How a Prejudiced Guidance Counselor Hijacked My College Plans

It was finally my turn to sit down with Ms. Norman* to talk about college options. I excitedly walked into her office prepared with my research, list of schools, and application deadlines. I expected her to share in my excitement and help with the next steps in the application process. Instead, she read my list, looked me straight in the eyes and said:

“I think you are reaching above yourself. You need to find something more on your level.”

Her response was like a gut punch. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t want to move or breathe. It took everything I had to keep from bursting into tears. Her tone and the look in her eyes made me feel ashamed. I felt wrong not for just wanting to go to college, but for having any ambition at all. Ms. Norman had been my guidance counselor since 5th grade. She’d known me for 7 years and guided hundreds of other kids through this process, so of course she had to be right. Right?

I decided then that I wasn’t going to go to college. I resolved to drop completely out of the college application process and would have if my homeroom advisor didn’t press me to apply. I want to say that he encouraged me to apply because he wanted to see me succeed. Of that I am not sure. However, I do know that Masterman had a reputation to consider: the expectation was that every graduate to go to college.

Julia R. Masterman, is a public Philadelphia magnet school serving gifted students from grades five through twelve. When I attended, admission was only open for students in 5th or 6th grade and to get in you either passed a test or were recommendation by a feeder school. From 5th grade to 9th grade it was like a regular school with multiple classes for each grade level. But for high school, there was just one class for each grade. In the late 1990s, it was one of the top public high schools in the country. Even if you had been there since 5th grade there was no guarantee you would get into the high school. There were 27 students admitted into 10th grade that year. I was the only African-American female student.

I did well in my classes and had aspirations of becoming a broadcast journalist like Oprah. After taking the PSATs (preliminary SAT), I did what everyone else did: I researched schools to come up with a list of places I wanted to attend. Hofstra, Syracuse, Northwestern, and Boston University were all on my list.

“I think you are reaching above yourself. You need to find something more on your level.”

I’d studied AP Biology, Chemistry, Calculus, AP History, and Spanish (level 4) at one of the top public high schools in the country. Ms. Norman’s one and only school recommendation to me was Temple University. Located in North Philadelphia, Temple was an “… institution with a long-held reputation as a gritty and tenacious college environment where talented city kids went to catch up academically with their suburban counterparts (1).”

There’s nothing wrong with Temple University. But why was that the only college she suggested? There were plenty of other schools that she could have encouraged me to apply, including the University of Pennsylvania where my father worked in the receiving department. I could have gone there and had 100% of my tuition covered, but that never even came up as something to explore.

Incidentally, my best friend at school was Latina and was so smart that Masterman skipped her entire 8th grade year; at the end of 7th grade she jumped right into 9th grade. Ms. Norman was her guidance counselor as well. I’ll give you three guesses where my friend attended college.

After our talk, I stopped caring about school and put any plans about college out of my mind. In addition to going to school, I began taking on full-time hours at Robin’s Bookstore, working from 3:30 PM to 11:30 PM Wednesday through Sunday. In March of my senior year, I gave in to the pressure of my homeroom advisor and applied to Drexel University two weeks before the filing deadline. It was the only school that I applied to. I got in. After a few major changes, I graduated with a degree in education.

If I were in front of her now, I am positive I’d have a sharp comeback for Ms. Norman. But back then, my self-esteem was being held together by spit and chewing gum. I didn’t have the confidence to standup for myself and I had no one to stand up for me. Looking back, I recognize two things:

  1. Her actions were at the least ignorant and at most racist.
  2. Her opinion about who I was and what I was capable of was a baseless and inaccurate judgment of my potential.

That conversation with Ms. Norman colored every professional decision I made with self-doubt for years. I constantly second-guessed myself and talked myself out of things I truly wanted, questioning if I was “reaching above myself.”

A Washington Post article, highlighted that Michelle Obama faced a similar situation with her guidance counselor:

When she was in high school and considering Princeton University as a college destination, Michelle Obama said, counselors warned her that she was too ambitious. “They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton,” she told a group of low-income students recently. “I still hear that doubt ringing in my head.”

I wonder how many other women of color have been “advised” by misguided guidance counselors. Are there still counselors offering bias and discrimination under the pretense of academic or career counseling? What’s your experience been?

(1) Mike Benner, Is Temple No Longer ‘Diversity University’?,

*Not her real name.

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