Boarding a ship in a storm… university guidance counselling in a pandemic

This year I had the opportunity to move into an international school university guidance counselling role. Having spent an extended period of time in the Higher Education sector, I thought I had a fairly good grasp of the university experience. 

Turns out I hadn’t even touched the tip of the iceberg.

Prior to taking this position I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from a really experienced and skilled colleague, before he left the position for different pastures. I learnt about SATs, BMATs, UCAS, Studielink, Early/Regular Decisions, GPA, transcripts, and a host of other application systems and entrance exams. 

I had listened, taken notes and asked an extensive list of questions.

I was ready… Or so I thought.

That was until the pandemic came. And stayed.

Who knew a guidance role at a school could be so drastically impacted by an indefinite global pandemic??!

The intricacies of navigating different national university systems and the skill of experienced guidance counsellors who are able to do this so effectively is something that I am genuinely in awe of. 

I wholeheartedly try my best to do everything I can to be the best counsellor I can possibly be; I listen to podcasts and attend webinars, I keep up to date with the latest university news, I’ve joined international counselling groups so that I can ask questions and communicate with counsellors with more experience than me – anything that will help me to better help my students. But truth be told, I wish that the students that I am working with now could have me, Ms Sadie, the guidance counsellor, in a year or two’s time. 

The counsellor that has already found a way to navigate university guidance during the pandemic.

But failing that I am Ms Sadie, the 5-month new guidance counsellor, and what I lack in experience I try to make up for by instilling in my students that they are not alone, and that WE are navigating the stormy seas of applying to university during a pandemic together. 

Neither of us are anchored to anything stable at the moment, and many students are at a genuine loss about how they can accurately plan their next steps. The ability to pivot and change their plans is not just a desirable but an essential quality that they must possess right now. 

Will they be able to go to the UK/Canada/Australia/New Zealand and attend in-class lectures? Will they be able to feasibly get into these countries to start their lessons? Will their university destinations be placed under another lockdown, or will they be able to go out and meet new people? Will they be able to easily come back home for holidays, or if things just don’t work out?

Rather than choosing a future direction because of the normal considerations (the national education system of choice/the course they want to study), it feels a little bit more like they are placing bets on the options that are most likely to go ahead as normal.

But it is no small bet. International families are laying down tens of thousands of pounds on something that they have no clear odds of winning.

For transnational students who have been attending international schools in countries that neither they or their parents hold a passport for, the odds feel a little higher. For families that have settled permanently in new countries and have built their lives and businesses there, immigration considerations for their children who have now outgrown their education visas may be something that they have never had to consider before… 

‘If I don’t or can’t go to university, how do I stay with family in the city/country that I see as home (but doesn’t match my passport)?’

‘If I leave my family, what if I can’t get back to them because I don’t have a visa/I am not a citizen of the country that my family lives in?’

‘What if I leave and then I have to do online learning and I end up not being able to see anyone?’

I have a number of students who have older siblings that have already decided to put their studies on hold because they don’t want to study online for their degree. Whilst this is a completely understandable choice, the issue has remained that not all of them have been able to be reunited with their families due to the difficulty in both travelling to and re-entering the countries in which their families are living. These are eighteen and nineteen year olds that are now isolated in foreign countries away from everyone they know, having to make difficult decisions with little to no support.

Advising students with these very challenging realities is tough.

Advising students about degree programmes and potential career choices to pursue feels like shaky ground given that some industries (such as hospitality management) are set to be decimated for some time by the pandemic. 

Sadly none of us have a crystal ball, but it can sometimes feel as though I am constantly torn between advising them for the world I wish for them, and the world that actually exists right now.

I salute all of the international school counsellors who no longer have an accurate map, and to the students who have boarded a ship in a storm. My only hope is that as a result of this experience we’ll all be better swimmers once the calmer seas come, and the shoreline finally reveals itself in the distance.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: