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Preparing for an uncertain future

Robbie Jefferiss, University Advisor, East Campus
23 December 2020

Preparing for an uncertain future

University advising in the age of COVID-19

One of the joys of working in a university advising office is helping our students visualise their future; clarifying their goals and exploring opportunities, many of which they have never considered. You can see their eyes shift upwards, seeing themselves on a campus, or in a new city, or learning a new language. In the busy life of a high school student, asking them to stop and consider what life beyond graduation looks like can be empowering. It can also sometimes be scary as they consider moving from a fairly structured life to one that will be theirs (with some input from their parents, of course!) to decide. 

As part of the advising process on East Campus, the UAC team ask our Grade 11 students to visualise their lives at age 30: Where will you live? What kind of city will you be in? What does your home look like? Where are you working? Our students find this challenging to say the least. Teenage brains are not well equipped to think beyond lunchtime, let alone 15 years into the future. 

However despite the individual uncertainties felt by our students, our university advising team have, up to now, felt that our graduates’ immediate future was predictable; students chose pathways well-trodden by their older siblings or peers to recognisable universities or gap year programmes. We felt secure in advising our students towards those choices. But in March 2020, COVID-19 threw all of this into disarray, as the uncertainty of the near future became fraught with unknowns. Students had questions we could not answer then, questions which, 10 months later, we still can’t advise on. Will I be able to enter that country? Will my university be teaching online or in person? Will my parents be willing (or able) to pay US$45,000 for an online option? Are my gap year plans completely blown? 

And for the first time in my career, quelling those normal pre-departure anxieties became much more difficult. As students turned to their trusted advisors about the fate of their future, we had few answers. Many of these anxieties are wrapped in a tight jacket of grief. The Class of 2020 had no opportunity to finish school and gain closure or enjoy their traditional rights of passage. The Class of 2021 is facing similar uncertainties in planning their next steps into an uncertain world. 

As a community we have spent the last 18 years preparing our graduates for an independent life, and this important life event has been put on hold as many start university in their childhood bedroom. As I evaluated my role in this process, and the value that I can now bring and the support I can offer my students, I’ve identified a few key elements that are related, but perhaps not identical:

Teaching flexibility 

Some of our students have envisioned a path to a certain country, city or university. They are the ones wearing the sweatshirt of the college that they aspire to attend, even in Grade 9. Teaching these students that there is more than one university out there, and perhaps multiple countries or cities where they can be successful, is a key element of our counselling, and is especially important right now. Having a back up plan (or two), and spending time envisioning alternate futures, is time well spent. As a sailor, one of my favourite quotes is,

We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.

Flexibility of thinking may be one of the greatest strengths we can impart at this time. 

Teaching gratitude

The Class of 2020 faced a great deal of loss, and there is a chance that the Class of 2021 may experience a similar reality. It is easy for students of all ages to focus on the things they’ve missed out on: no football tournament, no overseas expedition, no end-of-year celebrations. Admittedly, the list is quite long, and taking time to shift the narrative with our students is challenging. But it is important to (re)focus on what we do have. We still have access to education, we live in a safe city like Singapore, we have support from our family and friends close at hand. The list of things to be grateful for quickly grows. From the start of Grade 12, we ask our students to write down three things they are grateful for on a post-it note and place it on a whiteboard in the hallway each morning. The things they post are sometimes telling (sleep, my mom, caffeine, and bubble tea often top the list) but they also provide an avenue for students to shift their thinking each day. 

Teaching students to focus on the things they CAN control, not what they can’t 

There are many things out of our control. Students around the world who are considering university options are grappling with added complications created by the pandemic: online learning for months at a time, examination board and SAT cancellations, and shifting admissions requirements to name a few. As in many schools, UWCSEA students are highly engaged outside of the classroom in the Arts, sports, and service learning, and with these being cancelled or curtailed, they can express a growing sense of anxiety that their records will not be robust enough for their university applications. Quelling these anxieties can be challenging, and while it is tempting to remind students that these are external factors, over which they have no control, it is far more helpful to encourage them to focus on the things within their influence. New found free time may take the form of focusing on their own health and wellness, or diving into reading beyond the curriculum in their favourite topics, or exploring ways to support their own family and friends. Above all, students can be reminded that there is a human on the other side of their university application who understands the activity list may look slim, but doing the right thing, staying home, staying safe, and finding ways to continue to contribute is just as admirable as being captain of the rugby team. 

Accepting uncertainty 

Life is filled with uncertainty and current circumstances are amplifying this fact for our students, because there are simply so many variables impacting their plans, despite their best efforts, and despite all their best laid plans. In the past, our students (sometimes led by, sometimes leading, their parents) have visualised a timeline or pathway that fits their narrative for a successful entry to young adulthood. This year, some members of the Class of 2020 had to shift their plans from one continent to another in the matter of weeks. Many of our alumni have also taken a zig zag pathway to their desired destination or career, and we continue to create opportunities for them to share their stories. By telling these tales of adaptability to our current students, we can engender a culture that accepts uncertainty, rather than fighting against it. 

The first term of the year is never an easy one for the university advisors. But beyond the essays, recommendations, and ultimately the matriculation list, our work in the COVID-19 era can centre on supporting development of the key skills of self reflection and self advocacy that make the university application process more than a paper passing exercise. But additionally, as counsellors and school communities, it is our task to counsel our students towards embracing the ‘new normal’ with confidence and an open mind.

This article is adapted from a feature in the October 2020 edition of ‘The International Educator’ (TIE) Newspaper.