As our nation celebrates its independence with parades, cookouts and fireworks, many rising high school seniors are thinking about admission to college. It is one of the last remaining rites of passage in our society, a time of transition when becoming more independent is one of the inherent goals. Applying to college is an opportunity for young people to embrace growing responsibility for their own lives and futures. And, while independence is a noble and necessary pursuit, part of this experience is also acknowledging the importance of interdependence.
This is not to be confused with the overly protective, codependent behavior of so-called helicopter or snowplow parents, and the disgraceful misconduct evidenced in the Varsity Blues admission scandal. These are extreme cases, and a hyper-focus on these examples clouds the important role that adults play in the college search and application experience. It can be a chance to discuss ethical decision making and to teach young people to rely on and care for, others.
Applying to college doesn't have to be a solitary experience. It can be one that brings families together and strengthens relationships. It is a time for students to step up and take the lead in designing the next chapter of their lives. But in the process, it is a prime opportunity for parents, caregivers, and mentors to pass along a litany of life lessons—one of which is to build a team of support. This team might involve friends, coaches, religious leaders, neighbors, teachers, counselors, employers and family members who have a vested interest in the student’s success, challenging them when necessary and lifting them up as well. These collaborators do not replace a young person’s need for their own agency but can serve as an advisory board, cheerleading section and resource guide.
Learning to rely on other individuals or a team is not always easy for students eager to assert their independence. Anna Follensbee is a college counselor and teacher at Gilman School in Baltimore, Maryland. She reminds her students that “being an advocate for yourself can mean asking for help.” She tells them that “you have to let people help you sometimes, lean on others, and that’s hard.” With an admission process in which students feel they need to project perfection and display impressive achievement, it can be hard to admit that they don’t have all the answers. And while the adults in their lives do not either, this is the beauty of interdependence and working together towards one goal—in this case, a college acceptance.
The application process provides opportunities for individuals to find ways to support each other, even while it is a uniquely personal experience that some students want to keep private. There are applicants who chose to keep the list of schools to which they are applying confidential. They may not want to feel like they are competing with classmates (or classmates' parents) or they might be self-conscious about being too exposed as they navigate admission. This does not, however, prevent students from sharing resources, relying on the wisdom of others, or encouraging each other to consider opportunities or schools which were not on their radar. Richard Weissbourd is a senior lecturer and the faculty director of the Making Caring Common
project and the co-director of the Human Development and Psychology Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He says,
"There are hundreds if not thousands of great colleges in this country, and yet students are elbowing each other to get some kind of golden ticket to a selective college. Wouldn't it be great if instead students and parents collaborated to assure that all the young people in their community attended a college that was a great college for them?"
For some students accessing and affording a college education is daunting and seems an impossibility. It can be a process which is filled with fear and self-doubt. Ideally, it is one of potential and celebration. Reach Higher
is an initiative founded by former First Lady, Michelle Obama, with the goal of inspiring “every student in America to take charge of their future by completing their education past high school, whether at a professional training program, a community college, or a four-year college or university.” But this does not happen alone. Eric Waldo is the executive director of Reach Higher. He tells students that “there's no debate that college is worth it.” At Reach Higher, through campaigns like Better Make Room
, College Signing Day, and their support of the school counseling profession, they work to bring “joy to the process.” In this age of digital communities, they meet students where they are online to help them take key steps in the application process. Waldo explains that “one of the most important strategies we can employ is getting fellow peers to support each other online, via text, and in real life to create a community of support to make postsecondary education possible for all students." Building this culture of interdependence will help to open the doors of opportunity.
So students, who is on your team? How will you find ways to stand on your own but rely on others? Creating a network of engagement and support is crucial for long term success, and applying to college allows you to practice these skills. Express gratitude for those on your team who share in your journey. Parents, you should not be ashamed of your involvement in your child’s future, nor should it be condemned. Just as in all aspects of parenting, the challenging part is to find the line between support and control. College admission is a chance to reinforce your love and faith in their ability to thrive on their own. And for the rest of us, as we celebrate independence, let us also look around and see who needs our support and encouragement and then join their team.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project