Interview with Emily Johnson
Licensed School Counselor and Department Head at Plainwell High School
What inspired you to want to become a school counselor?
I started out as a teacher where I taught English for two years. I had a lot of reasons why I left teaching but one reason was because I enjoyed having a connection with kids but hated that kids would confide in me and tell me things yet it was my job to hand them off to someone else. I felt that I had a connection to the student which played a big role in why they confided in me. Plus my own life history leads me to feel connected with kids that go through things in high school. I felt I could do a better job as a counselor and could do the work that I enjoy most which is connecting with students.
What is the biggest challenge you faced in your own educational journey?
My junior year of college,the week before finals, all of a sudden my computer went black. The computer no longer worked at all. I had primarily English classes so all of my final papers were on it. I was able to call my grandfather, who was my biggest support system with education, but I can’t help but to think how difficult that would be for students who do not have anyone to turn to. I called him and he bought me a new laptop because he could afford to do so, but I had to navigate rewriting papers and emailing professors to inform them of the situation. I had to explain to professors that I did in fact have them done but now they were gone. I tried to find proof to show them and luckily I had some rough draft printed copies and had emailed some rough drafts to a friend to look at. It was a challenge across the board having to navigate that situation and stay calm and focused. It could have been more of a challenge if I hadn’t had the support system I did.
What is one thing you would tell your younger student self now?
I would tell myself that your life experiences will help others. I have had my own personal challenges when I was in high school and I think if I had known how much that would help other people later on by making me more empathetic and allowing me to connect with students that would have helped.
What message of encouragement would you give to first generation students trying to figure out their postsecondary path?
I would say try out lots of different classes because you never know which one is going to speak to you and it might not be something that you would expect. I would also say that your interests may lead you down your own path. Simply because it is different or not something your family has done, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it.
If you could give one piece of advice to higher ed professionals, what would you want them to know?
They need to make their websites easier to understand. We work with the local community college and they have a phenomenal website. It is very easy to navigate and they tell you every class you’ll take to get your degree. Oftentimes I will use it with students even though they have no interest in going there just to show them what they need to look for. I think that many websites are so confusing or you can’t find the information you are looking for. I know what I’m looking for and even I can’t find it. Nowadays, the website is the number one thing kids look at since campus tours aren’t an option (due to covid) and is therefore extremely important.
From your perspective, what really works in college counseling/advising, access, and success?
I think just being available. We also actually have a dedicated college advisor. This is our sixth year and after this we’re actually phasing back to just counselors next year. It’s really sad because it’s been really great to have a dedicated person and everyone knows that is their job and their role. So now we have to take a look at how to reformulate again so that students still have that. Also I think having one-on-one meetings and being accessible to parents is important because oftentimes students and parents may be embarrassed to talk about sensitive information such as their financial situation or even their interests sometimes. Having an open door policy can help with that.
How do you hope to create a more equitable postsecondary advising system?
You hear these stories about “that time my counselor said I couldn’t do this…” I cannot imagine ever saying that to any student and so I think my job is to make sure that whatever their interests may be I help them try that. Even if in the back of my head I’m doubtful, it doesn’t matter what I think because that student could still get into that college and could still be successful in that career. It is not my call to make. Of course also talk about having a backup plan, but I think believing in their dreams is really important and making sure that they understand that you’re genuine in that. I am never going to be that counselor that doesn’t believe in a student because it’s my job to believe in them.
Tell us about your advocacy project.
It’s on parent engagement. I grew up in a single parent household where my dad did not know how to advocate for us, if needed, and so I think that many parents simply have no idea how to advocate for their students or who to reach out to. I’m still shaping the project a little bit but something that may be helpful is publications or parent guides. In these we can address topics such as who at the school to reach out to for this issue or that issue. If we can provide a template, schools can input their information. I think parents want to get involved, they just don’t always know how or who to call.