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Counselors Are the 'Glue'

July 15, 2010

Imagine a college without counselors. A student is continually late, or absent—did her childcare fall through? A student falls asleep—is he still working the night shift? That group in the back might need a higher-level class—have they been tested recently?—and instead of focusing on the lesson, a young women in the front has pressing questions about financial aid.

Now imagine trying to resolve these situations—while multi-tasking to deliver instruction, facilitate groups, assess learning and make “notes-to-self” on how to adapt the next lesson.

“A teacher can’t do it all,” says Wayne Carey, a counselor in the Adult Basic Education (ABE) Program of BMCC's Center for Continuing Education and Workforce Development—and one of six winners of the 25th Annual Literacy Recognition Award presented by the Literacy Assistance Center (LAC), Scholastic, Inc., and The Bookbinder’s Guild of New York.

Counselors are the glue

“Wayne is our secret weapon,” said ABE Director Denise Deagan. “He’s the public face of our program, the glue that holds us together.”

Counselors are essential, she explains, in helping students address barriers to their academic success—issues affecting attendance, class participation, and engagement with the subject. Through referrals to social service agencies and other resources, through group sessions, mediations, and one-on-one conversations, counselors help students unravel their goals, face their fears and understand the culture of school itself.

From an administrator’s point of view, they help build retention in both degree and non-degree programs, and raise student performance, overall.

Some would say they’re the unsung heroes of academia—but counselors in general, and one in particular—were acknowledged at the recent Literacy Recognition Awards ceremony, when Wayne Carey walked across the stage in Scholastic Inc.’s spacious Soho auditorium, to accept his framed award certificate, and a $1,200 library development grant from The Bookbinders’ Guild of New York.

Finding hope

Carey knows first-hand, the impact a counselor has on a person facing a critical juncture in his life. Diagnosed in high school with muscular dystrophy—a progressive condition that weakens the body’s muscles—Carey grappled with the direction his life would take, and found guidance in a counselor who saw hope in his struggle.

“It turned my world upside down,” Carey said of his diagnosis. “All my possible career paths were suddenly closed to me.” Through his district’s Muscular Dystrophy Association, he found a counselor, Mark, who helped him construct a plan for his future, one that involved a skill he knew he had, but didn’t connect to a career.

“Mark guided me to the field of counseling,” Carey says, “and it made sense to me. I was always the person that my friends would come to and talk about their problems.”

Carey made it through that life-changing summer, finished high school, entered Queens College/CUNY, and earned a Bachelor in Psychology degree. He also trained as a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC), and joined BMCC in 2000.

“Counselors help you see what you can’t; they help you to see your potential, and guide you toward it,” he says. “My counselor gave me personality and aptitude tests, and we made a road map for my life.”

“Counseling students at BMCC is my way of paying it forward,” he says. “I know first hand just how much a few words of encouragement or guidance can change a person’s whole life.”

Different paths

Students come to Carey with a variety of dilemmas, to strategize around. “One was an extreme ‘math phobe’,” he says.  “Her other GED practice scores were through the roof, but she just didn't get math. She felt lost in the classes, and stopped attending because she felt there was no point.”

Carey maintained contact with the student, and she steeled herself to try math one more time. “After several counseling sessions,” he said, “she agreed to come to me for tutoring. I worked with her for several weeks, and slowly we were able to break her out of her math phobia and she was able to do the problems on her own. Soon after, she passed the GED.”

As with many working in adult education, Carey wears more than one hat—he’s a counselor who tutors math, and even teaches GED science—in fact, to bring his pedagogy up to speed with his content knowledge, he’s worked with CUNY staff developer Kate Brandt to develop a hands-on lesson set exploring the scientific method.   
Some of the students he counsels arrive at the program with excellent academic backgrounds, but as recent immigrants and non-native English speakers, need help navigating the CUNY system itself. Two young people, in particular, stick in Carey’s mind.

“Both students would make a point of stopping by my office at least once a week to ask about everything from their current progress, to colleges and scholarships,” Carey says. “Both went on to win the Laurel Award [for outstanding GED students accepted to a CUNY college], and now one has graduated from Hunter and is applying to law school, and the other is attending BMCC and is a member of the Mayor’s GED Alumni Alliance.”

Education: 'Too big to fail'

Few, if any would that dispute counseling and mentoring services are integral to student success—evidenced not only in BMCC’s continuing education programs, but through the one-on-one support provided to degree-seeking students in the college's Accelerated Student in Associate Program (ASAP), the Kaplan Leadership Program and others.

So it is particularly unfortunate, Carey noted in his award ceremony remarks, that proposed New York State and federal funding cuts threaten this much-needed educational component.

“How do we extend a helping hand to our students,” he asked, “when legislators tie our hands behind our backs by cutting resources and funding? It’s time education is given priority over corporations and banks considered ‘too big to fail’.” Quoting ABE Director Denise Deagan, and drawing cheers from the auditorium’s full house he added, “Shouldn’t education be 'too big to fail'?”

Co-awardee Robert Stein, a Staff Developer and Computer Lab Lead Teacher at the BEGIN Language Work Study Program—as well as others speaking that day—echoed Carey’s concerns, and he dedicated his award to his colleagues, “many of whom have become the victims of budget cuts.”

Stein’s students face the same challenges as many young people attending BMCC and other GED and English-language programs throughout the City. “In 1996 there were 1.1 million people in NYC on welfare,” he said. “Today, according to HRA [the New York City Human Resources Administration], there are less than 400,000. But how many of those people that have stopped receiving benefits are no longer living in poverty? There doesn’t seem to be statistics on that.”

The winner’s circle

Providing services that give people the tools to overcome poverty is what the Literacy Recognition Awards are all about.

Other winners this year include Caryn Davis, a recipient of the New York Times 2010 ESOL Teacher of the Year Award, leader of the The Altered Book Project, and a writer for the TV series, We Are New York; Hillary Gardner, a Professional Development Coordinator who works with ESOL instructors at CUNY’s 14 literacy campuses; Bi Ming Long, a Volunteer Assistant Teacher at University Settlement Society, and Nestor Tebio, Program Manager for Catholic Charities of Brooklyn & Queens.  

A Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Marian Lapsley (Schwarz) Cross, who founded the New York City Adult Literacy Initiative (NYCALI)—under which was created the Literacy Referral Hotline, the Young Adult Learning Academy, and the Literacy Assistance Center. She also founded the Adult Literacy Media Alliance (ALMA), and produced the award-winning series, TV411, which reaches millions of viewers, nationwide.  

Leslee Oppenheim, Director of Language & Literacy Programs with the CUNY Office of Academic Affairs was awarded a Career Achievement Award for her work spanning almost 30 years. Oppenheim leads CUNY’s borough-wide system of adult ESOL and GED programs, and has pioneered a number of adult education initiatives, including the CUNY Language Immersion Program (CLIP), and the CUNY College Transition Initiative. With Anthony Tassi of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Adult Education, she co-created the Emmy-award-winning We Are New York television series, and continues to explore the possibilities of linking media and adult learning.

The 25th Annual Literacy Recognition Award ceremony was presented by the Board of Directors of the Literacy Assistance Center, and hosted by the Board’s Interim Chair, Pamela Haas; LAC Executive Director, Elyse Barbell; Paul Stanley of the Bookbinder Guild’s Executive Committee, and others. Attendees received a free copy of Clifford the Big Red Dog, 40th Anniversary Edition, courtesy of Scholastic, Inc.  

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  • BMCC counselor Wayne Carey, and five others win the Literacy Recognition Award.
  • The award is sponsored by the Literacy Assistance Center, Scholastic Inc., and The Bookbinder's Guild of New York.
  • Leslee Oppenheim, Director of Language & Literacy Programs, CUNY Office of Academic Affairs was awarded the Career Achievement Award; a Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Marian Lapsley (Schwarz) Cross, who founded the NYC Adult Literacy Initiative.

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