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SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — When California schools closed on March 13 in response to the coronavirus, college counselor Brad Ward didn’t know it would be the last day she’d see many of her students at Terra Linda High School. A few weeks later, school was canceled for the rest of the year, leaving her scrambling to stay connected with her seniors who are at a critical stage in determining their post-graduation plans.

These days, she spends her time doing counseling sessions via Zoom and Facebook, editing juniors’ essays in Google Docs and trying to contact all 320 members of the class of 2020. She and her colleagues hope to reach every senior by email, phone or social media. Some have not signed in for a single remote class, and many have not picked up the laptops and hotspots offered by Terra Linda.

Ward has traded a three-hour round-trip commute from Menlo Park to San Rafael for a virtual counseling office set up in her living room, which she’s plastered with college posters from around the country. She now advises students via Zoom, Facetime, and email. Credit: Photo courtesy of Brad Ward

“There are some seniors that we’re not ever going to hear from ever again,” she said.

This is not how Ward typically works. Up until six weeks ago, she spent her days in Terra Linda’s College and Career Center, a converted classroom off the school’s busiest thoroughfare. In between second and third periods, she would stand at the intersection of the school’s main corridors, fielding questions about standardized tests and high school transcripts from students walking by.

“There are some seniors that we’re not ever going to hear from ever again.”

– Brad Ward, college counselor

While private high schools can often afford to employ staff like Ward who are devoted exclusively to helping students plan for college and their futures, these jobs are rare at public schools. Ward is unusual, too, because she had made the leap from college admissions to private school to public school, and she is trying to bring the individualized approach of private college counseling to large, economically diverse public schools where she can make a bigger difference. As one of the few transgender college counselors in the country, if not the only one, she is also in a unique position to bring visibility to LGBTQ+ issues.

Related: Rural students often go unnoticed by colleges. Can virtual counseling put them on the map?

Ward, 51, began her education career at Bucknell University, her alma mater, where she spent seven years working in admissions. Then she was recruited to work as a college counselor at the Menlo School, a private school in Atherton, California, with a $50,000 annual price tag. 

At Menlo, her days revolved around helping students curate their high school careers and lists of colleges. She also wrote detailed recommendations for each student and developed relationships with admissions officers at highly selective colleges and universities.

“I’d think, ‘Maybe I should call Dartmouth again because I haven’t called them in two weeks,’ ” she said.

College counselor Brad Ward meets with school principal Katy Dunlap at Terra Linda High School. Ward brings a wealth of knowledge of the college admissions process due to her experience as a former admissions officer. “We’re totally lucky that Brad applied,” Dunlap said. Credit: Photo: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

Her caseload was typically around 35 students.

That’s a big difference from her current role, in which she and a colleague try to serve all 320 seniors and counsel younger students. “At a public school,” said Ward, “you might be lucky to meet with some students once for half an hour or 45 minutes.”

But Ward is committed to making sure her students get guidance tailored to their individual needs. On a Friday morning in January, Ward met with Terra Linda’s three school counselors to plan a parents’ night for juniors and organize a career and technical fair. Later that morning, she chatted with an adviser from the nearby College of Marin, where some Terra Linda students take classes for college credit, and she met with Katy Dunlap, the school principal.

Dunlap said she was struck during Ward’s interview by her in-depth knowledge of specific colleges. Ward has visited more than 300 college and university campuses in her 20-year career in admissions and college counseling. “I’d never met anyone who has gone to as many colleges or universities,” Dunlap said of Ward. That allows Ward “to really individualize for kids what would be a good fit for them,” the principal said.

“At a public school you might be lucky to meet with some students once for half an hour or 45 minutes.”

– Brad Ward, college counselor

“I’m a little obsessed,” Ward said sheepishly.

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This past spring break, she road-tripped through the South and visited more than a dozen colleges and universities in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama. Her new goal is to visit all 115 community colleges in California.

The public school system isn’t geared to attracting counselors who have that kind of detailed experience with colleges and college admissions. Counseling jobs at most public schools require a master’s degree and a state credential, but the training – and responsibilities – focus on mental health counseling, not college and career guidance.

The University of California acceptance rates by campus at Terra Linda’s College and Career Center. Credit: Photo: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

Recognizing the need, Terra Linda a few years ago joined a small number of high schools that have added full-time college and career counseling jobs, often with the help of outside dollars. Ward’s position is funded by HeadsUp, a nonprofit foundation that supplements the budgets of local schools. Paradoxically, her job is a classified position that doesn’t require a post-secondary credential, not even a bachelor’s degree, though this varies by school and district.

That’s a problem, says Dunlap. “It’s very, very challenging to be counseling kids about college when you haven’t even gone yourself,” she said. “We’re totally lucky that Brad applied.”

Following her meeting with Dunlap, Ward returned to the College and Career Center to greet two Army recruiters who were there to set up a booth in the quad at lunch. Despite the military’s prohibition on transgender service members, Ward believes the military is a good career option for some students. Her father was in the Army, and she welcomes its representatives to campus each month. “Military folks are some of the bravest people I know, and give me inspiration for what I’m trying to do,” Ward said.

On another afternoon, right before schools shut, Ward met with the mother of a senior who was worried about her son’s college prospects, followed by a bubbly 11th grader, Angela, who wanted help narrowing a list of 30 colleges. Ward advised her to start thinking about teacher recommendations and to create an account for the Common App, the online application system used by more than 800 colleges. She also warned Angela that writing essays would be the most time-consuming part.

College counselor Brad Ward advises a student on the admissions process at Terra Linda High School’s College and Career Center. Credit: Photo: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

Angela buried her face in her hands. “I’m so paranoid I’m not going to get in anywhere,” she said.

“Don’t worry, there’s a college for everybody,” Ward reassured her. “It’s a stressful process, but you’re only going to go through it once.”

Then another junior, Stella, came in with her mother, who explained that neither she nor her husband had gone to college. “We’re just starting to think about it,” she said. “I know there’s just so much to know and so many places she could go.” She asked when they would need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, which opens on Oct. 1 for the next academic year.

“It’s very, very challenging to be counseling kids about college when you haven’t even gone yourself.”

– Katy Dunlap, Terra Linda High School principal

Much of Ward’s time is now spent helping 17-year-olds sort through their parents’ tax returns to fill out the FAFSA. That wasn’t something she had much experience with in private school, where many families pay for college out of pocket. It’s been a “vertical learning curve,” she said of her transition. “I’ve learned more in the last year and a half than I did in all the 18 and a half years before that.”

The career shift has come at great personal expense. When she was initially hired as a full-time counselor at Terra Linda, Ward was making around $40,000 for the academic year, a third of what she earned at the private school. But she said it has been worth it because she’s using her expertise to help kids who have nowhere else to turn for college and career advice, not just assisting so many already privileged to accumulate more privilege.

“I can help so many kids directly,” she said. “I’m just trying to do a good thing that can help a lot of people.”

Related: Why aren’t school counselors trained in helping students apply to college?

College counselor Brad Ward makes a point of standing in the hallway at Terra Linda High School as classes change. “If I’m standing in the hallway, kids walking by get to know me,” she said. “They know that I’m there for them. Plus there’s the visibility of being outwardly transgender.” Credit: Photo by Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

There’s another reason Ward feels strongly about being visible to students. She’s aware of how, as a transgender educator, simply being present for students can alter lives. Research shows that having a supportive adult can significantly reduce incidences of suicide among LGBTQ+ young people, and that LGBTQ+ students who are exposed to positive representations of gay and transgender people and history report performing better in school.

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“If I’m standing in the hallway, kids walking by get to know me,” said Ward. “They know that I’m there for them. Plus there’s the visibility of being outwardly transgender— ‘Oh, there’s Brad in a skirt, that’s different.’ It’s important to me to be visible for the LGBTQ+ community.”

She also wants to encourage other LGBTQ+ individuals, who have historically been excluded from working in the public education system, to consider college counseling as a career option.

Ward began to come out as transgender in 2015. In 2017, after 10 years at the Menlo School, she took a job at another private school, the Alto International School, where she has continued to consult part time.* That summer, she also began a two-year term on the board of the nonprofit Western Association for College Admission Counseling.

At the time, only one of the group’s 30 board members or other leaders was employed at a public high school. In addition, only one-third of the association’s college counseling membership was made up of public school counselors, when almost 90 percent of students in the United States attend public schools.

That has started to change, though. Last year, the association invited public school counselors to join for free, which has boosted their representation.

Brad Ward is a former admissions officer who made the rare switch from public to private high schools two years ago. “I can help so many kids directly,” she said. Credit: Photo: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

Ward’s experience as a board member with the association prompted her to start thinking about making the switch to public schools. In 2018, she eagerly took a college counseling job at Menlo-Atherton, a public high school with 2,400 students. It was a temporary, one-year position without benefits. The next year, she joined Terra Linda in San Rafael, which is coincidentally where she grew up.

Related: Why aren’t more school counselors trained in helping students apply to college?

But the school is an hour-and-a-half drive from her rent-controlled apartment in Menlo Park. Ward said she couldn’t find a landlord in San Rafael who would rent to her on her salary, so she made the difficult decision to scale back to two days a week starting in January. To make ends meet, she has continued part time at Alto International School and as an independent college counselor for private clients.

“If Brad hadn’t given me the advice to go see the school in person, I don’t think I would have ended up where I am now”

– Melody De La Quintana, student, University of Redlands

At Menlo-Atherton, Ward worked with a student named Melody De La Quintana. The first-generation college student is now a business administration and political science major at University of Redlands, a college Ward suggested. “If Brad hadn’t given me the advice to go see the school in person, I don’t think I would have ended up where I am now,” she said.

De La Quintana said Ward was her sole source of information about higher education. “My parents have never been to college,” she said. “They don’t know the process.”

Brad Ward helped Terra Linda senior Abby Hakewill navigate the college process. Credit: Photo: Alison Yin for The Hechinger Report

Another former student, Lauren Lutge, said Ward was the only adult at school who truly believed in her. Lutge’s grades had dropped in her early high school years due to mental health struggles, and she didn’t know what to do after graduation. “I didn’t have any direction,” she said.

Lutge was surprised when Ward seemed motivated to help her through the college process. “Brad was a person on campus that I felt like genuinely cared about me,” said Lutge, now an English major at Santa Barbara City College.

Since Terra Linda closed, Ward has traded her three-hour commute for a virtual counseling office set up in her living room, which she’s plastered with college posters from around the country.

She misses her students, and is worried about those she hasn’t yet been able to contact. Some of her seniors are rethinking where they want to go to college, or deciding if they want to take a gap year. Others are wondering if they need to forgo college and instead work to support their families. She’s hosting an online workshop on community college applications later in the month and expects that more of her students might look at two-year schools closer to home.

Once shelter-in-place orders are lifted, Ward said she and her colleagues will go door to door to track down students who have fallen through the cracks. They may also open the school for a few days over the summer for students seeking help with their post-graduation plans.

While some things can be done online, said Ward, “it’s not the same as standing in the hallway and being visible.”

*This story has been updated to remove an incomplete account of circumstances surrounding Brad Ward’s departure from the Menlo School.

This story about a college counselor was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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