Sheila Roberts, Bob Jones High School

In 1979, when Sheila Roberts and her family moved to Decatur, Alabama, she looked across the Tennessee River to the town of Madison and it was just cotton fields. She was a stay-at-home mother, raising two children. No longer. Today, Madison is a diverse and thriving community -- one of the fastest growing cities in the Southeast -- drawing families from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. Army Post Redstone Arsenal and the University of Alabama at Huntsville. And Roberts counsels their students as the College and Career Advisor at Madison's Bob Jones High School.

Named for former Congressman Robert E. Jones, Jr., who represented the area from 1947 until 1977, Bob Jones is a public high school serving approximately 2,100 students. Roberts joined the staff in 2003, building the counseling program from scratch -- growing it from one file cabinet in a small study room in the Media Center to twelve file cabinets in what is now the College/Career Center. She says she is constantly struck by the benevolence, diversity and growth of the community. Bob Jones opened in 1974, moved to a larger facility in 1996, and -- underestimating the growth in the area -- had to relocate the 9th grade class a few years later until a second high school was opened last year.

A first-generation college graduate, Roberts and her siblings attended college, though neither of her parents graduated from high school. A graduate of Illinois State University, Roberts worked as a teacher in the schools of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and as a teaching fellow at Louisiana State. She later earned a Masters in counseling at University of North Alabama and an Education Specialist degree at University of Alabama, while raising her raising her two children. "I discovered a love for the helping profession and never looked back," she says. She spent ten years as a counselor at Decatur High School before she started commuting to the former cotton fields of Madison.

Along with two assistants, Roberts works year-round with the students of Bob Jones High School. Arriving at 6 a.m. every morning, she lines up her agenda and then, when the students come in at 7:45 or 8, Roberts says, "of course, it never turns out like I line it up because I’m bombarded by the messages, the door, the students…" She sees even eighth grade parents who have questions or concerns, but for most student, the process begins in earnest in the junior year. "It's fun to watch the light bulbs come on," says Roberts.  "Watching the relief and calm fall over the faces of those I counsel is priceless… and very fulfilling."  Having built her department from scratch, it has emerged as one she is proud to claim and, last spring, Bob Jones had two students named as Presidential Scholars, an honor Roberts was delighted to have seen in her career.

Asked what she does when she's not working, Roberts laughs. "Oh, that's probably not happening. I'm never not working. My husband says I am married to Bob Jones."

Read on for more from Sheila Roberts, including her excellent advice on college visits, the size of the college list, scholarships and more…

How did you become a college counselor?

While working at Decatur High School, starting in 1993, counselors were assigned a class and remained with that class until students graduated.  Every four years I would get the “scholarship files” and be in charge of assisting students with the college and scholarship search.  It was not long before I realized how much I did not know about this process and so I started my own personal research.  I was led to SACAC (Souther Association for College Admission Counseling) and NACAC(National Association for College Admission Counseling) by a retired College Advisor in Birmingham and began educating myself in college advising through these professional organizations. 

In 2003, one of our teachers working on her counseling certification had interviewed for a job in Madison.  She came to me stating that she was unqualified for the position, but that it was perfect for me.  I had not even considered changing positions; however, I was curious and sat for an interview.  The principal hired me on the spot and gave me a free hand to set up the college/career advising program at Bob Jones High School.  My first senior class was over 450 seniors.  We just graduated 659.  It is a daunting task with so many planning to go to college (85%) but being able to focus and develop this program in this special community has been a wonderful experience.

What is your motto? 

 “Blessed are those who find wisdom and gain understanding…”

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

Back in the Dark Ages, I applied to only two.  Actually, I had not even planned to go to college since my parents had financial difficulties and I did not want to add to their burden.  However, one of my teachers in high school insisted I apply and helped me find a scholarship to attend Illinois State.

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

Obviously with such large class numbers it is quite difficult to work with other grade levels.  Yet, I know all too well that if I wait until they are seniors, I have lost so many opportunities to prepare them for the process of college admission.  Our College Career Scholarship Connection is one tool I use to engage the younger students.  Also, with my new TAP program (explained later), I made videos of myself and showed them to the lower grade English classrooms.  Last year, we touched every student in the school (2100)! 

I also posted a podcast on our website: ( ) Homeroom teachers played the podcast in 9th and 10 grade homerooms before registration.  It is important for us to continue to emphasize the impact of rigor in the coursework in keeping college options open later.


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

  1. Finish college visits and make time for visiting the academic departments, too.  
  2. Complete and submit college/scholarship applications.
  3. Mark DEADLINES on the calendar.
  4. Keep abreast of college and independent scholarship announcements.
  5. Revise and seek edits for essays.

What should juniors be thinking about as school begins?

  1. Plan College and department visits this year.
  2. Plan testing strategy (ACT/PSAT/SAT) and look for opportunities for test-prep.
  3. Be sure to have requested a rigorous curriculum to prepare for college work.
  4. Network with College Representatives visiting the school.
  5. Keep grades up and continue school and community involvement.

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

Many students do not grasp the importance of college visits.  This is the first thing I address in the junior class presentations.  If the school is not a good “fit”, they will not do well or be happy in their studies.  I spoke with a senior yesterday who neglected college visits her junior year and now she is playing catch-up on the visits while taking a full senior class load. Fewer than 50% of students graduate from college in five years.  I feel that not researching the college choice thoroughly may have had an influence on this statistic. Also, students must remember the deadlines set by each college. I recommend to juniors that they start a calendar projecting dates of college visits and deadlines for both admission and scholarship.


What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

The best advice comes before the student becomes an applicant.  This is my 21st year, (hope to retire soon) and I have come to believe that a student should choose a curriculum as rigorous as one can handle in preparation for college work.  Do not deny oneself the opportunity for learning at a higher level.  The Advanced Placement courses are most engaging and several students have shared with me that they find them easier than a regular level course simply because of their interest and engagement.  BJHS offers 24 AP courses so there is a wide range to choose from.  I also encourage students to apply early so they are not laboring over the applications so much of their senior year.  Also, if I am to assist with the selective applications, students need to submit my email address to the common application so that I will receive the prompt as soon as possible. I deal with large numbers of students and applications -- with no secretary.


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

We offer a large college fair each January and welcome all grade levels.  It is very well attended and more colleges request to come each year.  There is also a college fair in the fall at a local university that we encourage our students to attend, and a National Fair in Birmingham in September.  It is amazing the number of college lists that become larger after the fairs.

The population at BJHS is very competitive yet practical.  While they may want a good fit for their major, they also look for acknowledgement of their efforts.  The Madison area is quite focused on the scholarships offered…maybe it is the economy.  I am often touched by students and parents asking me the “best” college for their major, as if I were an authority.  I am a firm believer in Rogerian Therapy and will share where majors are offered, but never advise or suggest they attend from my recommendation.  The visit and research by the family and student are most important in this process. (Carl Rogers established a counseling theory that was “person-centered”.  Meaning he believed that every person had the tools within them to make the right decision for themselves; “Counselors” or therapists should simply “guide” clients through the thought process to discover the appropriate direction for them.)


What is your best advice about how many schools students should apply to?

I am cautious about limiting a student’s decision to give additional colleges the opportunity to consider their application. Last year, one of our National Achievement Scholars applied to several (approximately 5) highly selective colleges.  At the last minute, she decided to apply to two or three more, one of which was Princeton University.  From the first set, she was accepted at only one; but of the last three, Princeton accepted her and she received a full grant award there.  I tell you this story to illustrate my philosophy.  If I had discouraged her from adding more schools, she would not be at Princeton today.  The Common Application has made it a bit less taxing to add more schools. 


Can you address the best way for students to research colleges -- resources, criteria, or do's and don'ts?

The best way, based on my experience, is during college visits.  I consider this up close and personal.  I do encourage students to preview the school’s website before scheduling visits.  It is important for them to know that going to a football game on campus is NOT considered a college visit!  This is football country, so I have to keep adding that.  We also have some of our graduates return on Christmas break and share their experiences with us in class meetings.    


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?

This could be a very long response.  Due to the fact that I felt some students may be falling through the cracks (i.e. large numbers in the senior class); I initiated the Take Action Program (TAP).  We found that “poverty” was the common thread with students choosing not to go to college. So we targeted the students on “free and reduced” lunch lists and hired two advisors to call them in for personal conferences.  In these sessions I asked the advisors to address the following:

  1.  Interest inventories
  2. ACT fee waivers; SAT fee waivers
  3. Photo & Registration tickets for both exams
  4. FAFSA pin numbers
  5. FAFSA completion

If I had more funds, I would even take students to the college campuses myself.  As a matter of fact, while working in Decatur, I took two busloads of non-English speakers to a local career fair at a community college.  Post-evaluations revealed that these students changed their minds about not attending college and began to inquire regarding majors, etc., after the campus tours.

I have produced a video for the two TAP advisors to take into the 9th and 10th grade classrooms to whet their appetite for college.  In the video, I mention that they have already started the process of college applications by creating their 9th grade transcripts…the first grades seen by those in the admissions offices.

There are also many scholarships set aside only for those in need.  I mention those scholarships in these presentations to let them know that only their grades could hold them back as funding is there for those who excel in their academics. I use local examples of our own BJHS students going to elite colleges at no cost.  One went to Oxford in England (Questbridge Scholarship), two to Princeton (Gates Millennium) and one to Stanford, etc.  Students who see hope will have something to work toward.


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

I encourage parent participation up to a point.  I usually do not make appointments without the student, telling parents that the student must take “ownership” in the process since it is their education


What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Families should always complete the FAFSA.  Thanks to our TAP program, BJHS has the highest number of FAFSA completers in this state even though we do not have the highest at-risk population.  We schedule an Educational Excellence representative (federal program) to visit the school to work with students and families regarding FAFSA completion.  Some actually complete and submit from our office.  Parents of at-risk students truly appreciate the support.


Finding scholarships can be a time- and labor-intensive task, any advice or tips for students and families?

I am a firm believer in parent involvement.  For nearly 20 years I have had a successful Parent Scholarship Committee meet once each week to create a scholarship (and college) announcement bulletin that is posted on our website.   The parents love the involvement and I have had parents from other states call me to say they have used our bulletin to find scholarship announcements. I also post scholarship website links on our Guidance page.  Last year, my TAP assistants helped me do a senior survey to make a database of college choices and majors.  With this database, when a scholarship came in for engineering majors we would do a search and put the application or website in their hands.  When a scholarship for a “needy” student comes in, we pull the free lunch list and hand the forms to each student.  More than half of our senior class was awarded scholarships last year. It is work.


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

Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges by Frederick Rugg

Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope

Campus Visits and College Interviews, by Zola Dincin Schneider

NACAC journals

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

I post several helpful links on our school’s website.  I have no control over the layout of the website, but try to find ways of sharing our resources where available.'Guidance'&Page='Links 

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

College Advisors in high schools have MUCH to be concerned about. I am concerned with the rising cost of tuition and the rising cost of student debt.  Already, the current student population will face a poor economy in the future due to inflation.  They will soon have to make the decision to spend upfront in an effort to be prepared for the workforce of the future and HOPE to find work after college; or possibly work two part-time jobs to save enough to acquire training later.  I am also concerned about the low graduation rate from colleges.  We know a great many students “borrow” to start college so I am assuming that there must be many that do NOT graduate that STILL have loans to pay back and nothing to show for it.  As you know, credits are not valid if the degree is not completed within a particular timeframe.  I try to mention this to our lower achieving students that plan to attend college.  If they enroll in a 2-year college first, at least they may have the first two years locked in with an associate degree and can build on it later if circumstances prevent continuing.


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 love where I work.  This student body is so diverse due to the close proximity of NASA and Redstone Arsenal.  There is also a major research university in Huntsville and Research Park next door.  Our students actually intern in the summer at corporations like Hudson Alpha, AMCOM, or with Redstone Arsenal contractors.  Students enroll at BJHS from Japan, China, India, Germany, Nigeria, Viet Nam, Egypt, etc. Some students have citizenship already and some do not.  A student from Korea was so concerned this year because he had to apply as an international student.  We searched many colleges to see where he could find financial aid (needy).  Finally, Princeton accepted him and he had a fully paid grant with no loans.  It was a difficult process and we worried over it a great deal….but the end result was so fulfilling!


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

I am thinking of one now…I can pick up the phone and call her any time.  I can ask or “argue” about any of the policies of this University and I feel that she values my opinion.  I have served on the Counselor Advisory board at this college and it was a valuable experience.  I admire a Dean who is open, receptive to criticism or suggestions, tuned in to any roadblocks that minorities or lower-socio economic students may face.  I appreciate any quality in a dean of admissions that keeps them engaged with applicant concerns.






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