Kelly Dunham, Cherry Creek High School

Last week, one of Kelly Dunham's students informed her that he had received notification he was waitlisted at one of the colleges to which he'd applied. He was asked to follow a link to let the university know if he was interested in staying on the waitlist. He selected the link and it took him to a pornography website. "Thank goodness, he is a student with a great sense of humor," says Dunham.  "I contacted the university and the link was of course wrong!  What are the chances?"

It's all in a day's work for Dunham -- though her days usually revolve around more prosaic problems like academic advising and college lists.  As Counseling Department Coordinator for Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colorado, in the Denver metropolitan area, Dunham is head of the department and also acts as one of ten counselors, who spend most of their time advising students on academics, social/emotional issues, and college.  The largest high school west of the Mississippi River, Cherry Creek is home to 3500 students, 95% of whom go on to college.

Dunham began her career as a teacher, which was all in the family -- both her parents were teachers, as were her grandparents, and her grandfather was a superintendent of schools in several states. Her husband began a second career as a teacher after they married. A graduate of University of Northern Colorado, Dunham taught marketing and IB Organizational Studies at Colorado's Smoky Hill High School. But she always had students in her office asking for help with classes and where to go to college. So when somebody suggested she should be a counselor, she decided to give it a try. Sixteen years later, she's still answering students' questions about where to go to college.

But next year, she'll be answering those questions in a new capacity. At the end of this year, Dunham will retire and leave Cherry Creek. "I will very, very much miss my interaction with students," she says. "But what I hope to do with the knowledge I have is to volunteer my time in some of Denver's public high schools where the counselors have way too big a student caseload and there are lots of first generation students."

An avid reader and traveler, Dunham will also have a little more time for those passions, including spending more time on the golf course.  She has traveled the world with her husband to play golf and walked the greens of some of the top golf courses. The couple's three cats are named Chip, Putt and Divot.

But most of all, Dunham looks forward to working with students and others who need her help.  "I don't come across as a sensitive soul but I am," she says.  "My heart bleeds for kids all the time… "

Please join her here to learn more about Dunham and what sixteen years of counseling have taught her, including how juniors should prepare this summer for the college application process and her best advice for seniors as they try to decide where to go to college next year:

How did you become a college counselor? 

As a high school marketing teacher and cheerleading sponsor I always found myself with an office full of students wanting academic, social or emotional advice.  I went back to school to get my masters in counseling and my first job was as the Post Graduate Counselor at Smoky Hill High School here in Denver.

What is your motto? 

I use the Four Agreements daily with students, families, colleagues and myself:  Be impeccable with your word; do not take anything personally; do not make assumptions; and always do your best.  I loan this book out to students many times throughout a school year – I think it gives them a guide to find their ethics and values and to assist with problem solving.

How many colleges did you apply to? And how is the process different? 

I was told by my parents (who were both teachers) that I would be going in-state.  I applied to two state schools, got into both and selected the least expensive.  It was very easy -  just a one page paper application for both and self-reported grade point average and test scores. Very different than today:  online, essays, resume, transcripts, test scores, etc. 

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

Yes and no. I do not think it is too early to start talking about the student’s career ideas and college goals so that they can see the correlation between high school grades, school activities and admissions.  I do think it is too early to make concrete plans around colleges – high school students change their minds!

At CCHS we are proactive about educating each grade level about the next step, after graduation and for most of our students that is college.  We have college exploration tasks that each grade level must complete and believe it or not most of our students complete them:

Creek 101 (freshman) – introduction of college admissions criteria and the completion of a four year plan of high school courses.

Creek 201 (sophomores) – update the students four year plan and career exploration through a variety of activities.

Creek 301 (juniors) – junior conferences with high school counselor that includes parents and many opportunities of college exploration programming and workshops.

Creek 401 (seniors) – senior conference to assist with the application process and all its pieces and parts.

Throughout all of this, there are many opportunities surrounding college programming, fairs, visits and workshops for both students and parents.

What advice do you have for students who are contemplating going to an independent counselor? 

I feel an independent counselor is a good investment if the student and their family are too busy to do the research and legwork themselves or if the student and parents are going to battle throughout the entire process. 

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

Parents and students should have discussions about whose process this is and develop a system for how it is going to get done.  Family check-ins, using some type of checklist, can be very useful. 

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

That both the parents and student have a clear understanding of what the parents can afford.   Do not let price guide your college choices – if the college is a good fit, the college may help find a way for the student to attend.  Use the Net Price Calculators on all college websites and meet someone in the college’s financial aid office.

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

College Finder (like that their lists are based on data and in alphabetical order)

College Navigator

Colorado Collegiate Handbook

Fiske Guide to Colleges

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

My school subscribes to Family Connection by Naviance – it is the one I value most.  Naviance is a user friendly, all inclusive college search engine and much more!  Some others I like are

College Prowler (the student’s view)

Youniversity TV (student videos)

Fastweb (scholarships)

Enrichment Alley (summer program opportunities).

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

Looking at colleges that are ALL reach schools, not knowing ALL that is required to complete a college application and also, not being on the same page with their parents, especially when it comes to cost.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants? 

Be proactive, make a plan, remember it is about you and your future and enjoy it!  I always ask students, “Would you buy a car without driving it?”

How do you encourage your students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?

I show students and parents how to do a college search, save that search by topics and show them how to contact colleges - all on Naviance.  Once we have a list, I talk about the ones I know and how that might be a good fit!  This usually plants a seed to look beyond the schools they know best.

How can students best benefit from technology in the college application process? 

In today’s college admissions world technology is the only way to search, get questions answered, to apply for admission, to apply for scholarships/financial aid.  Technology gives each student an electronic record of what they have completed and/or still need to do to complete the application process.

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?

Students without a college-going culture in their homes do need more one-on-one, step by step assistance.  I help these type of students develop a check list of things to do and meet with them once a week to see where they are at.  I do not do it for them; I just help guide them through the process (application, financial aid and scholarships).

What are the five most important things for juniors to do before the end of the school year?

  1. Junior Conference with their high school counselor or college counselor
  2. ACT/SAT test prep and take ACT/SAT (hopefully twice)
  3. Ask for teacher letters of recommendation
  4. Have an honest conversation with parent about finances
  5. Online college searches, local college fairs, visit college campuses

And one more:

  1. Be aware of college admission requirements:  required high school coursework, GPA, test scores, letters of rec, essays, etc.

Its decision time for seniors, what's your best advice for seniors trying to make a decision about which offer of admission to accept? 

I tell my students to take a large poster board for each college, hang them in the kitchen, their bedroom, family room, etc. and start a pro and con list for each school.  Add to these lists as something comes to mind.  Parents should not be adding to these lists but can help facilitate conversation.  Before the student knows it, a choice rises to the top.

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why? 

The early decision frenzy along with early decision or action deadlines before November 1.  Seniors have just started their school year and are being asked to make commitments to colleges earlier and earlier.  I also hate the “snap app”.  It gives students a false sense of admission when they are sent a quick application to fill out when in reality it is only based on an ACT/SAT test score or some type of demonstrated interest.

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? 

Probably the most important “aha” moment concerning diversity I have had is to just be honest about it with families and discuss it, especially with Caucasian and Asian students applying to our most selective private liberal art institutions.

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

The deans of admission that I admire and enjoy working with are:  personable, collaborative, work as a team with the college counselor, value and trust the college counselor's letter of recommendation, are passionate about their institutions and want what is best for the student.



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