Counsel This Kid, Someone, Please!

Nick SoperFor the inaugural blog post, I thought I’d share a personal story that speaks to the theme of our profession. It took me a long time – years of helping students with general tutoring, writing coaching and test prep – to finally come to the conclusion that I was ready to become an independent college counselor. It was a strange confluence of events.

Not long into my first job out of college, at a small publishing house in Evanston, IL, my boss began referring to me as the “Hamlet of my family,” because I was wracked with indecision about the direction of my life. I did everything from band to water polo to theater in high school.  I majored in Poetry (which included both reading and writing poetry) in college, while producing big-name concerts on campus with one of the student groups.

By the end of college, my Northwestern Theater friends had roped me back into auditioning and, shortly out of school, I was performing in shows around Chicago and taking improv classes at Second City. For about a year, I worked part-time at the above-mentioned publishing house, and then was taken on full time. I liked the work well enough; since I was basically catching whatever was falling off my boss’s plate, there was enough variety to keep me interested. But my position there was short-lived, as money difficulties eventually led him to cut back my hours.  So I transitioned back to waiting tables and started training with Kaplan to become a tutor.

I moved to L.A. in 2007, a fresh-faced Midwesterner looking to find his place in the mecca of film and TV. I worked for an Iranian-American filmmaker part-time, but soon found a day job with a local test prep company. I tutored privately, taught big classes, and worked my way up to become one of the directors. All the while, I auditioned and did small films and theater projects. Several years ago, the test prep company and I parted ways, and I put up my own shingle, working with students primarily on SATs, ACTs and college essays.

And so, just over a year ago, I was in Seattle visiting some family on my wife’s side, who knew that I was working in education. They insisted that I meet Bob, the guy who had been their kids’ independent college counselor. I already had plans to visit UW’s campus, and he wasn’t far from there. So I went.

Previously, I’d done little more than flirt with the idea of going the independent counselor route. Several of my friends working in high schools reported having had bad experiences with individuals who billed themselves as independent counselors. I’d also met a good number of independent counselors, many of whom had found themselves called to the profession after accompanying their own kids through the process of getting into college. For a variety of reasons, it did not seem like a world with much of a place for me.

Ten minutes with Bob changed everything. Here was a guy who, years ago, established a very successful practice after studying cognitive science at UCLA and subsequently opening a non-profit learning center in Southern California. Over the course of that work, he’d spent a lot of time with college students and on college campuses. After relocating to Seattle, he decided that he was ready to dig himself into independent counseling.

But there was something about him that I noticed more immediately: he had a remarkable ability to listen and speak in ways you just don’t experience every day. There was an intimacy and yet a casual, familiar sort of warmth to our conversation. He was unmistakably interested. Bob is the kind of person you trust immediately because it’s clear that he hears everything you’re saying and because you know that he will respond thoughtfully. Before I knew it, I was spilling my guts about all the hopes and hesitations, all the indecision and uncertainty that obscured the path ahead.

When I left, it already felt as if the shroud had been lifted. Bob had encouraged me to look a bit further into independent counseling. My background would suit the types of students with which I was especially interested in working. Los Angeles would be the right market. And I had a list of websites to check out, email addresses of several people to connect with, and reassurance from someone who’s been in the business for years—that the fit was right.

After one year, five UCLA Extension classes, fifteen campus visits, and countless hours of conferences, volunteering, and agonizing over marketing materials, I can hardly believe how quickly the momentum has ramped up. How apropos, though, thinking back to how it all began.

By Nick Soper

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