At 56, Justin Bieber Changed My Life

Life has funny twists and turns. In 2016, when my youngest daughter, Allison, was a freshman in high school, she asked me if she could attend a summer program at NYU with a friend. I went on the NYU website to learn more about her chosen program and saw an announcement for a new online master’s degree in school counseling. This caught my eye, as I was deeply concerned about the mental health epidemic affecting students in my community. I made a note of it and went back to Allison’s planned undertaking. After further conversations, I learned that she was really just trying to get to New York to see Justin Bieber at Madison Square Garden.

She did not end up going to NYU that summer, but I did.

My goal was not to become a school counselor; I thought the required yearlong internship in a school setting would provide me with an invaluable perspective. I hoped to become a stakeholder liaison advocating on behalf of students with parents, administrators, teachers, and the community. And so, at 56 years old, I embarked on a journey into the world of higher education that would change the trajectory of my life.

With one daughter in college*, two preparing for college and me in graduate school, I was immersed in every level of the college process. Truthfully, at this point, I did not even question whether college was the correct pathway for any of my children. I just followed our cultural mandate that college was necessary for any advancement in life.

Little did I know that my years as a market researcher, investor, entrepreneur, financial analyst, and parent, would shift my viewpoint. Although it was my experience at NYU that opened my eyes, the issues I came to see are not unique to NYU. They are pervasive in our higher education infrastructure.

I love learning so I embraced all my classes with enthusiasm. Some were thought-provoking and some were heavy in content made irrelevant by the internet and dramatic economic change. I thought I would be learning from NYU-tenured professors, but many of my classes were taught by adjunct professors. This trend away from tenured to part-time faculty is now common at most colleges.

During the two-year program, we were required to attend a four-day immersion at NYU where I had the opportunity to meet my classmates after months of seeing each other online. I enjoyed interacting with people from all types of backgrounds. School counseling feels more like a calling than a job. Everyone cared deeply about helping students. As I got to know my classmates, I became aware of the financial struggles many were experiencing.

The program cost when I entered was $81,000. The median school counseling job pays $56,000. With a full-time commitment to school, many of my classmates lost the potential income of a college graduate ($47,000 per year), bringing the real cost to $175,000.

How does this make sense, especially since many students also carry undergraduate debt?

I began researching undergraduate and graduate programs at public and private colleges around the country and the cost structures to potential incomes were similar, although the private schools have a much greater differential. The next thing that surprised me was the disconnect between the curriculum and the real world. We were taught a very set structure for the role of a school counselor that included three components: academic advising, career guidance, and social-emotional support.

Although counselors are obviously needed, in reality, schools vary widely in how they address student needs and allocate their budgets. Academic advisors (requiring an AA degree) rather than school counselors (requiring a master’s degree) are being hired at many schools. In four of the ten largest school districts, security guards outnumber counselors. Competing budget demands limit the potential to reach the recommended ratio of one counselor per 250 students. The national average ratio is nearly double that and in my home state of California, it is 1:622.

After finishing the required coursework (30 units), I was ready for my pre-internship practicum. The closest school they could find for me was in South Central LA, a 2- to 3-hour drive in heavy traffic. As I still had two of my children home, I declined to do this twice a week and took it upon myself to find something in my community.

I found an opportunity to serve my practicum at a nonprofit counseling center embedded in a local public high school of 3,000 students. The school had one full-time and one part-time counselor with seven academic advisors. The center–created by a coalition of community-based mental health specialists, law enforcement, the principal and other concerned citizens–played an active role in providing socio-emotional support to students. Although it worked in conjunction with the school counselors, it was run by licensed social workers and I had to be granted special permission to join them.

When it came time for me to serve my yearlong internship, however, I was not allowed to work at the nonprofit center. It did not follow the strict degree guidelines set forth by an independent accreditation agency. The fact that these centers are growing in response to the demand for counseling services, made me realize how accreditation was a major factor limiting the ability of colleges to respond to the transforming economy. It also made me rethink the value of sending every student through the bureaucratic college system–as currently structured–when every aspect of the way we live and work is dramatically changing.

It was during a meeting I attended with a school counselor, school psychologist and parents of a depressed sophomore boy, that I realized I couldn’t spend a year of my life in the school system. The parents described their son’s boredom with the 80-minute block classes and his unwillingness to get out of bed. They said he complained that the material was irrelevant to his life. The counseling protocol was to help get him “back on track” by providing extra tutoring and alternative classes for support. I thought to myself, “This student is perfect, the system is flawed! He is having a normal reaction to the devaluing of his unique interests and rebelling against our culture of sameness.”

So, I became a grad school dropout and started writing this blog.

It turns out that my strong desire to advocate for voiceless students aligns with my life’s mission. Bryan Jacobson, my jokester brother-in-law, recently brought this to my attention. He was searching the internet to find evidence that an alien ship had landed in Northern California on the day I was born. He thought this would be funny to include in my birthday card. Instead, he found out “On November 20, 1959, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted unanimously by the 78 Member States of the United Nations General Assembly in Resolution 1386.” In summary, it says:

“The child is recognized universally as a human being who must be able to develop physically, mentally, socially, morally, and spiritually, with freedom and dignity.”

The key term is human being. Each child is as unique as his or her fingerprints. They vary in their circumstances, interests, and goals. They are not programmable robots that can be fed through a one-size-fits-all structure.

Our education system, with its focus on shaping children into an image of who and what we determine they should be, is not working. Our guidance has been disastrous to a generation of children–mentally, physically and financially. We have ignored their individuality and potential contributions while at the same time missing out on the massive shift in our economy that could provide them with tremendous opportunity. It is time to develop environments that allow them the responsibility and freedom to discover their own meaningful pathway. This is my mission.

You don’t know it, Justin Bieber, but you changed the course of my adult life.

*Although I use the word ‘college’ throughout, I recognize that there are distinctions between colleges and universities. Since college is the term most often used in our culture, I chose to use it as the singular term for higher education.

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