The 2019 Counselors That Change Lives Awards

Scotties celebrate during the graduation ceremony.

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.

Since 2009, we have recognized the tireless work of individuals who counsel students in the college search process with this award, and we offer our sincere congratulations to this year’s recipients!

Omolade “Lade” Akande — University High School (IN)
Lade AkandeUniversity High School students find a comfortable, relaxing, and supportive environment when they enter the college advising office, thanks in part to Lade Akande. The “Zen” décor, the presence of Lade’s dog, Hank—the unoffical mascot of the school and all-around support dog—and her calming presence welcome students and admission officers alike. Lade fills several roles on campus in addition to counseling; she teaches yoga and coaches volleyball, basketball, and track and field. Interacting with UHS’s diverse student body in multiple capacities helps Lade get to know the students well. When they come in to chat, Lade offers a friendly smile, a sense of humor, and a great deal of knowledge about college choice. The nomination states, “She listens to their hopes and dreams and advises students on how to make those dreams a reality—while also challenging them to reach beyond what they believe to be possible.” Encouraging every student, regardless of their background, race, or ethnicity, to embrace the college search by broadening their scope and trying different paths, Lade Akande is changing lives.

Mark Chalkley — United World College Red Cross Nordic (Norway)
Mark Chalkley“Dare to Fail.” The tattoo on Mark Chalkley’s arm is an outward symbol of his approach to helping UWC Red Cross Nordic students navigate their futures. Each year, Mark’s caseload includes approximately 100 seniors who come from 80+ countries with a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and an equally eclectic assortment of post-secondary aspirations. He assists every one of them by finding the best match for their skills and interests in locations all over the world, frequently with no funding from home. More often than not, RCN students choose an opportunity abroad, sight-unseen. However, Mark’s careful counseling throughout the process also instills students with confidence in their abilities to transition to another culture and succeed in college. Originally from the UK, Mark Chalkley has been living on campus as the college counselor at Red Cross Nordic for over a decade, and his continued dedication to students is more than deserving of this honor.

Gail Durso — Explore Solutions (CA)
Gail DursonIn the mid-2000s Gail Durson and her now-colleagues began to recognize that college admissions were becoming more competitive and, more notably, that many local families were underinformed. Southern California students were missing out on opportunities, and Gail was inspired to do something about it. The non-profit, community-based organization, Explore Solutions, was created and, more than a decade later, Gail counsels hundreds of students each year, ensuring that they are educated about all factors in the search process, from exploring colleges (beyond the best known ones) to understanding the steps in the application process to the determining the potential financial reality for families. Explore Solutions activities include individual counseling, workshops for families, and community partnerships, all of which help students to become equipped to explore the various career and education paths available to them in the community and beyond. Gail Durso’s commitment to helping students change their lives is making an impact across Southern California.

Mary Hunter Hardison — Nansemond-Suffolk Academy (VA)
Mary Hunter HardisonWhen Nansemond-Suffolk Academy asked elementary teacher Mary Hunter Hardison to become the director of college counseling in 2015, she was as surprised as anyone else. Four years in, NSA students, parents, faculty, and staff have nothing but high praise for the way in which Mary Hunter has embraced the role with a philosophy that stresses the potential of the college search as a time for students to grow and learn more about themselves. When counseling students and their parents, she challenges them to be honest with their counselors, one another, and themselves with regard to expectations and goals; to engage in authentic self-reflection; and to take pride in and responsibility for their talents and achievements. When admission officers visit NSA, it’s abundantly clear that Mary Hunter knows the students extremely well and that her work is helping students find great college options beyond the conventional choices. Mary Hunter Hardison’s passion for students becoming lifelong learners undoubtedly leads to changed lives.

Beth Kainic — Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep (IL)
Beth Kainic works tirelessly to remind students that the college search is about them. As the nomination states, “That’s a simplistic statement, but one that is harder to put into practice than it sounds.” Beth works with each student to build their confidence and get them excited about college—not just about the independence they’ll experience but also about the opportunities they’ll have to grow intellectually by expanding upon the academic areas they love as well as socially by making their own contributions to a college community. The result? Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep students are not fixated on name-brand recognition or the superficial qualities of a college campus. Rather, after careful, guided consideration, they know what they need and want from a college, and they ask for it unabashedly. Beth Kainic’s emphasis on students’ personal growth, becoming their own best advocates, and seeking lives of purposeful consequence serves them well beyond high school.

Raquel Laiz — Career Learning Coordinator, College and Career Readiness Department, Portland Public Schools (OR)
Raquel LaizAs a longtime counselor at Benjamin Franklin High School, Raquel Laiz carried a large caseload of seniors each year. She understood that a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all service could not meet the variety of needs inherit to the large and diverse student population: some students needed help honing an already highly advanced essay, while others needed assistance logging into the Common Application or understanding the ORSAA. Raquel helped families understand that access, affordability, and completion rates at small, private institutions could equate to success for students from marginalized backgrounds. Her personalized, energetic approach has made a palpable difference in students’ lives; even today, the positivity at Franklin distinguishes it from other overpopulated, underfunded schools. The nomination states, “There is hope and excitement about the future among Franklin students, and Raquel was a driving force behind that optimism.” Today, Raquel Laiz is the changing even more lives in a new role with the Portland Public Schools’ College and Career Readiness Department where she will support and develop programs to better serve students district-wide with post-secondary and career planning.

Chat Leonard — Metro Academic and Classical High School (MO)
Chat LeonardChat Leonard’s career has been devoted to counseling students, and she’s somewhat of a legend at Metro Academic and Classical High School. Every single student and their family meet individually with her. After she gets to know her students—their passions, goals, and what drives them—she is able to suggest colleges and universities that they would love and fit into well. The nomination states, “Chat understands the college landscape, the college search, and how to match her students based on their academic profile, personal preferences, and any other factors they may throw at her. She avoids the hype and doesn’t just find a college that the student will get into or might like … she takes the time to find a school where the student will thrive.” Chat Leonard’s dedication to students, families, and the college counseling community was recognized with the the first College Board’s Guidance and Admission Assembly Award for the Midwestern Region, and CTCL is proud to recognize her as well.

Sheena Reed — Metairie Park Country Day School (LA)
Sheena ReedSheena Reed has served as college counselor for two very different school communities—an urban charter school serving a high percentage of students of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds and a private, affluent, predominately white school in the suburbs. While the demographics of the students and families have been diverse, the intentionality and care Sheena puts into counseling students has remained constant. Attentive to each student’s ambitions, needs, and limitations, she gently nudges them beyond their comfort zones and transforms the seemingly nebulous and—to some—exclusive-sounding admissions process into an opportunity for students discover more of who they are and what they need to thrive in college. The nominator wrote: “Sheena lives the mission of a student-centered college search in the ways that she engages with and advocates for her students on a daily basis … pushing students past perceived barriers, many of which may seem insurmountable to high school students, and never giving in to undermatching. Additionally, she understands and validates the importance of inclusivity and social fit in the college search, particularly for marginalized students.” Wherever she is, Sheena Reed is changing students’ lives.

Teng Yang — Democracy Prep (NY)
Teng YangTeng Yang serves a majority minority school with many low-income students. Hyper-focused on finding schools that will support his students financially, socially, and intellectually, he invests significant time learning about colleges and what each can offer students. When he begins counseling students, Teng focuses on helping them understand the benefits and importance of getting into and graduating from a college that is comfortable to them. As he puts it, a successful college match is about finding a place that can support and nourish students—much like a home. Equally knowledgeable about the financial aid process, Teng’s counseling extends to his students’ families. Convincing them to send a child out of state to a college they may never have heard of isn’t easy, but he is successful because families know how sincerely he believes in what students can accomplish in the right environment. It’s no surprise that Teng Yang stays in touch with his students well into their college careers; as he sees it, changing lives doesn’t stop at graduation.