Aliza Gilbert, Highland Park High School


Our Counselor of the Month for September is Aliza Gilbert, College Counselor at Highland Park High School, a public high school serving more than 2,000 students in Highland Park, Illinois.  A graduate of University of Illinois at Chicago, Gilbert also holds a Master in Education from Loyola University Chicago and is working on her Ph.D. in Higher Education, also at Loyola. Formerly Associate Director of Admissions at Lake Forest College, Gilbert joined Highland Park's Counseling Department in 1998.

Located about 25 miles north of Chicago, Highland Park High School serves a diverse student body, including significant numbers of children from military and Hispanic families, a characteristic that drew Gilbert to the school. She has a particular interest in college access and undocumented students -- her Ph.D. dissertation explores how high schools influence undocumented students’ college process. (The state of Illinois is ranked sixth among states with the largest undocumented populations.)

Gilbert came to her interest in access while at Lake Forest College. She describes herself as "caught off guard" while working with an undocumented student who had been admitted to the school and offered a strong financial aid package, but one that still required the family to pay and the student to most likely work. She wrestled with whether Lake Forest was the right place for the student, because as an undocumented worker, he would also struggle to find a job after graduation. "Ultimately, I decided that, one, none of us knows what the future holds," says Gilbert. "And two, the value of an education goes far past procuring employment. Obviously getting a job is important, but we are all members of a global society and as members of that society, we are better served when our citizens are educated. College is a financial investment that is worth it for the family and for the college."

A native Chicagoan, Gilbert's own educational background has "absolutely influenced" her choice of work. "I was a first-generation, low-income student," she says. "I was very fortunately to get a scholarship to a private high school. So when you talk about schools building social and cultural capital, I'm a product of that. I went to college because of where I went to high school. I believe in everything I say and I care very passionately about this."

Married to an attorney, when Gilbert isn't counseling students and pursuing her Ph.D. she and her husband are triathletes and enjoy spending time outdoors running and kayaking.

We're honored to feature her this month.  Learn more about Aliza Gilbert and take advantage of her considerable expertise and eloquence here:

How did you become a college counselor?

Like a lot of people, I fell into the position. My undergraduate degree is in education and while I was student teaching (8th grade math!) I decided teaching was not for me. After spending a year working as Director of Children’s Services at a local community center, I returned to school to pursue a master’s degree in higher education. After graduate school, I worked in admissions at a liberal arts college and Highland Park High School was one of the schools I visited. I developed a good relationship with the college counselor and when a second college counseling position opened, they reached out to me. The department chair of Education at the college where I was working had been encouraging me to return to my education roots and I saw this as the perfect opportunity to blend my education and professional experience.  It was the best move I could have made. I truly love my job!!! 

What is your motto? 

Harvard’s not impressed that you don’t eat lunch! I actually called Harvard one year to make sure they really felt this way and thankfully, they do!

As your friends and colleagues reach the age when they have teenagers applying to college, what do you find yourself telling them when they ask for "advice"?

This question is so timely, because just this summer I talked four of my friends with high school age children “off the ledge.”  First, I tell them to relax. There is a college for everyone. I also encourage them not to get swept up by the media or what they hear from friends and neighbors. The truly best college is the one that is best for their child. I totally understand their anxiety. The process is very different than it was a generation ago, and it is seemingly more complicated. But at the core, it’s still about finding the right fit.

Is freshman or sophomore year too early for students to start working with their college counselor?

 Yes! The college process is stressful enough; do students and parents really want to drag it out for four years? That being said, it is important for students to work with their generalist counselor to make sure that they are taking a program of classes that challenges them, but also allows for success. Students should also spend time freshman and sophomore year exploring a variety of extracurricular activities so that junior and senior year they can hone in on those that interest them the most and pursue leadership opportunities within those organizations.

What are some of the “don’ts” for students as they work with their college counselor?

Don’t dismiss a school just because you have never heard of it. Also, don’t expect your college counselor to help you develop a list of potential colleges if you haven’t engaged in self-assessment. Self-reflection is a hard exercise for students. For most of them, it is the first time they have really had the chance to think about what they want, but it is a necessary first step in the college process.

What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about their student’s college application process in some way?

Concern is good. It means that parents are invested in the process, which they should be, because college is a huge financial commitment. Alarm, on the other hand, is not good. Parents who become overly anxious and take over the application process are cheating their children out of the opportunity to learn valuable skills that they will use later in life when applying for a job or graduate school. It is also widely believed that the more students take ownership over the college search and application process, the higher the level of satisfaction with their chosen school and the more positive the experience.

What are some of the do's and don’ts for parents?

For parents new to the process, or who did not themselves attend college, do let your child know that you expect them to go to college and don’t hesitate to reach out to the high school for help. For parents who have attended college, remember that all colleges are different institutions than when you went to school.  Look at schools with fresh eyes and keep an open mind. Don’t assume that because a school had a generous admission policy 25 years ago it is easy to get into now. If this is your second or third time through the process, remember that it is your son/daughter’s first time, and it is often different for every child, so in reality it is also your first time.   

What is the one thing a high school counselor should never do?

Don’t be a dream crusher. Yes, sometimes we need to temper a student’s enthusiasm for a certain school, or make sure a student adds a few “likelies” to the list. But no one can predict the future. It is important to help students assess their chances for admission while assuring them that you will do whatever you can to support their application.

What is the most important thing a high school counselor can do?

Make sure that all students know that they can go to college and that it’s your job to help them get there. There are many students who, due to limited social and cultural capital, either do not see themselves as college material or simply don’t know how to get there.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

There are three things to keep in mind: 1) Do not rule out a school during the search process because of cost. 2) Do not assume you won’t qualify for aid. If you cannot write the check for the full amount, apply for aid. 3) Make sure your child has a financial “safety”, which is a school that is affordable if you receive no financial assistance.

What do you think is the most important thing for families to understand about financial aid?

It is not about how much assistance a family wants, it is about how much assistance a family needs, and those two things are not always aligned.

What are the favorite books on your college-counseling shelf?  

Since I am in the midst of a doctoral program in higher education, most of my favorite books at the moment are about college access. The list includes such books as Crossing the Finish Line by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos and Michael McPherson; Choosing Colleges: How Social Class and Schools Structure Opportunity by Pat McDonough; and The Shape of the River: The Long Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and  Universities by Derek Bok, William Bowen and James Schulman. This last book is especially relevant today in light of the case that will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court (Fisher vs. Texas) regarding the use of race in college admission. But, I have to admit that my all-time favorite book is Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson. I think he does an excellent job of describing the traps that parents sometimes fall into it, but he does it in a lighthearted way. I found myself actually laughing out loud at times (just don’t tell my dissertation chair).

What web sites do you find most valuable for students and families?

For students I like You can go! and Big Future both of which are from the College Board (the SAT people and so much more!). Cappex  offers some great resources for students and counselors, and I especially like their scholarship search engine, which I have found easy to use and more comprehensive than others. For families interested in merit scholarships I usually recommend that they take a look at Merit Aid, and for financial aid, I recommend that parents/guardians stick with the source and use Federal Student Aid.

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

Applying to schools that they know nothing about.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Read the application instructions from start to finish before beginning your application. Then, read them again.

Do students who come from homes without a college-going culture or from homes where they would be the first to attend college have a different timeline or need to approach the application process differently?

Definitely. Early awareness regarding college opportunities is critical for students who are first-generation college. We need to share the message that college is possible as early as elementary school. Research has shown that students whose parents did not graduate from college are less likely to attend college themselves. But schools can help level the playing field. Creating a college-going culture within their buildings ensures that college is an expectation for all students.

You are very involved with the issue of undocumented students. What are the special challenges these students face in applying to college?

There are multiple challenges, but the biggest is overcoming the myth that undocumented students cannot attend college. Many undocumented students and parents, as well high school counselors and college admission professionals, believe that federal law restricts their access to college. It does not. Although some states have recently begun to pass legislation that restricts access to public universities, there are a number of states with legislation that supports access through state Dream Acts and tuition equity bills, the latter of which allow eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities.  Many students are understandably afraid to disclose their status, but without doing so they are likely to miss out on information crucial to their college search.

A second challenge is paying for college. Without access to federal and, in most cases, state aid, most undocumented parents cannot afford to send their students to a four-year college, and most students will begin at a community college. High-achieving students will often receive merit scholarships from a college or university but rarely will the scholarship cover the cost of tuition, let alone room and board. Although students can receive private scholarships from outside sources, most require a student be a citizen or permanent resident and the few that don’t are usually highly competitive.

What impact do you believe the new policy of being able to apply for renewable "two-year stays" will have for undocumented students?

Most undocumented students live in fear of deportation and for many this fear takes over their lives and prevents them from fully engaging in their school and community. Although there are concerns about the long-term effects of revealing one's status through "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals", it offers eligible undocumented individuals a temporary respite from this all-consuming fear. I think it also sends an important message to our students that as citizens of a global society, they matter.

And, lastly, the ability to work not only provides a lifeline for those students who have, in spite of huge obstacles, obtained a college degree, by allowing them to put their education to use, but it also provides younger students with an incredible incentive to stay in school, study hard, and pursue post-secondary education. Anyone interested in learning more about Deferred Action is encouraged to check out the Dream Relief website put together by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

What is different in the application process for undocumented students?

In addition to the usual things that all students think about when developing a college list, such as size, location and environment, undocumented students must also think about the “undocumented” climate in the state where a college is located. Will they be safe is a thought that should always be on their mind. If the school is out-of-state, students should also think about how they will get there if they do not drive and cannot fly.  Things such as housing availability over vacation breaks become a factor that must be considered.

In addition, the application process is much harder for undocumented students. Many applications require information that an undocumented student cannot provide such as a social security number, or visa type. These road blocks often discourage students from applying, by sending a subtle message that the college might not be a welcoming place. In addition, students often wrestle over whether or not they should disclose their status. Their desire to be authentic in their application is often overshadowed by fear of revealing their status.

What special resources are available for undocumented students?

Unfortunately, a lot of the resources are state-based, with most coming out of California and Texas. But there are some great resources on the Internet that students, parents and counselors can access. The Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling (IACAC) has a very comprehensive guide on its website which not only lists college and scholarship opportunities for students, but also has comprehensive information for counselors.

Educators for Fair Consideration is another excellent source of information for students and counselors. Until recently most undocumented students flew under the radar and most felt helpless by their inability to change their status.

In the past year many undocumented students have begun to find their voice by sharing their stories through the Undocumented and Unafraid campaign.  Dream Activist, the Undocumented Activist and Resource Network, is a wonderful resource that empowers undocumented students to work for change.

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

Great question! In 2007, I was fortunate to receive a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship, which allowed me to spend six months in Mexico living with a family and studying Spanish. While there I learned a great deal about the Mexican system of higher education, and how difficult it is for most students to attend a university. It helped me understand why so many of the immigrant families in my community assume that due to either academic or financial constraints, higher education is not an option for the children.  I realized that we needed to reframe the message that we were sending to families and make sure that they understood that if students want to go to college, we can help them get there.

When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them?

I love “Project Runway”, so to borrow their phrase “fashion forward” (defined by Urban Dictionary as “hip, slick and cool”), I admire deans who are “admission forward”. They are hip and cool because unlike many of their colleagues, they don’t care as much about the growth of the application pool as they do about the students within the pool. They are straightforward, transparent about the process and tell it like it is. If their college values “expressed interest” or if applying early decision can increase a student’s chances for admission, they say so. In addition, I admire deans who understand that admissions is more than crafting a class and are willing to take a risk on a student who might not fit the mold, but in whom they see potential, which they believe their institution can help develop.



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