Meet Farris James

Farris James Farris James
College and Career Guidance Counselor
Assets High School (HI)
Co-Leader of the Learning Differences SIG

What drew you to the world of college counseling?
Before I became a college counselor, I was a middle and high school science teacher and worked at Assets School, which serves students who are bright and learn differently, those that are gifted, learning disabled (especially language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia). Many of our students are twice-exceptional, meaning they are both highly gifted and learning disabled. After a decade of teaching, I became increasingly interested in working with students on an individual basis to help them build upon their strengths. The college and career counseling position at Assets is unique. Most of my students qualify for accommodations in the classroom and in testing and need further assistance to look more deeply at the issues of fit in postsecondary settings. I was offered the opportunity to transition to college and career counseling after several years at Assets and took the opportunity in 2008-09.

What is your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of my job used to be when students got those happy admit letters. That is still fun! But now, it just keeps getting better the longer I am in the field as my former students come back and share with me their stories of success in colleges and careers. Both their challenges and their successes feed my motivation to dig deeper, learn more, and improve how we serve future students. I love it when they beat the many odds stacked against them.

How did you get involved with the Learning Differences SIG?
Though my school cannot send me every year, I have been privileged to attend several NACAC conferences and I met Dr. Jill Corbin. It was really her work to initiate our SIG, and she asked me to write in support of its formation. I was excited to attend the first meeting after it was successfully formed, and then Jill asked me to join her in co-chairing the SIG in August of 2019. We both are serving as presidents-elect of our affiliates this year as well, so it is a lot to balance. But the SIG adds great value to NACAC for me because of the unique population I serve in my school.

Why is this SIG important to you?
This SIG is important to me because it helps to raise awareness about the fact that one in five students have invisible disabilities and brings attention to the need to tap the talent in this population in postsecondary settings while also shoring up their areas of weakness with accommodations and supports. An alarmingly small number of students seek the supports they need and qualify for in postsecondary settings, and this makes it much harder for them to persist and succeed. For me, the issue is personal because of the many members of my own family with invisible disabilities. I love my job and my school, but I volunteer to help with HACAC and NACAC because I feel called to give back and to go beyond my role within my school. We are a privileged private school with high tuition. Although we offer financial aid, tuition is a huge barrier for families. Outside of my school context, there are grave disparities in access to much-needed supports for students with learning differences based on socioeconomic status and race. All students deserve to be properly identified and provided early intervention and support to maximize their potential. But currently, privileged students are more likely to receive what they need. I hope to help close this gap in my career by raising awareness, decreasing stigmatization, teaching families how to support their students, and thereby improving outcomes of diverse learners.

Why should counselors and admission professionals get involved with a NACAC SIG?
I think it is a great way to deepen our conversations on certain issues. I also think it will be more valuable if we can address the intersectionality of various SIGS. The issues facing my students see no boundaries between the SIGS; I serve many native students, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and EFC zero students, who also have learning differences or other invisible disabilities such as mental illness. In their lives, all these identities intertwine. We need to work together as various SIGS to meet our larger goal of increasing access and opportunity for all.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing our profession today?
I believe the biggest challenge is the equity of access and opportunity to higher education and then after university life, unequal access to financial opportunity. I believe the work we do at NACAC and through its affiliates to help students access financial aid, counsel families, and share resources, helps to combat these issues, but we have so much more work to do. Systemic racism and sexism impact us across all areas and we need to combat these within our institutions and beyond through conversations and collaboration. We need to work to see our field from more than just the lens in our corner of the world, our own desk. Another equally concerning challenge in our field is that mental health needs to be a priority on college campuses. This is a critical piece for all students. Although not all students with learning differences need these supports, students with learning differences often have comorbid anxiety or depression, and these issues need to be addressed as well as their need to learn how to access accommodations. For this reason, improving access to mental health care is particularly important to me with regard to the population I serve.

When you aren’t working, what do you like to do?
I love to spend time with my husband and daughter, especially traveling with them on adventures, or adventuring near home, going to the beach, swimming, and hiking. I also love to spend time with our pets, we just added two new kitties to the family.

If you could be any fictional character, who would it be and why?
Hermione Granger because she works hard, is analytical and creative, and works to find novel solutions to problems with her team. She takes risks, speaks up bravely, and does what she thinks is right even if it might get her in trouble. She is also mindful of community expectations and rules but follows her own moral compass. And, most likely this is also because I have begun enjoying Harry Potter books along with my daughter!

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