficulties and challenges, which helps students gauge what life as a doctor, lawyer, businessman or an astronaut might be. The school also plays a major role to as the bridge between counselors, students and parents, because parents need to understand that the best possible outcome probably will come from the best possible life. It's similar to being on the soccer pitch – the players with the best balance will probably play the game in the best manner possible.
IC3 is the best possible thing that could have happened in this sphere. It has a major role to play and for the last three years it’s been phenomenal to watch how the movement has grown and evolved. Additionally, the way it’s branching out through the IC3 Institute and other initiatives, we can expect an exciting time for careers and counselling.
JM: Speaking particularly about alumni, as it relates to the conflict between students’ goals and parental expectation, do parents have any opportunity to hear the story of alumni who went on a different path than was expected of them?
SD: Yes, we make it a point to invite as many parents as we possibly can. We have a bit of a challenge here because our students are from all over the country and beyond, staying in boarding schools, but still a lot of parents are beginning to visit more when they learn that the alumni are going to come and share their professional life stories. Parents are beginning to get very excited about this aspect. They seem to realize the importance that this carries – that here is somebody who has spent seven years growing up in this institution, then went out and studied for the next four to five years in college and has since started working as well. Their style of engagement and their views are actually some of the main highlights for many parents and students alike.
JM: Can you share your thoughts on any policy-level changes that you think are required to make sure that school-based counseling gets the focus it deserves?
SD: A lot needs to be done and more importantly, mindsets must be changed. The policies must change, and we cannot keep looking at counseling as a different entity from the curriculum itself. Counseling now has to be at the heart of the curriculum.
IC3 has stepped in seamlessly to fill a void that has been empty for ages. IC3 has brought together universities, counselors, students, teachers, parents and industry professionals from all across the globe. The IC3 Conference is a hub for all these diverse groups of individuals, and it is a glue that binds together all of these stakeholders, keeping them connected. Yes, the policy change must happen at the school management level, but the role of IC3 cannot possibly be overemphasized. School principals play a very important role and need to make the management understand that quality counseling must be at the very center of the entire curriculum.
JM: My next question is somewhat personal to you as someone who has been in the field as an educator. Though you are a senior administrator at this stage, you are still very much connected as someone who makes an impact and difference in the lives of students, and I’m sure your team and staff is as well. So, do you have sort of a secret mantra that drives you in making counseling relevant and creating a positive impact on those you influence?
SD: I wish I had a secret mantra, but I don't! There are ideas that we all have, and these ideas do get more refined with age and experience. This is the age of collaboration and I see it playing a major role today. And to that point, IC3 is nothing if it is not about collaboration.
When I look back on my 32 years in this profession, I tend to take stock of how this journey has been. I find that towards the later stages of my career, things have actually become much easier in the sense that this collaborative work has started paying dividends. Much of the success, happiness and fulfillment of a person’s life depend on his/her career choice and much of it will depend on how seamlessly the transition has happened between school,high school, university and then career paths. The magic can be unraveled only if we bring in a lot of collaborative work, a lot of knowledge and success that can only accrue because of collaboration. I don’t really know about a “secret mantra,” but I feel very strongly about collaboration. I also feel very strongly about the emotional connection that we need to have with our students.Since my school is a boarding school, all of us here have to do all that a parent/grandparent would do, and that can happen only if the emotional connection between the students and the staff can be established. The same rule applies to a counselor, and only when there is an emotional connection, the child will feel confident and will trust the counselor even more. Once that is established, the counselor will find it much easier to walk the students along the path that he/she feels would be the most suitable for them.
JM: So as we conclude, do you have any other thoughts you want to share on counseling, or trends in education particularly from your perspective as an Indian school administrator?
SD: I think we have come a fair distance as far as counseling is concerned; however, the world has moved a little faster than we have progressed in the line of counseling. That is why I feel that IC3 has come about at just the right time, and it’s already proving to be such a splendid vehicle in helping to transport us where we need to be in the days and years to come. The schools and universities have to take up the responsibility of making people understand why counseling is so important. As per me, counseling is not only the core of a curriculum, but also the very core of a child’s upbringing.Once we can make people understand things from that perspective, we will have covered a fair distance.