Alma Lopez, a counselor at Livingston Middle School in Livingston, Calif., went to college almost by chance.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants growing up in a predominately white, rural neighborhood, Lopez, was never called in to meet with her high school counselor, who was white. One day she asked a fellow student about a California State University, Fresno sweatshirt he was wearing at the time. The conversation led her to apply and later attend the school.
She had no knowledge of financial aid she could apply for, no insight into what the college experience as a first-generation student would entail, and no clue how much her family would initially struggle emotionally with the move.
It turned out well for Lopez, who is the 2022 American School Counselor Association’s School Counselor of the Year, and the first Latina to win the honor. But she recognizes how much she missed out on from not having had a counselor who could have better prepared her for college in a way that acknowledged her lived experience.
For all students, the chaotic nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused mental health challenges and sidelined traditional strategies to prepare to attend college.
But that’s especially the case for students of color, who today make up a majority of the K-12 student population and who were disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. For instance, communities of color have suffered a greater number of deaths due to COVID-19; pre-existing academic performance gaps among students of color have widened; and students of color have seen the largest drop in college enrollment during 2020, particularly at two-year colleges.
Experts emphasize how diversity within the school counseling profession is essential for supporting these students at such a critical time and beyond. That’s diversity both in terms of the racial/ethnic demographics of counselors, and in terms of ensuring all counselors intentionally practice cultural sensitivity in their work.
And they’re encouraging school districts to more actively recruit counselors of color, more strategically provide students of color with the same college-going resources white students have historically been provided, and help counselors get rid of their racial biases.
The benefits of diverse school counselors
School counselors oversee the academic development, career development, and social-emotional development of students across the country. In such work, counselors can end up limiting opportunities for students of color if they let biases lead conversations in ways such as: wrongly assuming all students can ask their parents for guidance in applying for college; wrongly assuming Black and Latino students don’t want to go to college; and wrongly assuming Asian students don’t need as much support.
School counselors of color, who can serve as role models for students of color especially in predominately white schools, can avoid many of these biases in their connections with students. But when it comes to diversity within the racial/ethnic makeup of school counselors nationwide, there are gaps in representation that have persisted for years.
In July of 2020, the American School Counselor Association member data found that 76 percent of members were white compared to 51 percent of school-aged children. In contrast, only 6 percent of ASCA members were Hispanic compared to 25 percent of students at that time.
Such a mismatch in representation means students and families can miss out on unique benefits that come from working with school counselors of color, experts and counselors said.
For instance, in researching the effects school counselors in Massachusetts can have on students’ educational attainment, Christine Mulhern, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, found that students of color who are matched with nonwhite counselors were more likely to graduate high school and go to college and had more positive outcomes than if they had been matched to a counselor from a different racial background.
Lopez has seen this positive influence firsthand. The Livingston Union School District is about 80 percent Hispanic, she said. Her fluency in Spanish and her own experience growing up in an immigrant household lends her a level of credibility with Latino students and families that can’t be taught. This in turn helps fast-track the relationship-building needed when planning for a student’s future and addressing mental health questions or concerns.
School counselors of color have an advantage in being able to recognize cultural assets students of color can bring to school and how they can leverage assets such as the value of collectivity, the importance of paying your debts to your ancestors and the value of oral history, said Lisa Andrews, a counselor educator and former school counselor who also serves as director of user support and training at the California College Guidance Initiative.
For instance, counselors can frame academic achievement as a win not just for the student but for their family as they may value collective success over the individual, Andrews said. And counselors can do more to reach out to parents of color and a student’s extended family as they promote education in the home. Such involvement in a student’s success may not always be readily visible on a school campus, she added, but there’s a village involved behind the scenes.
While a white teacher made a difference in the life of Andrews, a Black woman, looking back she sees how she would have grown exponentially had she had a Black counselor.
“Black students are less likely to engage on campuses where they are small in number, and they’re less likely to engage the counseling office, they’re less likely to engage in counseling services, especially when they’re low number especially where they don’t have relatable role models of color,” Andrews said.
Eric Sparks, deputy executive director of ASCA, said that the national association is working on the matter of recruiting and retaining more school counselors of color by supporting local efforts. This includes helping state school counseling associations think of ways to recruit from underrepresented populations such as connecting with undergraduates at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and making sure to promote school counseling as an option at high school career fairs.
But in the meantime, Sparks and others acknowledge there’s another facet of diversity in school counseling that needs to be addressed, even among existing counselors of color.
“We can’t wait for the population of the school counselors to change to be more reflective,” Sparks said. “We’ve got to make sure that all of our school counselors are trained with culture-sustaining practice to fill that gap while we are working towards diversifying the profession.”
The need for cultural sensitivity
Lopez doesn’t share the language or specific cultural traditions of Indian students of Punjabi descent, who are about 11 percent of the district’s students, she said. But she has worked to learn more about her Punjabi students’ lives and improve communication with their parents through translators.
When first working with Punjabi translators, Lopez would catch herself speaking mostly to the translator and not the parents in the room. She’s worked since then to speak directly to the parents, making eye contact and building a relationship through nonverbal cues. She has also helped in recruitment and training of translators to ensure it’s not just community members filling these roles, as some parents may not wish to discuss sensitive information about their children in front of a translator who is also their neighbor.
While sharing a racial/ethnic background with students can have its benefits, Lopez and others acknowledge that all counselors must be willing to check their biases at the door and take the time to learn more about their students’ lived experiences and use that context to better shape the guidance they offer.
That means when navigating discussions of mental health, school counselors need to recognize that often in communities of color mental health is often not discussed or seen as a priority.
Kianna Victor, a junior at Randallstown High School in Baltimore, Md., said that among students of color, there’s the sense of trying to keep it together within themselves and by themselves.
It took her a while, and many teachers trying to convince her, to approach her school counselor for help with her anxiety. For her peers, she said, classes take priority over mental health.
“For many families we are that first mental health professional that they come into interaction with,” Lopez said. “So how we treat them and how they perceive that we’re treating them is going to set up their willingness to access additional services, if and when they’re needed.”
When advising students of color to attend predominantly white institutions, school counselors need to also prepare students for the challenges that await them at such a school due to their identities and help them find on-campus resources such as cultural centers, said Tanya Bass, senior manager of health equity at Active Minds, a national nonprofit promoting mental health among young adults.
As the pandemic has forced students to think more about the present, school counselors need to reimagine college readiness especially for those from marginalized communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus’ spread, Andrews said. For instance, if promoting higher education to less-resourced students, explaining how going to college can be a conduit to self-sufficiency is key.
The students Andrews teaches to become school counselors often worry about metrics such as how many AP classes students are taking and whether students are meeting college and graduation requirements. But if they focus on the qualitative aspects of the students, who they are, what they want for their future, Andrews said, the quantitative goals will be easier to achieve.
That especially counts as the pandemic has forced whole communities to go through what Lopez calls a collective traumatic experience, with students and colleagues losing loved ones to COVID-19.
“[The pandemic] is still happening, and as school counselors, we have to remember that,” Lopez said. “Sometimes we have to remind others, including our administrators, we’re still living in this moment, and you need to treat each other kindly, give each other grace, and then listen, and try and help any person—students, parents, staff member, administrator—get to that next level that they need to help them continue to move forward.”
And such work involves caring about whole individuals, including recognizing and celebrating cultural differences and similarities.
There’s a poster that’s been hanging in Lopez’s office for about 15 years. It’s there for her students. But really, it’s there as a reminder for herself.
It says: “Diversity is the one thing we all have in common. We should celebrate it every day.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why School Counselors of Color Matter More Than Ever