Valerie Velhagen of Albuquerque's Eldorado High School is Counselor of the Month

Valerie Velhagen thought she would be a professor or a lawyer like her father. But some time off before graduate school -- working in her father's law office and studying for the LSAT -- lead her to take a different path. Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a long way from Brooklyn, New York, where Velhagen was born and raised. But after graduating from Massachusetts' Brandeis University with a BA in English and Pennsylvania's Duquesne University with a Masters in a program centered on existential/phenomenological psychology, Velhagen, now the College and Career Readiness Counselor at Albuquerque's Eldorado High School, made her way from New York's largest borough to the city on the banks of the Rio Grande.

She started out in mental health counseling, and, from the beginning, Velhagen loved working with teenagers. She loved the energy of working with children and adolescents -- even though she was working with those with significant emotional issues and often very traumatic lives. But when she became a parent in 2000, the heavy lifting of mental health counseling prompted a shift. For seven years, she was happy to be a stay-at-home mom.  During that time, she re-tooled with the goal of returning to less emotionally distressing work.  So when she entered the workforce again in 2007, she started as a high school counselor, a career that allowed her to have a great "mommy schedule" and continue working with teenagers in a more upbeat scenario. Quickly realizing that college counseling was the angle in which she would thrive, in 2010 she joined Eldorado High School in the newly created position of College and Career Readiness Counselor.

Eldorado High School is a traditional public school in a suburban area of northeast Albuquerque, serving a diverse population of almost 1900 students.  The school is academically strong and the teachers have high expectations, says Velhagen. Ninety percent of the students go on to college. But what makes Eldorado unique is their "super-involved population," she says. "I don't have to tell my students to join sports teams or get involved with chorus. Students are doing good volunteer work and aren't afraid to take on leadership roles. The school is very respected for our band, chorus, and art, photography and media arts programs. And our sports teams are terrific in the state. I'm just blown away at how well-rounded our kids are."

In addition to her work advising students and their families in 9th through 12th grade, Velhagen serves as co-chair of the RMACAC New Mexico College Fair Committee, which puts on New Mexico’s largest college fair every fall.  Students are bused in from throughout the state and last year more than 135 colleges were represented.  Through that work, Velhagen says, she has gotten to know a wonderful and inspiring group of college counselors from private and public high schools in Albuquerque and throughout the RMACAC region, as well as admissions counselors from colleges and universities across the country. 

Velhagen loves her routine -- driving her daughter to school, immersing herself in her work until the day flies by and then it's back in the car to pick up her daughter and head home for family time. She and her husband just completed an off-the-grid, 100% solar home in the foothills of Albuquerque's Sandia Mountains. When she's not working, she can be found hiking those hills, indulging in her creative side with mosaics and knitting, and reading and traveling. She just returned from a trip with her father to Istanbul.  And she says she misses New York City and would love to live there again. But for right now, she's not going anywhere. "Professionally, funding for counseling in public schools is always so tenuous," she says. "I'm always so grateful to come back each year. Right now, I'm definitely happy right here."

Join her here to take advantage of her excellent advice about the most important things for seniors to accomplish this fall, what juniors should be thinking about, and her best tip for fellow college counselors:

What is your motto? 
Challenge yourself, and strive for balance and joy in life.  And sing along to the car radio at the top of your lungs whenever possible.

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

I applied to 5 colleges, if memory serves.  One was a crazy reach; three were reasonably attainable, or so I thought; and one was an in-state “safety” school.  (I attended Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, and had a wonderful college experience.)   Growing up in New York City, I had the good fortune to attend a school (Stuyvesant High School) where 100% of graduates went on to 4-year colleges, and students challenged themselves both in school and in their postsecondary planning.  Many of us went out-of-state, and quite a lot did a Junior Year Abroad (I spent mine in Munich, Germany.) 

As far as the application process went, I remember getting catalogs in the mail during my junior and senior years of high school, and being wooed by pictures of ivy-covered walls and students in cozy sweaters, carrying stacks of books and looking like they were having the time of their lives.  (They probably were!)  I don’t remember looking at any college guide books, and there certainly were no websites to peruse in those days.  I believe that I applied to colleges that I’d heard of, which had strong reputations in liberal arts, and which seemed like they’d be a good fit for me and might consider admitting me, yet a lot of the “research” I did was looking though mailings sent by the schools themselves, and talking to friends.  My mother took me on a brief college tour in New England, my preferred region.  I remember working hard on my essays and applications – all handwritten on paper, of course -- but I only took the SAT once (the ACT was unheard of in New York in those days), and did very little – if anything – to prepare for it. 

There are so many parts of the college application process that are different than when I was doing it, in 1985-86.  I urge my students to try both the ACT and the SAT, to be serious about preparing for them (and not just the night before) and to take them more than once.  We offer ACT practice tests on weekends at our school, and show students the many options they have for studying and prepping for the tests.  I advise students to start much earlier than I did in researching colleges (using books and websites, attending college visits and fairs, and talking with respected friends, family and school staff), and to go on campus visits, if at all possible.  We bring college and university admissions reps to our school to meet with students, provide onsite admissions events for our major in-state universities (so that students can apply to college right on their high school campus, with application fees waived), and provide college fairs for students and families.  I urge early writing and editing of essays, and early contact with those writing recommendations (whereas I’m sure I did all of this at the last minute).   

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

Not at all!  My colleagues and I talk to lots of freshmen and sophomores and their parents about how to be well set-up for the testing, college search, and college and scholarship application processes.  It’s the perfect time to become active (or more active) in extracurricular activities, and to seek out leadership opportunities.  Also, at my school, we have over 1900 students and only 5 ½ counselors, so making an effort to get to know me and their school counselor as early as possible will pay off when they need advice and recommendations senior year.

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

This may be a good route for some students and families, if it helps ease the anxiety of what can be a very stressful process.  That said, it’s not a big trend in our community here in Albuquerque like it is in other parts of the country, and I don’t personally know any independent college counselors that I’d recommend.  Although we are a large public school with limits on our resources, my colleagues and I provide a great deal of information and support to students and families throughout the process, and I feel that with our help and a concerted effort on their parts, hiring an independent counselor is certainly not a necessity. 

What are the five most important things for seniors to accomplish in the fall?

  1. Retake the ACT and/or SAT, if applicable;
  2. Narrow down their college list and start early on applications, especially if applying Early Decision or Early Action;
  3. Ask early for letters of recommendation and help proofreading essays (and be sure to write a nice thank you note to the people who help you!);
  4. Keep an organizational system that works best for them – separate calendar or filing system, for example – to stay on top of important dates and deadlines re: applications, scholarships and financial aid;
  5. Keep up their grades and don’t be tempted to drop down in terms of rigor (no senioritis or dropping AP classes!)

What should juniors be thinking about as school begins?

Keeping up good grades in a challenging caseload of classes; planning and studying for the ACT and/or SAT this coming spring; planning for SAT subject tests if the colleges of your choice require or suggest them; continuing in (or joining new) extracurricular activities and striving for leadership roles; getting more focused about researching college options and admissions requirements and career paths (by talking to their counselor(s), teachers, and families, reading books and websites);  attending college fairs and visits this year and next; plan family vacations around college visits, if possible. 

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

Not doing their research to find a good fit, or applying only to our local flagship university, not because they feel it’s a good fit – though it may well be the best fit -- but because they’re too lazy or last-minute to look into other schools (because they will kick themselves for this later).  (Also, my pet peeve is when students are too casual when listing activities they’re involved in, using acronyms that won’t be recognized by admissions or scholarship committee folks.)

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn.  In our culture, I think we get mixed messages about communicating our accomplishments to others.  On college and scholarship applications, don’t hide your light under a bushel.

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

I’ll bring other schools to their attention, encourage them to do more research and be open-minded, have them visit college fairs and talk to the admissions reps who come to our school from a wide variety of colleges and universities. We posted a huge map in our counseling department, showing where all school staff went to college or graduate school, across the U.S., and hope that little ideas like this will pique students’ curiosity about the enormous selection and variety of colleges a person might choose to attend.

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

Common App, online college and scholarship applications, college and scholarship searches, FAFSA and CSS Profile online, ACT and SAT practice and registration, virtual campus tours and dorm tours… it’s amazing what students can learn and accomplish without getting up from their desks/floors/beanbag chairs.   Where they can get into trouble is by being too hasty when on the computer – clicking “send” before proofreading an e-mail to an admissions counselor, posting impulsive and stupid things on social media sites, and so on.  They are teenagers whose brains are still developing.  I’m constantly amazed and scared by the lightning fast pace at which these kids operate, and it can come back to bite them if they’re not cautious.  Use technology wisely, and use your head and a bit of patience and good judgment, too!

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?

I think so.  I encourage those students to bring in their parents to talk with me and their school counselor -- multiple times, if needed.  The parents need more information and hand-holding, especially with the concepts of admissions testing, the college search, and how to pay for college.  A lot of our first-generation students are extremely hesitant to leave home for college, even if they might be intrigued by the idea; we talk about this with students and parents together.  The FAFSA can be very intimidating for these families.  (We offer multiple FAFSA workshops each winter/spring.)  If they fall into a lower-income category, too, these parents often don’t know about college scholarship opportunities, from major ones like QuestBridge, Gates or Daniels Fund to the smaller but important  perks they can get from signing up their kids for the free- or reduced-lunch program (college application fee waivers, free ACT or SAT, AP test discounts).  

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

It’s understandable!  Some students are more diligent and responsible than others, and their parents know full well which category their kid falls into.  I welcome these parents to come in and talk to me, with and/or without their child, and try to reassure them that it’s a process for which their student needs to take responsibility. Parents can support, provide assistance in terms of prompting their student to set up a calendar/organizational system, and of course, hand over their credit card for that third ACT registration…but ultimately, the student should take ownership of his/her own college application process.  We happen to have many terrific parents at our school: involved, supportive, wanting the best for their kids without being too “helicoptery”.  I try to provide resources for concerned parents, letting them know they need not feel intimidated to call an admissions office to check on something, if it’s that kind of concern.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Do the FAFSA (and the Fafsa4caster before senior year), to determine whether you might qualify for some types of aid, even if you think you won’t.  Research all kinds of scholarships and apply for them, and be sure that your student is staying on top of college scholarship deadlines.

(I also encourage juniors and seniors to sign up annually for the free- or reduced-lunch program if they qualify, even if they don’t eat lunch in the school cafeteria anymore; they often don’t realize that this can save them money on the ACT, SAT, college application fees, and AP test fees.)  

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

Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges

Fiske Guide to Colleges

Colleges That Change Lives.

What websites do you find most valuable for students and families?  

College Board’s Big Future

College Navigator

Cappex (Students like this)

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

The insanely high numbers of applications colleges are receiving, due in part to the ease of applying online.  The statistics on increasingly higher rejection and waitlist numbers are scary.

What's your best "tip" for fellow college counselors?

It's important to me to invest in going to conferences and continuing education and I'll pay for things on my own. A lot of private school counselors have the funding. I don't have any funding. A lot of public school counselors don't even become members of NACAC. But a couple of years ago I applied for a grant to attend a conference, which I won, and then they later called me and said we've also entered you to attend the NACAC National Conference in New Orleans. So I was able to attend two conferences with this grant application. It's worth applying for these grants. Conferences are wonderful opportunities to network with colleagues and get inspired. So check with your local ACAC about grants. I later spoke to the individual at Colorado State who was on the scholarship committee that awarded my grant and he said they never get enough applicants.

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?

I was just talking to my 13-year-old daughter, Juliet, who is reading a book about the country of Malawi in Africa for school (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba); we discussed South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and my college experience with the anti-Apartheid movement.  Brandeis University has a tradition of political involvement and activism, and while I was not an activist myself, I was powerfully moved as a young college student walking past the cardboard shanties my fellow students had set up on campus to protest apartheid in the late ‘80’s.  This was the start of a more global worldview for me, and I greatly enjoyed studying anthropology, sociology and psychology along with the English Literature I majored in.  The campus environment was a diverse one, and I loved making friends from a variety of cultural backgrounds.  As a student abroad in my Junior Year, and during summers, I traveled extensively and always made an effort to immerse myself in the culture and language of each country.  This interest in exploring and appreciating diverse cultures and not being the ethnocentric Ugly American when traveling is still a very important part of my life; it extends, as well, to my interactions with students and families at work, where I appreciate the variety of cultures our school embraces.

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

This word is so overused, but I’d have to say I appreciate those with a holistic view of and appreciation for students.  I’m aware of the incredible workload on admissions folks come fall, and those who have the skill and compassion to recognize and appreciate students’ uniqueness, and to make the process a little more human and compassionate – those are qualities I admire.

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