The 2018 Counselors That Change Lives Awards

The Counselors That Change Lives Award recognizes those whose dedication to the college counseling profession reflects the CTCL ideals. By helping students frame their search beyond the ratings and rankings to find a college that provides the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life, these counselors change lives. This award is our way of recognizing their tireless work, as summarized in the nominations below.

Colleges That Change Lives acknowledges all that these counselors do to help students and families in the college search process. Congratulations to this year’s recipients!

Beau BakerBeau Baker — Ivy Plus Academy at Fern Creek High School, KY
As a teacher and Dean of Fern Creek’s Ivy Plus Academy, Beau Baker isn’t accountable to anyone about the school’s college-going success rate or which university names can be listed on the school profile. That said, he has taken on the role of unofficial college counselor because of the purest of intentions: a desire to truly mentor under-served students and help each of them find their way to a perfect college fit.

Beau’s interest in setting students on a path for success begins with freshmen at Fern Creek. Working with a leadership team of upper-class students, he matches every new student with an older student mentor. This peer-to-peer program is integral to the students feeling welcome and adjusting to the experience at Ivy Plus. More importantly, it helps young men and women form real relationships, understand how to create a supportive and inclusive environment, and develop their own capacities for leadership, compassion, and a willingness to serve.

To expand students’ knowledge of higher education, Beau personally reaches out to colleges and universities to encourage them visit Fern Creek High School. He spends countless hours trying to understand each student’s story—their perspective on life, their hobbies, their fears and what type of college environment will actually benefit them. With this knowledge, he tailors letters of recommendation for each student, articulating their story, strengths, and potential. These letters bring depth and dimension to the application and often impact admission and scholarship decisions. Beau’s devotion to students has earned him the trust of his students and parents alike. There is no doubt he is changing their lives.

Kathryn BaronKathryn Baron — Mount Vernon High School (IA)
Many high school settings are filled with stress and drama, but at Mount Vernon High School that stress often is dissipated by college counselor Kathryn Baron. Her calm presence, tranquil demeanor, and relaxed smile help students work through problems big and small.

Despite a large caseload of students each year, Kathryn is works one-on-one with as many students as possible. Recognizing the individuality of all of her students and knowing that the college search is complex and unique for each one, she excels at meeting students where they are, supporting their search, and opening their eyes to colleges that aren’t necessarily name-brand or nationally ranked.

Kathryn is committed to staying connected to students’ family members and the community, and parents and students alike praise her work ethic and positive influence. Indeed, her day-to-day work upholds the ideal of a student-centered college search process.

Michele FloresMichele Flores — Baltimore City College (MD)
For 15 years, Michele Flores has served in a variety of capacities in education, as both a middle and high school teacher, and as a college advisor working with low-income students in a community-based organization. She has learned a lot about students and the education process over the years. Now, a high school counselor in the third oldest public school in the United States, she is able to apply this breadth of knowledge in ways that truly benefit students. “We have eager, talented, and passionate young people who deserve to have a community of mentors who nurture their potential. This is what I was meant to do,” says Michele.

Calling on her own history as a first-generation college student, Michele is motivated to inspire historically under-represented students to imagine college as part of their future and to connect those students to colleges where they can succeed. When students begin the college search process, she believes it’s crucial to engage not only the students but also family members, community organizations, and school staff. Together, they can provide support and encouragement students and families need when undertaking the college admission process.

Her close, careful mentoring provides the foundation for students to approach their college search with confidence—and to succeed once they enroll. Michele believes the college experience can be a transformative, not only for the student but for their larger family and, ultimately, their larger community.

Michele says she is privileged to have been a small part of their journey. CTCL believes the education profession is privileged to have counselors like Michele.

Melissa KotackaMelissa Kotačka — Carolina Friends School (NC)
Melissa Kotačka previously worked in college admissions, but her switch to a college counseling role came as little surprise to those who knew about her dedication to student-centered processes and emphasis on finding the right university fit. In her role at Carolina Friends School (CFS), she is the sole counselor and helps advise the 180 students in the Upper School.

CFS does not assign grades; all classes use a non-graded, non-ranked narrative evaluation system. This less traditional evaluation system draws an eclectic group of students to the school and necessitates that Melissa spend a great deal of time getting to know her students exceptionally well in order to advise them and advocate for them in the college search process. She goes above and beyond her duties by introducing students to colleges otherwise not on their radars—and students trust Melissa well enough that they are receptive to her suggestions for broadening their search horizons.

Melissa spend hours upon hours crafting her letters or recommendation by drawing upon not only her own interactions with students but also upon teacher narratives for the student’s entire high school career. Since there are no grades for colleges to evaluate, her letters serve both as a recommendation and transcript, ensuring that colleges understand each student’s unique qualifications.

Her work to supports the student-centered college search extends beyond the CFS community. She blogs regularly, presents on panels, and contributes magazine articles about finding the right college fit. Melissa’s work is changing lives—at her school and beyond.

Jasmin McClendonJasmin McClendon — Bronxdale High School (NY)
Jasmin McClendon’s nomination begins: “Being a counselor in the Bronx is tough, but every time I meet with students from Bronxdale, I can tell that they are in good hands with Jasmin at the helm.”

Jasmine is known for seeking professional development regularly—not to further her own career but to better help her students. Admission officers who have worked with her praise her work ethic and dedication. She is devoted to taking the time to listen to students and to find colleges that will be the right fit in every way, including financially. Serving a significant minority and low-income population, Jasmine encourages students and their families to look beyond the rankings for great-fit schools that won’t saddle them with unrealistic debt at graduation. As a result, students at Bronxdale apply and go to a diverse range of institutions, from local CUNY colleges to the most selective colleges in the country.

When colleges visit, they can count on meeting thoughtful students who may never have heard of their college or university but who are willing to learn more because “Ms. Mac” suggested it. Often these students do apply and find the perfect place to realize their potential. Counselors like Jasmine are the driving force behind student-centered college searches—searches that lead to changed lives.

Chris Rodriguez The Branson School (CA)
Chris Rodriguez demonstrates an expertise in his students’ needs and expectations for their college education. He uses this understanding to recommend students to institutions that provide the comfort and growth they need to thrive through and beyond their college years.

What’s especially impressive is Chris’ ability to introduce dynamic and great-fit colleges to his students in a new setting; this is his first year at The Branson School. His knowledge of the students and his ability to find exceptional fits for them suggests a relationship that typically would have taken at least four years to develop. And yet, the detailed and anecdotal way in which Chris writes recommendation letters eliminates any skepticism one might have of his ability to make a case for his students’ admission in the short time that he has known them.

When recommending students to colleges, Chris focuses on the students’ qualities beyond their numbers, and in doing so reminds college representatives of the importance of knowing their own institutions beyond the numbers and rankings. In many ways, Chris’s mentorship is as important to note as his impact—he is influencing admission and counseling professionals alike to treat students with individualistic and student-centered care.

Hermela WeldayHermela Welday Institute for East African Councils on Higher Education (D.C.)
In addition to her full-time job, Hermela Welday helps run the Institute for East African Councils on Higher Education (IEA). The IEA serves students and families who are recent immigrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Center’s setting is simple—a two-room apartment—but the service is spectacular. Every Saturday, 60 students show up, and Hermela and her colleague guide them as they contemplate an educational system so very different and complex to what they have known. She assists students in every aspect of the college search: finding good-fit colleges, completing applications, writing essays, completing financial aid paperwork, and more. Furthermore, Hermela invites college representatives from wide variety of colleges to speak with IEA students, and she also takes students on college tours in- and out-of-region.

Throughout the process, Hermela emphasizes the value of fit in the college search process. If she believes a small, liberal arts college is a good match for a student, she will reach out to ask them to come and meet with her student. Likewise, she prepares her students to ask deep questions about the atmosphere, the diversity, the hands-on learning, and the support provided—to ensure their needs will be met. Hermela Welday puts students first and in the process is most certainly changing lives!

Ashley YoungAshley Young Charles R. Drew Senior Academy (GA)
When college representatives visit Charles Drew Charter School, they can expect to have engaging conversations with well-prepared students, thanks to college counselor Ashley Young. She empowers students to lead the conversation and ask thoughtful questions about fit, support, and resources.

Ashley is very attentive to the needs of her students, spending whatever time is necessary to identify those needs and to find colleges that can provide the resources and support to match those needs. In return, she also challenges her students to consider schools that will foster personal growth and development, reinforcing the notion that choosing a college isn’t just about a major. Ashley and her counseling team go to great lengths—giving students rides to campus visits, for example—to ensure students experience firsthand viable college options that might otherwise be overlooked.

Mentoring students and putting them in control of their own college narratives isn’t limited to the students at Drew Academy. Engaged at the local, state, and regional levels, Ashley is advocating for change in the systems that prevent first-generation, low-income, and immigrant students from achieving equal access to higher education. Thanks to her generous work, many students are exploring college options that otherwise would be out of reach and charting paths to realize their full potential.