How do we uphold our values while at the same time dealing with the demands of our work?  How do we maintain equilibrium between our ideals and our day-to-day realities?  How do we keep what we do from becoming who we are?


Those questions are existential, as old as the concept of work itself. Each of us answers them intentionally or by default on a daily basis.  But I have found myself thinking about them over the past couple of months as the result of an e-mail I received just before Christmas.


The correspondent was a school counselor who recently changed jobs, moving from an affluent independent school to a suburban public high school. She wrote that she struggles every day with a tension I wrote about back in November in the post, “College Admission as Resume Building.” 


Here is the part of the post that prompted her to write:


“As a college counselor, it’s my responsibility to provide my students with information about the realities of the college process, even if I find those realities repugnant.  At the same time, as a human being, should I enable a process that is in conflict with my values?”


Here is the rest of the e-mail, with minor edits:


“You mention that you don’t face that dilemma daily; unfortunately I do because I used to work for an independent school where many of my students were affluent, well-connected and heavily coached.  Recently I changed jobs and am now working for a public high school located in an affluent community that is home to multiple top-notch private secondary schools.  I know what my counterparts are doing and what I am not.  I like that in my current job I do not give my students as much hand-holding as I did previously.  Their words are more theirs and theirs alone.  I also appreciate that many of my current colleagues are not former admission officers because they still believe the best student gets in.  To me, this all seems more authentic and more the way it should be.  However, I am still upset.  The inequity bothers me greatly.  I am torn with knowing how the game is played versus how it should be played.  To this end, I put forth my questions to you:  What can I do that I haven’t done already to make this process fair (even when it never was to begin with), and how do I sustain my values even in the face of a changing world?”


The e-mail touched me, making me both feel guilty for the privilege I enjoy and also grateful and proud that there are colleagues on the front lines struggling with those questions.  I promised to devote a post to her questions, and it has taken me longer than hoped because I’m not sure I have good answers.


The philosophical debate about whether ideals or realities are more important goes back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle.  Ethics might be defined as the merger of the two.  Ethical principles are expressions of ideals, of what should be the case, and yet any ethical theory that can’t be applied practically has no value.


So how do we sustain our values/live our ideals in a world that may not seem to value or reward them?


It starts with being clear about what your guiding values are.  Throughout my career I have been guided by a belief that helping young people make decisions about their futures is a noble calling, with the college search and application processes being important developmental stages in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  There are certainly moments when I wonder if that belief is naïve or outdated, but it serves as the foundation for my counseling.


I also believe, and am not hesitant to say, that the college process is not ultimately about getting into college.  It’s about readiness for college (which assumes that college is an experience rather than a credential), and it’s about discernment, about students figuring out who they are and what they hope to accomplish with their lives.  As counselors our job is to be a trail guide for that journey.


Having spent most of my life working in an independent school (something I would never have envisioned), I don’t accept that “hand-holding” or “coaching” or “packaging” are norms for independent school college counselors.  There are probably parents who think that is what they are paying for with their tuition, but I see my responsibility as using my experience and professional judgment to help the student develop independence, not remove the need for independence.


That leads to the second piece in sustaining one’s values, finding a work environment that supports or is consonant with our values.  Most of us talk to students about the importance of fit in choosing a college, but fit is even more important in a work environment.  It is hard to pursue one’s vision of college admission or college counseling when the rest of the institution is on a different page.  I used to believe that I could make a difference no matter where I worked, and I still believe that to some extent, but after working in one dysfunctional institution I realized that being in the wrong environment takes a toll on one’s psyche and one’s soul.


How does one help make the process more fair and how does one deal with knowing how the game is played versus how it should be played?  I’m not sure I have great answers.  There is inequity in the college admissions process just as there is inequity in society and inequity in life.


I have never been a member of a twelve-step program (but might need to be by the time I end my career), but I have found myself referring to the Serenity Prayer as having real relevance for college admissions and college counseling. 


The Serenity Prayer talks about the wisdom of knowing the difference between things over which you have control and those you can’t control.  I can’t control the changing nature of the college process and the games colleges feel pressured to play, but I can help my students and parents understand the reality of the college admission process.  I can help them navigate a process that can be confusing, and I can dispel myths, whether those myths be grounded in naivete or grounded in sophistication through trying to game the system.


One of my philosophical heroes, William James, talked about how each of our lives is a scientific experiment in how to live.  We make choices and decisions without knowing what is right, and every choice involves moral risk. We have to make choices based on what we value and what we believe, and we will probably never in this life be certain about whether we have chosen/lived correctly. 


To my correspondent, the very fact that you are asking those questions and struggling with those existential issues gives me hope for our profession.  Don’t give up your ideals, and keep fighting the good fight.