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Seniors throwing their hats into the air following commencement
David Jacobson

One reason for attending Saint Thomas Academy, perhaps THE reason, is to lay the foundation for success in the rest of your life. While the education and experience the Academy provides are invaluable in and of themselves, many Cadets and their families also find great value in how the school prepares its students for the future. For most, that future starts in college.

That’s where Director of College Counseling Norma Gutierrez and Associate Director Casey Erickson come in. As if that dynamic duo wanted to work 25-hour days, they have added classroom time this school year, welcoming 14 Cadets to the inaugural version of CollegeBound, an elective for juniors that offers everything from advice on conducting college searches, to preparation for SATs and ACTs, and an introduction to the common application.

“The boys are so busy,” Gutierrez said. “I wished I had more time with them, so I went to the Headmaster and told him I’d love to be able to do this.”

The class is reading and discussing Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni of The New York Times. “Sometimes the boys are overwhelmed,” Gutierrez said. “How do you start? How do you know which college you want to attend? We’re trying to break it down for them in smaller segments to make it feel less daunting, but everything that has to do with going to college will be embedded in this class. We’ll be talking with mental health counselors on anxiety, how to handle workload, and some of those social-emotional type issues.”

The class also features guest speakers from various career tracks on which students have requested information, including “business, engineering or ‘I don’t know,’ ” Gutierrez quipped. “There are so many great jobs out there that they may not even know about. I work with our alumni association and tap into alums to come in. The boys do a questionnaire to let us know what majors they might be thinking about, so I bring in those professionals first but also bring in some others for them to think about.”

The CollegeBound class is just the latest way Saint Thomas Academy distinguishes itself as a college prep school. It also helps that Gutierrez and Erickson have a combined 35 years in the field, including stints in college admissions offices that afford them uncommon insight and relationships that yield uncanny results in connecting Cadets to their ideal colleges.

“Because we were on the other side of the desk, in college admissions, those reps know us well,” Gutierrez explained. “They can speak more candidly with us and not just give us the company line. It’s to our advantage that the reps know they don’t have to sugarcoat anything.”

For example, when inquiring about a Cadet’s chance to land at his favored college, Gutierrez asks the rep to “just tell me, is it a long shot? No shot? Or you’re feeling good about it? There are no guarantees, but when we’re working with a stressed-out family or student, we want to know how hard to advocate, and we also want to set the expectations for our students.

“If a college tells us it’s not going to happen for a student, we want to make sure he has options. Come spring, we want them to have a few great options to attend because we want the choice to be theirs. We understand that a college can’t take every valedictorian, that there are deans or presidents who want a certain type of student, or are trying to build a particular program, so the reps may candidly tell us, for example, ‘If your student wants mechanical engineering, it’s going to be extremely difficult, so tell your student not to list only ME.’ Then we have that conversation with the student.”

Erickson summarized how those relationships with college reps yield results: “Reps have told me that if they see a letter from me or Norma advocating for a student, saying we have full trust that he can be a success on their campus, it means a lot. We know how to advocate for our students in a professional way that’s greatly appreciated by admissions offices.”

Of course, the Academy’s reputation also plays a role in the college placement process, Gutierrez said. “When you see the admissions standards that are posted on the website, some of our boys may be slightly under, but sometimes they are admitted because that university trusts that we are preparing the boys well. They know that when our boys get to their institutions there’s a history of them doing well.”

So, beyond teaching CollegeBound and advocating for students’ college admissions, what else do the dynamic duo do? The long list that follows, in both Gutierrez’s and Erickson’s voices, explains the possibility of the 25-hour workday.

“Meet with a student in the morning before school starts. Answer students who stop me in the hall to ask if I have their letter of recommendation from my teacher, which other teachers they should ask for a letter of recommendation, what is their likely admissibility to x college, can I think of other colleges they should apply to, should they apply early action or regular decision, can I read their essay, can I help them cut some words from their essay.

“Respond to emails. Speak with college reps that will be visiting our campus, including West Point, the Naval Academy and many Jesuit colleges. During the students’ free hour, we’re swamped with students coming in for advice or quick questions. Then in the afternoon, we continue to respond or proactively reach out to colleges to see if application materials have been received, or if there’s an additional letter of recommendation needed for a student.

“Lots of research. Maybe a student wants to go to two different states and wants to know which colleges are options in each state. Yesterday we had our monthly coffee chat. We had 14 parents, and the topic was maximizing your college visits, how to set them up, what they should be asking for.

“Sometimes, we do evening programs. Financial aid assistance. For example, we have a family whose first language is not English, and we need to find resources to help them fill out the FAFSA in their native language. Scholarship searches, because free money is always good.”

“For boys who need accommodation on special testing needs, I’ve come on Sundays. I stay here late a lot. Boys go off to sports practice and can only meet with me at 7. OK, I will meet with you at 7. I meet with them in summer. I don’t know how many public school counselors would willingly meet with students on a Sunday afternoon in summer, but I did that. I’ve sat down with boys and helped them register for the SAT. Same thing with the common app. We are quick to – when we hear parents say, ‘We wish you would do x’ – to do that if it’s in our control.”

The Saint Thomas Academy 2019 Senior Class pictured in their college sweatshirts

That amount of hand-holding might seem to stifle students’ initiative, but, Erickson said, “Because we guide them so much, we hold them accountable for it. ‘You said you were going to do this. I told you you needed to this. Where is it?’ There’s a significant amount of accountability we hold over their heads. I can’t want it more than they do.

“We have an opportunity to be quite blunt with our boys, and we tell them, ‘Next year this is not going to happen. Next year, you’re not going to have this.’ And that helps us make better college recommendations, because there are certain colleges where they’re not going to get that kind of help, so they shouldn’t go there.”

Most of the service Gutierrez and Erickson provide is directed at juniors and seniors, though they  increasingly field questions from sophomores and have talked with students as young as 7th grade about their college prospects. Regardless of a student’s age, Gutierrez said, Saint Thomas Academy’s College Counseling Center is most distinguished by “the personal approach we take in our level of dedication to each and every one of our students, whatever path they choose to take.”

Erickson added: “Our background is more customer-service driven. If you email me at 10 o’clock at night, if I’m still awake, I’m going to respond. Sometimes I feel like we don’t have off hours. I was told a customer is someone you can’t afford to lose, and the families we serve are important people we don’t want to let down.”

And for all the stress that the college admissions process may introduce, “it’s supposed to be fun,” Gutierrez said. “We have fun. We try to do everything we can so that the parents and the students don’t feel so overwhelmed and scared and stressed. It’s exciting. The world is your oyster. You have so many awesome options.”