Magazine of CA

The Right Fit

August 18, 2023

Ask nearly any alum to recount one of the most valuable relationships they had as a Charger, and you’re likely to hear “my college counselor.” That resounding compliment is, in no small part, thanks to the efforts of Laura Sellers, CA’s long- time Co-Director of College Counseling. (Sellers is quick to shrug off the praise, pointing instead to her predecessors and current colleagues—Leya Jones, Brandon Carter, David Sayaki, and Becca Haque— who undoubtedly also share in the credit).

But humility aside, Sellers has been instrumental in shaping CA’s college counseling approach for over two decades. “College counseling is not framed as a separate discrete process at CA,” explains Sellers.

“We approach it as just another part of a student’s educational journey—of their lifelong learning journey, really. CA offers students so many avenues for discovery, and so many phenomenal leadership possibilities—even from Middle School—that by the time they get to us, they are prepared and empowered to do some important reflective work and really own their college process, just as they own their learning elsewhere on campus.”

In Sellers, “college counselor” is shorthand for a role that is equal parts thoughtful therapist, inspiring coach, tireless cheerleader, trusted guide, and sage mentor. In those myriad capacities, she has shepherded hundreds of students through countless moments of self-discovery on a journey resulting in their right-fit institutions.

What does that look like? It might mean helping students tune out the noise of peer voices, societal pressures, and preconceived ideas in favor of an introspective focus on personal values that homes in on the college experience they hope to have. Or it might require gently pushing students a bit outside of their preconceived expectations—or even comfort zones—to consider a university they may not have heard of. (Sellers takes the ever- growing list of colleges and universities across the globe that have received CA graduates as a particular point of pride.)

At the heart of her philosophy is a strong belief—shared by her fellow CA college counselors— that there is no single, perfect college choice for any student. If CA alums “bloom where they are planted,” as Sellers likes to say, she sees her role as helping them find the growing conditions where they are most likely to thrive.

Sellers’s near-encyclopedic knowledge of the university landscape and background in
college admissions certainly doesn’t hurt. (“It’s like having an insider to college admissions,” notes alum Andrew Tie, ‘11.) However, it
is her relationship-forward approach, and her capacity to connect meaningfully with students—and their families—that is perhaps her most appreciated gift.

“Ms. Sellers was more than a college counselor to me, she was also my biggest advocate and supporter throughout my time at Cary Academy,” reflects alum Michael Friedman, ‘19. “What makes Ms. Sellers truly incredible is that she takes an active interest in every aspect of her students’ lives and makes
a genuine effort to get to know each of us on a personal level.”

“She epitomizes everything you want in a college counselor: authenticity, empathy,
expertise, kindness, and more,” adds Punith Upadhya, ‘16. “Ms. Sellers has played a
key role in the impressive array of schools represented by Cary Academy alumni, but more importantly, she has made a massive difference in so many students’ lives beyond just their college decision. Without her, and the advice she’s given me along the way, I definitely wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

“Ninety percent of what we do in college counseling is one-on-one,” offers Sellers. “You really do get to know the students—to see them for who they really are—and what they hope for their future. When they’re vulnerable and open— about what is important to them, what they care about—that is powerful. I’m honored to be part of that journey.”

It is that passion for working closely with young people that originally drew Sellers to CA. A former English teacher turned Duke University admissions officer, Sellers was excited by the prospect of returning to more face-to-face interaction with students.

After a series of near-comical missed connections (right job/wrong time and wrong job/right time), at last, alignment and serendipity appeared with the opening of a part-time college counselor position at CA. Like so many of her future students, Sellers had found her institutional “right fit.” Within a matter of years, Sellers had shifted to college counseling full-time.

“For me, the magic is the people, our community, and the shared commitment to our students. From our board to our leadership team to our faculty and staff, every member of our community is incredibly mission-driven,” offers Sellers. “It creates an environment where others are constantly pushing, constantly coming up with new and innovative ways to live the mission, to support each other and our students—it’s an inspiring place to work.”

It was in that spirit of innovation that Sellers originated Career Connections. The program, in which alums and other members of the extended Cary Academy community come to campus to discuss and answer questions about their respective professions, gives students
an important opportunity to explore and test interests in a low-pressure way.

“Life is not a linear path from A to B; there are so many paths to success. Too often, we see students putting far too much pressure on themselves. You don’t have to know your college major when you are in ninth grade; you don’t need to know what you are going to do with your entire life. But you should be curious,” says Sellers. “You should be open to exploration—that’s the best way to learn— and that is what Career Connections was all about. It’s also why the experiential learning opportunities offered by our Center for
Community Engagement that expose students to real-world professionals and environments— our X Days, Discovery Term, and Work Experience Program—are so important.”

For Sellers, who retired this June, looking back on a career defined by countless cherished memories—far too many to recount—inspires nothing short of immense gratitude. But the feeling that has kept her coming back to CA all these years? A genuine sense of awe.

“I was recently listening to a podcast with Dr. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley, who studies the science of happiness,” shares Sellers. “He explained that the most common way for people to experience awe is through other people—in observing their strengths, witnessing their experiences, their triumphs.

“That just sums up what I have loved about working at CA: I have spent the last 22 years in a state of absolute awe. I feel immense joy in observing our students—in their care for others, their resilience, and in their courage to do things I would never, ever have done. I have loved watching them follow their passions as they discover what they want for themselves, and for their futures. It has been a true privil

Written by Dean Sauls


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Dream Team

August 16, 2019

CA’s college counselors are in the business of dreams—helping students pursue theirs by guiding them on a process of self-discovery that, hopefully, ends with the best college fit.

Ask any of our three college counselors—Brandon Carter, Leya Jones, and Laura Sellers—and they will tell you the same thing: that they have the best jobs at Cary Academy.

“The fact that I get to be a part of a student’s journey in developing into their best selves is a pure blessing,” offers Carter. “I look forward to work every day—that’s not an exaggeration—because I get to work with some of the brightest, funniest, most caring, respectful, and appreciative students in the world.”
Strike up a conversation with nearly any of our alums and it will reveal equal admiration from the other side of the equation. Interviews offer warm recollections replete with gratitude for the pivotal role that the college counselors played in their college selection journey.

Said one alum in our recent biannual alumni engagement survey: “I would send my kids to CA for the incredible college counselors and the amount of guidance they provided me during the college process. It truly is unparalleled in comparison to what other students at other high schools receive.”
Other alums point to the counselors’ deeper impact—not just on their college processes, but on their broader lives—crediting the counselors for believing in them when they didn’t quite believe in themselves; for nudging them towards a better version of themselves; and for helping them to discover who they wanted to be in the world.

The depth of the relationships these anecdotes reflect isn’t all that surprising. At Cary Academy, the college counseling process is a true partnership between student and counselor. Working closely as a team, they explore interests and talents, consider current strengths, and identify future ambitions and goals—all in hopes of discovering that post-high school holy grail: the strongest collegiate fit.
“Research shows that the number one reason why a student chooses to remain at their respective college is a sense of belonging,” explains Carter. “If they feel they fit well within the academic and social fabric of that institution, the student is more likely to stay, thrive, and graduate. My goal is to find that institution that fits them best so that they can thrive on the next level and beyond, whatever that means to them.”

“As counselors, we’re lucky—luckier than most—in that our philosophy as an office is fully supported by CA’s leadership,” adds Jones. “We have colleagues at many other places who are driven by pressure to have a certain number of students admitted to/attending certain colleges. We don’t have that.”
On the contrary, as with all things CA, our college counseling process is mission-driven, grounded in a commitment to learning that is personal, flexible, and relevant, and driven by our community values of compassion, respect, and integrity. As in the classroom, students are in the driver’s seat—encouraged to “own their learning and process”—with the counselors offering sage counsel to steer them in the right direction.

Between them, Brandon Carter, Leya Jones, and Laura Sellers represent a whopping 29 years (!) worth of combined CA college counseling expertise, having successfully guided three classes (Carter), eight classes (Jones), and 18 classes (Sellers) to bright futures at their right-fit colleges and universities.

It’s a process that lends itself to introspection, often becoming a transformative learning experience for the student. “Seeing those ‘a-ha’ moments when a student sees something about themselves through the process, when they connect the threads and understand themselves better, that’s one of the things I love most about my work,” comments Sellers.

Indicative of all those “a-ha moments” and a point of pride for the team, a review of CA’s college matriculations reveals a lengthy and diverse list of educational institutions. Over the last three years, CA students have gone to nearly 100 different colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, where they thrive, grow, pursue their dreams, and, hopefully, get one step closer to becoming the people they want to be.

Written by Mandy Dailey, Director of Communications

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One Weird Trick for Success in College

April 11, 2019

A preoccupation with lists and ranking?  I’m guilty.  

In my defense, though, I’d like to say that I’m a product of my time.  

For me, as a kid growing up in Minnesota, I was hooked on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40—a window into a much hipper world on both coasts. I was a college freshman when David Letterman aired his first Top 10 list in 1985. By then, Dave was required viewing in college dorm rooms across the country.  

Then came the rise of the internet, and mobile, and suddenly it was so easy, so tempting to seek out palatable, easy-to-digest, simple, and right now ways to make sense of the world, to entertain myself.  

And now? Clickbait abounds, with listicles being the worst. As I write this, the top five headlines on Buzzfeed are 

  • 19 useful coffee products, 
  • 21 pets with special needs that are adorable, 
  • 36 ways to improve your skin, 
  • 18 screenshots of people sharing obvious lies, and
  • 27 Pinterest cooking fails. 

What have we wrought, Gen X? (Oh, but that puppy wearing sunglasses was cute!) 

Academic clickbait 

And that brings us to the announcement two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, of another year of record-setting year of competition for seats in American colleges and universities. And, another year of parents and students frantically trying to make sense of a landscape that feels increasingly fraught and difficult to navigate.  

Enter that alluring clickbait of academia: college rankings.  

There have been volumes written about the problems with college rankings, but every year we are bombarded with even more lists.  

US News might have been the first to make the business decision that college rankings grab eyeballs (and dollars), but the game now includes: WSJ/Times Higher Education, Niche, Forbes, Princeton Review, QS World University Rankings, Washington Monthly, College Consensus, WalletHub, Parchment, Unigo, College Prowler, Newsweek, and Money Magazine. The head spins. 

Why care? It is just a fun diversion between ogling pictures of cooking fails, right? 

If only.  

Too often, parents and students fall into a trap of giving these self-reported “junk-in, junk-out” rankingswhich are essentially meaningless when you consider differing academic missions, resources, student populations, etc., not to mention whether they are actually the right fit for any given, individual student—too much credence.  

This chase for the elusive, high-ranking, highly-selective school is contributing to a staggering epidemic amongst our kids. 

The statistics are alarming. According to research compiled by the Education Advisory Board, 25% of teens currently meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, and there has been a 200% increase in suicide rates among teenage girls between 1999 and 2014. It is one thing to sense this as a parent dealing with a stressed-out child, but quite another to see it when your job is to work with kids in a high-performing secondary school.

Busting the myths 

The sad part is that there is plenty of great commentary (backed by research) that rebuts the conventional wisdom that there is only a small list of colleges and universities worth attending. A favorite of our college counselors is Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be 

Research conducted by Denise Pope at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and shared in this Wall Street Journal piece on March 22, 2019, makes it clear that it is not where you go to college, but what you do in college 

According to Pope, a study of more than 30,000 undergraduates showed no correlation between college selectivity and career success or life satisfaction. Taking class with teachers who made learning exciting; working with teachers who cared about their students; finding a mentor; working on a long-term project; participating in internships that applied classroom learning; being active in extracurricular activities—these were the pivotal learning moments that Pope’s undergraduates identified as contributing to their successful college experiences. 

There is research indicating that members of traditionally underrepresented groups and first-generation students do benefit from attending highly-selective schools. But for everybody else, the power of college happens when you are in college wherever you are in college 

Our responsibility 

At the end of it all, the irony is that we do have data that showcases the power of attending a secondary school that prepares students to take full advantage of their college experiences whether they be at a selective or highly selective, in-state or out-of-state institution. 

In short, the responsibility for our students’ success in college lies, in large part, with us here at CA. We’ve captured our commitment to this responsibility in our current strategic vision:  

Cary Academy will create learning opportunities that are flexible, personalized, and relevant. We will cultivate self-directed and bold life-long learners who make meaningful contributions to the world.  

Hallmarks of a CA experience—experiential learning, committed faculty, extracurricular engagements, opportunities to apply learning in real-life scenarios—all harken back to those that Pope identified in her research as pivotal to a successful college experience 

And, there are infinite such possibilities to thrive at any school, as long as students see the value in engagement beyond the “traditional classroom.” That’s why we put such stock in preparing students to identify, engage, and capitalize on learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom that align with their strengths, skills, and goals, to—in CA parlance“own their learning.”  

During my recent State of the School address, I illustrated how students take advantage of engagement opportunities by highlighting “CA sparks” from a group of recent graduates. While their personal journeys were all unique, each took advantage of the myriad ways students have to stretch and grow in high school — from online classes to independent study, to travel abroad, to academic clubs and activities, to competitive athletics. In the end, each “owned their learning” at Cary Academy — and are thriving in college as a result 

In addition to programmatic approaches, we’re also tackling transcript reform to make sure that we are adequately capturing and reflecting these meaningful learning engagements to college admissions officers. To that end, we are a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), an effort by independent schools to break the mold and showcase deeper, more personalized learning to colleges. 

Changing the frame 

But, beyond program and transcript reform, it is imperative that we change mindsets and tamp down the untenable mania around college rankings and highly selective colleges.  

The research is clear and we must act to change the narrative. Unless we do, we will continue to perpetuate the myth that the only path to happiness and success is getting into a college with a sub-10% admit rate.  

And that simply is not the case.  

In our fall survey of graduates since 2000 (our first graduating class), 85% of alumni currently out of college reported being satisfied or highly satisfied with their profession (on a five-point Likert scale). Remarkably, more than 93% reported being satisfied or highly satisfied with their quality of life. This is against the backdrop that most of these young people did not attend colleges with a sub-10% admit rate. In fact, in the last three years, we have sent graduates to nearly 100 different colleges and universities.  

That information, unfortunately, doesn’t generate the same attention as “The top 10 tricks to get into the Ivy League.”  

Instead, I’ll leave you all with this: The Top 10 Things Graduates Can Learn from David Letterman 

Written by Mike Ehrhardt, Head of School

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