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Meet Kel McDowell

Kel McDowellKel McDowell
Rockridge Secondary School
West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

How long have you been a college counselor and how did you become involved with NACAC?

I have been a school counselor in public schools in the Vancouver area for 20 years. About five years ago our counseling department embarked on redesigning our service model. We all felt we were doing a good job addressing the social and emotional needs of our students, but felt we could be doing better at our postsecondary counseling. We decided to assign one counselor specifically to do college counseling and further develop our university counseling program. I offered to take on this role – a role I was very unsure about, but was eager to learn.

Until five years ago I had never heard of NACAC. When I began my new role, I reached out to a couple of the college counselors who work at private schools in the Vancouver area. They told me about NACAC and about the national conference. I became a member, attended my first NACAC conference in Toronto, and I have attended each year since. That first conference was overwhelming, but the learning opportunities at NACAC have proved invaluable to my work. I can’t wait to be in Boston for my fifth conference in September.

How does your involvement with NACAC assist you in your work in the Vancouver area?

NACAC has been a lifeline for me in my role as a university counselor in the Vancouver area. The application process to Canadian universities is considerably different and more straightforward than it is in other countries, but many of my students apply to universities outside of Canada, to schools across the USA, the UK, Europe, Asia and Australia. Much of what I have learned about international university admission has been from NACAC. Ongoing professional development is essential to being a successful university counselor and by far some of the best professional development I’ve gotten has been provided by NACAC. The sessions and workshops at the NACAC conferences have been outstanding, in addition to the networking opportunities.

Last year, NACAC hosted its first international university fair in Vancouver and will do so again this year. Can you describe its impact on your students?

The Vancouver fair has been one of the most exciting things to happen for students -- and counselors -- in this area. For students to learn about so many different universities from all over the world and the many postsecondary opportunities available to them is nothing short of remarkable. The workshops at the fair last year were often standing room only and so well received.

I recommended the fair to the students at our school and most of them attended. We had a great turnout for the first fair, and now that the word is out about it, I suspect we will see many more students and parents at this year’s fair. It has been wonderful for Vancouver students to have this opportunity and exciting that Vancouver is the first Canadian city to host it.

What do you think Canadian high school counselors might do differently than American high school counselors?

I think there are certain salient differences because Canadian university admission differs significantly from American universities. Most of my students (about 80 percent) remain in Canada for university, but I spend a significant amount of time writing recommendation letters for students applying to universities in America and the UK so I can’t begin to imagine how much time American counselors must spend on these letters. Another difference is the emphasis that American universities place on SAT and ACT scores whereas there is not a single university in Canada that uses such a measure as part of the admission process. So, as a counselor I don’t prioritize standardized tests with my students.

Perhaps the biggest difference I’ve noticed between American and Canadian counselors is that the former tend to be so much more familiar with and know so much more about so many different universities. I know a lot about Canadian universities and the programs they offer, and in the past five years, I have been learning lots about universities in other parts of the world. But I’m always amazed when I am talking to American counselors just how much they know, even small details, about almost every university across the USA. There are so many more universities in the USA than there are in Canada so I’m continuously amazed at how these counselors know and remember so much about all of them.

The IB Middle Years Program, five years in length, is unique pre-IB preparation. How do you describe the IB Middle Years Program (MYP) to university representatives?

We are an MYP school and have been so for about the past seven years. I think the goals of the MYP program, such as the emphasis on critical thinking skills, inquiry-based learning and cross-curricular learning, are invaluable to students and are skills that can help them be more successful at university. I am a big fan of the Personal Project in the MYP program and think the inquiry skills gained by doing the project are congruent with post-secondary learning. Although I have no formal statistics to make such a claim, I’m pretty confident in suggesting that the MYP program has likely prepared our students a bit more for the challenges of postsecondary learning.

Has the current political climate in the United States made a difference in the way your students are viewing their university choices?

I had less domestic students applying to universities in the US this year than in previous years, but the number was not significantly lower and I’m not certain whether this is directly related to the political climate or not. It may be completely unrelated. What I did notice this year however is that a significant number of our international students who typically might have applied to universities in the US did not apply this year and opted to apply only to Canadian universities or to universities in the UK and Australia, or to return to their home countries in Europe and Asia.

However, I think some Canadian students and parents are beginning to be more cautious about applying to universities in the US. Last week alone, one of my students, a US citizen, indicated he no longer wants to study in the US and has accepted an offer from a Canadian university. His reasons were based solely on politics. I also think some counselors, including myself, may be more concerned about sending students to study in the US than they might have been in the past. It will be interesting to see what evolves in your country, but I think American universities, if not already, will indeed begin to feel the impact of stricter rules on visa requirements and other restrictions pertaining to international students.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job and how do you stay balanced?

There are many challenges in the work we do and the biggest one for most of us is the volume of work. The demands seem to increase each year and there never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done. For me personally, the biggest challenge has been the immense amount of learning I’ve had to do in the past five years since I became a university counselor. To provide the level of service required by my students and their parents, I am constantly learning about different universities and programs all over the world. Furthermore, along with my colleagues, we are continuously hosting events at our school to help our students make informed postsecondary decisions, which extends my work day making long hours. I find balance difficult, but for the most part I think I do OK. I try and take time to do things that have absolutely nothing to do with work, such as getting to the gym or even just walking along the beautiful Vancouver seawall.

Tell us some facts about you.

After I finished my Ph.D., I began to teach university classes and have found that to be a nice reprieve from my regular job. I love both being a university counselor to high school students and a university instructor, but working is not my whole life. I have many other interests.

I love everything about Vancouver, so I can always find things to do when I’m not working. This is a great city for foodies, so I love trying out new restaurants and experiencing new foods. I also love all types of arts, particularly music, so I’m often out at concerts or a small music venues listening to various genres of music. I have season tickets to the Vancouver Opera. I also like watching hockey and attend a lot of Vancouver Canucks home games. I love to travel and have done more in the past few years, but plan to continue doing more. I have a long list of places I plan to visit. I am a dog-lover and although we have been without one for the past two years, a new dog is most likely going to be a part of our life again in the next year or two.

Perhaps the simplest, but most fun, thing I love is our annual trek to the family cottage each summer. I love to be by the lake by day and to just relax by the campfire on the beach at night. I love life and feel lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world and to have a career I love.

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