The 2020 Counselors That Change Lives Awards

Birmingham Southern graduates celebrate

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!

Blythe Butler — Catlin Gabel School (OR)Blythe Butler
Sharing ideas, collaboration, and innovation are the tools Blythe’s uses in working with students. Many of her students (and their families) have high expectations about their college choice; Blythe seeks to open their eyes to consider lesser known schools that might be terrific communities in which they would thrive. One approach has been to host a “no name college fair”—an idea borrowed from another high school in which students meet with admission representatives who have no identifiers of the college they represent. Doing so has opened up the channels to talk about values, ideas, opportunities, adventures, research—and more—without the weight of a school’s reputation (or lack thereof) holding anyone back. Blythe is known as a voice for students and as a counselor ready to step off the typical, well-trod path. Her creative thinking and openness give students some of the best counseling available.

Eli Clarke — Commonwealth Academy (VA)Eli Clarke
“Why?” Eli asks “Why?” a lot. Not just, “Why do you want to go to college?” to students, but he also challenges admission representatives by asking, “Why this policy? Why that program? Why those requirements?” when they visit and talk about their institutions. There is more to college counseling than just helping students develop a list of schools. Asking them to step back and be contemplative, examining their motivations and ideas takes a special kind of counselor, like Eli Clarke. No one school is right for every student. Understanding his students’ needs and gifts, Eli takes the time to help each of them see their potential as college students. His nominator mentioned that Eli’s “charisma, energy, and kindness make our conversations a delight.” Using those same skills and talents, Eli is able to open students’ (and families’) minds to the many amazing colleges across the country.

Jennifer Ewing — Cristo Rey Baltimore (MD)Jen Ewing
Meetings. So many meetings happen in our professional lives. But no meeting is more important to Jen than a meeting with a student. All other meetings can be skipped if a student needs her. That’s how Jen counsels Cristo Rey students every day … and many nights and weekends. Her students are often first generation—students for whom college is an idea, not a part of family history. Helping students see themselves as ready, as deserving, is a part of Jen’s mission as a counselor. Working with admission officers from around the country, she helps students and their families consider options beyond high school. The process and unknowns of the college search can be daunting, especially to students who face the challenge of being first in their family to go to college or whose families are struggling with the day-to-day of simply living. Jen Ewing walks the path with her students and their families, guiding, leading, cajoling, consoling, and—and best of all—celebrating their success and sending them off to seek new opportunities.

Adrienne Fluitt — BASIS Oro Valley (AZ) Adrienne Fluitt
Given the personal nature of Adrienne’s counseling, it’s no surprise that students three and four years out of high school are still in contact with her. She learns their stories, is part of their lives not just as a counselor but as a person ready to give them support when they need it, and cheers of joy when they succeed academically or personally. College representatives appreciate her honest appraisal of students in detailed letters of recommendation as well as her commitment to learning as much as she can about each school that visits BASIS Oro Valley. Adrienne knows college is not a one-sized-fits-all experience and carves out the time to understand each college’s community. Her dedication to counseling is a testament to the ideal of student-centered college counseling.

Kent Jones — Emma Willard School (NY)Kent Jones
“Kent may be the most cordial and polite individual I’ve had the pleasure of working with,” says his nominator. Creating an open and welcoming counseling office for students, families, colleagues, and admission officers leads to open communication and best practices in college counseling. Kent’s students know he is interested in their ideas and dreams. Students have a voice in how their journey will unfold; they connect confidently with the representatives when they visit, and Kent is part of building that confidence in them. His letters of reference show a distinctly personal knowledge of each student’s high school experience. There are no generalities; there are specific examples of their successes—successes Kent has often seen firsthand as he enjoys the life of the school community. Students see him fully engaged in the Emma Willard community, and that engagement lends itself to a better college counseling experience.

Rodney Joyner — Baltimore City College (MD)
Rodney is the product of a not just a liberal arts education but a CTCL-member liberal arts education (McDaniel College, class of 1988). Connecting what his students are experiencing in their IB program with what they might find in a liberal arts education, Rodney helps his students see the many potential “next steps” across the country and around the world. He works with them in very tangible ways by organizing group visits to colleges and walking them through the intricacies of their financial aid awards. He reaches them in lighter ways as well: for Halloween, he dressed as the FAFSA. Students and colleagues respond to his careful and thoughtful approach. Perhaps his experience at a small college has helped him develop his counseling style—personal, individual, and thoughtful with an eye to not only guide his students’ college search but also setting them on paths for fulfilling lives as people and professionals.

Derrick Kang — Mid-Pacific Institute (HI)Derrick Kang
At any college event in Honolulu, you are likely to see Derrick Kang helping someone. He may be welcoming students and families; he may be setting up the tables for college representatives. He is an ever-present and wonderful colleague. Without pushing students before they are ready, Derrick offers programs to students and their families as early as ninth graders that are educational rather than recruiting oriented. That’s a delicate line that Derrick walks with grace, humor, kindness, and great professional skill. He understands that Hawai’i students are going a long way, even when it’s to the West Coast, when they leave the Islands for college. Knowing that involving students’ families in the bigger conversations about college can empower students to look more broadly, he helps students and their families to see the feeling of family—Ohana—that exists on small college campuses. Derrick visits many colleges and universities across the nation, and while on campus he connects to his MidPac graduates. Not surprising, Derrick’s counseling is so personal that it frequently evolves into long term relationships with students and their families, wherever they are.

DeVonta Lee — Bellaire High School (TX)DeVonta Lee
Counseling students at a diverse, highly respected public school takes balance and determination. After serving as a classroom teacher and as a counselor with AdviseTX, DeVonta moved into the college counseling role ready to use the skills he had developed to support students—all students. First generation students appreciate DeVonta’s openness to working with the whole family to gain support for college as well as his understanding of the financial and personal commitments required. He worked to improve his Spanish language skills to better communicate with bilingual students and families. His door is open, and his office is often full of students checking in and sharing a story, a laugh, their lives. In areas with highly recognizable large state universities, it takes a special counselor to help students see the many other options available to them. DeVonta is that special counselor.

Joy Maguire — Westside High School (TX)Joy McGuire
As a former school social worker, Joy has seen a lot of students succeed and struggle. To support at-risk students, she developed a mentoring program to help them make it to the graduation stage. She sees the students as more than their transcripts; she sees them as the complex, engaging, developing people they are. Brand-name schools do not shine more brightly in her counseling arsenal. Joy knows that small schools may be the right community to support and challenge students. She will call and text, and call and text again to make sure students have the information and encouragement they need to make the brave choice to leave home for college. She has partnered with admission representatives to physically transport students to campus, giving them a future filled with opportunity. Joy is changing lives every day, and her students’ lives—not just their college search—are changed by her dedication.

Toni Marie O’Daniel — Hmong College Prep Academy (MN)Toni Marie O'Daniel
As a counselor working with many first generation college students, Toni Marie uses her desire to help students not just to guide them in the college admission process but to also show them that someone outside their immediate family believes in them and their potential. Understanding her students’ many school and family commitments, she gives of herself and her time to help them in the admission process. Her students benefit from her passion about education and her hobby of visiting college campuses while on vacation. She spends time getting to know each student and helps them see themselves on a college campus. Counselors are busy people, but Toni Marie takes time to meet with admission representatives when they visit Hmong College Prep, often bringing students to the meeting who are hand-picked for their potential fit at the visiting college. In her nomination, she was described as “ruthlessly passionate about being a part of the bridge to their futures.”

Tobi Oves — Ocean City High School (NJ)Tobi Oves
A big sister has a special place in many lives. She can be an example, a teacher, a listener, a cheerleader, all of whom give helpful nudges and carefully crafted suggestions. Tobi is described by her nominator as filling the role of “big sister” for many of her students. Acutely aware that time is our greatest gift and our greatest challenge, Tobi uses every minute of every day to perfect her art—learning about her students’ lives, needs, and dreams as well as about communities, offerings, and challenges of colleges and universities nationwide. She welcomes college representatives to her school and engages them in conversation filled with carefully considered observations and thoughtful questions about the ways in which their school could support and challenge her students. Tobi is passionate about advising students and all of her efforts come together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to help match her students with the best potential “homes” in colleges.

Andrea Rusk — Mundelein High School (IL)Andrea Rusk
Working with a caseload of 450+ students is daunting. Andrea makes is personal for each student. She gives nights and weekends to her students, coordinating college fairs so they are introduced to as many schools as possible and meeting one-on-one with students during the school day. Her students commented on the “personalized attention and guidance” they receive during the college search—the ideal of a student-centered college search that has been at the center of the CTCL mission since its inception. Andrea understands that academic success in college is important but that personal growth makes the full package, ensuring a life-changing student experience. Colleges representatives see her as a great colleague, always appreciative of their time and ready to share a story and a smile whether she sees them on their campus or they are visiting her at Mundelein High School. It’s not easy to make counseling hundreds of students feel personal and intimate, but Andrea makes it happen year after year.

Tela Thigpen — Freedom Preparatory Academy (TN)Tela Thigpen
Building programs and building relationships—that sums up Tela’s life in college counseling. She has built college counseling programs from inception to fully functioning; she has taken an existing program and given it new life, new strength. Life creates challenges, and Tela takes on those challenges. Sometimes college counseling takes Tela to the football field; she stepped in to support a student whose family could not be there for the football team’s senior night. Her students are often first generation students, excited about the possibilities but not sure how to make those possibilities a reality. That’s where Tela shines: She knows her students and helps them pave the road to college. She ensures that her students find homes on campuses where there will be a network of people who will care for them and guide them, just as she has. She ensures they have everyday resources, rides homes, smiles, and cheers. Tela is also a leader in the college counseling field, working with regional and national organizations to ensure that all students have access to education that will help them lead successful, joy-filled lives.

Lenni Yesner — City Polytechnic High School (NY)Lenni Yesner
Asking students to consider leaving New York City can be a challenge. But Lenni knows that there are lots of great schools across the country, and she and her colleagues won’t let students get through the counseling and college search process without at least giving those schools a look. They also recognize that college counseling does not happen in a vacuum or only in the college counselor’s office: Lenni has brought in college representatives to speak with leaders and teachers at their school, educating the whole community so that the message to students is consistent and encouraging, especially if lesser-known schools find their way onto college lists. As an advocate for the LGBTQI+ community, Lenni shows students that the college search is just one piece of life. There are issues and challenges that society needs to address; their social justice work reminds students that they are part of a larger community and that each of us has an opportunity to be a voice for others. Lenni wants their students to land on campuses that are a great fit and be able to push back on the pressures to choose schools based on name brand versus introspection and opportunity. That’s student-centered counseling.