Seeing both sides
Interview with Kyra Kellawan
International School Leader Magazine recently interviewed international officer turned college counsellor Kyra Kellawan.
ISL: Tell us about your experience as both an international officer and a college counsellor?
Kyra: I started out as an international admissions counsellor for a tiny US liberal arts college in London in 2007, travelling to international schools in Europe and North Africa. It was my first taste of international student recruitment and, upon realising there was a supportive network of admissions reps and college counsellors who worked together to place students in the place that was right for them, I quickly knew I loved it.
I moved into a similar IO [international officer] role at King’s College London the following year. Over my six years at King’s, I saw international recruitment change rapidly: policy changes in everything from visas to government funding, and tuition fee rises. I travelled extensively in Europe and Asia and came to understand how vital the school college counsellor’s role was to our work.
After seven years of road-warrior life, a great first counselling job opportunity came up at the French Lycée in New York City. I learned much about US college admissions there. That in turn helped me gain my next role at the United World College in San José, Costa Rica, working with the most diverse group of amazing students, through to my current role setting up the university counselling office at Aloha College in Spain.
ISL: What aspects of your job as a university international officer have most helped you in your role as a college counsellor?
Kyra: Being an international officer helped a lot in terms of knowing what a selective university was looking for in its applications. I travelled often with IOs from UCL, Imperial and LSE, and we said the same things to students about how to make their applications stand out in a very crowded field. Having given regular talks on writing personal statements, understanding that there are helpful ways to measure how ‘good’ a course or a university’s teaching is (from the inside) has helped me inform families on making better choices for them using hard statistics and comparative data rather than just league tables – or worse, hearsay.
Working in a large university’s international office also gave me plenty of insights into things students don’t always know, like how some courses under-recruit in certain regions and therefore have more places; how the name of a course can affect how competitive it is; the different types of assessments universities employ in different degree structures, etc. This is all helpful information to keep my students from bunching together to apply for the same degrees at the same institutions, and I try to help them to focus on important things like teaching and research quality, resources available, and employment rates after graduation.
I also know first-hand the role we often had as international officers to help change or adapt admissions criteria for different regions, and I am definitely able to see through the ‘marketing speak’ to help students ask critical questions about the investment they are about to make: hopefully to the benefit of students and families I have worked with.
ISL: Can you share some practical solutions with college counsellors who don’t have the benefit of such experience?
Kyra: You can advocate for your students by ensuring the school is positioned appropriately in your region. For example, working collaboratively with other schools to hold fairs or welcome visits to your city or region is a sure-fire way to attract more universities to be interested in your students. I find that the more memorable or unusual your school event, the better: at the Lycée each year, the students ran the Fête Française, a French food and cultural themed college fair, that gave out nice goody bags to reps. It was always oversubscribed, unsurprisingly!
The importance of visibility cannot be stressed enough: both of you as a counsellor at international conferences and university tours and visits, but also of your school, in terms of your profile, grade averages and application statistics. This must not be underestimated. In some college admission processes, having that personal relationship with the admissions rep and being able to have frank and professional conversations can support your students in the best possible way, and foster important relationships with tertiary institutions.
It is also helpful, practically, to understand when colleges are going to be travelling nearby for other events and to plan your own school events around their travel schedules. Keep a network of college reps you can rely on to help you know when and why they travel. Say yes to some events and schools, and no to others.
Finally, ensure that you speak up and advocate for the challenges your own students face: helping universities understand if their requirements are unreasonably high or complex, if they can market themselves more effectively to your students, or just letting them know what really worked. This can bolster your reputation as a counsellor who is helpful, knowledgeable and worth taking time for. And for your students, that pays off.
ISL: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges right now for international school college counsellors?
Kyra: As international school numbers continue to grow and student destinations become ever-more diverse in a globalised world, many counselling offices are not resourced accordingly in terms of staff. Counsellors, in many ways, have to do more with less: we have to know about more university application systems in different countries, welcome more visitors to campus, write more letters of recommendation, and meet with more students and parents, but with less and less time, and more emails than ever to reply to.
In every international school I have worked in, time is a luxury that many counsellors do not have. Therefore, it is important that they are given the freedom, flexibility and support to fulfil often demanding, time-consuming administrative tasks. Some school systems work actively to support this, for example by investing in software and systems to ensure communication between counsellor and students/colleges is manageable. Assigning counsellors administrative support, especially at peak times of the year when files must be checked and transcripts and letters of recommendation must be submitted, is both sensible and essential. A second pair of eyes is a simple must when proofing and checking letters and documentation sent out on behalf of a school: whether they come from a registrar, head of secondary or assistant counsellor.
This generation of students have seen stress levels and mental health issues rise to previously unseen levels. Pressure to ‘keep up’ with their peers, with their parents’ expectations, with schoolwork and too many extracurricular commitments (done just for the college application) is pushing some young people, their parents, and their counsellors in return, into a kind of results-driven frenzy. The best school leaders aim to produce balanced, responsible young people, who can both cope with failures and learn from them as well as own their achievements. For that to happen, a culture of appreciation and celebration of each student’s individual attributes needs to exist, rather than measuring all student ‘success’ with the same yardstick. It’s worth remembering that thought when asking the school counsellor only about the successes at Oxbridge or the Ivy League universities in a given year; that culture is created and fed by us too.
To have a successful school counselling department with proven results, school leaders need to ensure their staff have the resources as well as the time to advocate properly for your school and your students. A mentor of mine in a very-well known Swiss school once said that “college counselling is a job done three-quarters inside school gates, but at least a quarter of the role is done outside ‘in the field’.” Well-informed counsellors who know a broad range of options, understand different admissions cycles, and are well connected with admissions officers are counsellors who belong to associations, have time to go to conferences and who also visit a wide variety of college campuses regularly. Those are the same counsellors who also have in-school support with writing letters and sending documents.
So, for heads and leaders of international schools, if you want those applications leaving your school to be of the highest quality, then ensure you are not overloading your counselling team with unnecessary or unwanted teaching, extra duties, emails or reporting. Instead, allow them to get on with the job of making the strongest possible cases for your students to access the universities they hope to attend.
ISL: Are there any universities or bodies that are particularly good examples of meeting the needs of international school college counsellors?
There are a few universities that are very actively involved in the networks of international counselling professional bodies such as IACAC (International Association for College Admission Counseling) and the Council of International Schools. They are usually the ones presenting first on policy changes or leading a charge to improve something. Paul Teulon made a huge effort at King’s early in his role as Director of Admissions to change the IB requirements and make them fairer, and this not only showed international schools that we understood the IB for the merit of its components, weighing higher-level subjects differently, but it increased applications from international schools by a significant number. A win-win. People who give their time to contribute to boards of these institutions are usually very active on social media, and there are a few university representatives I can think of who are always great at being knowledgeable presences: Holly Smith at Sussex, Denise Nijhuis at University College Roosevelt, Kim Zwitserloot at University College Utrecht, and David Bernay at St. Edward’s University all come to mind as ‘first responders’ to important questions.
Many US colleges have made it their business to have personal relationships with counsellors, inviting us to get coffee, or dinner, when our schedules permit. The kinds of discussions you can have away from the desk are always different, and I have to say the personal approach always helps to keep a college at the forefront of our minds. Some universities like La Verne and Trinity College Connecticut stand out for their personal, warm email communications that bridge the gap of being full of useful information and not too long to read, nor sent too often. Reed College and Lewis and Clark in Portland stand out for being two of the best summer college visits I have had in a while. The universities who host exceptionally well-organised counsellor tours, like the BEANS group in Boston or the Chicagoland tour after the IACAC conference, stand out for their truly professional approach: you leave tours like these feeling you have a new network of professional friendships and that you know more thoroughly what students would ‘fit’ their institutions.
Finally, I think that the colleges that really gain traction with international students are the ones that show that they care about them. For me, it’s a very simple, human need we all have: to be seen, valued and understood, and the colleges who recruit ethically, consciously and with a personal touch are, by far, the ones who win the best, most engaged students.