Elsa Heydenreich Clark, Immaculate Heart High School

Elsa Heydenreich Clark is the Director of College Counseling at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles, California, a private Catholic college preparatory school for 555 young women in grades 9 through 12.  A graduate of the University of Southern California, Clark also holds a Master of Science in School Counseling from California State University, Los Angeles.

Since 1988, Clark has counseled juniors and seniors at Immaculate Heart, a unique institution with a storied history in Los Angeles. Founded in 1906, today the school ‘s student body includes many who are the daughters and granddaughters of graduates. It is also known for its diversity, reflecting the demographics of the Los Angeles population — two-thirds of those attending are students of color and many are first generation.

The school has a strong tradition and commitment to feminism. No surprise, considering its history. In the 1970′s during the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church was undergoing great changes in an effort to “let in some fresh air,” as Pope John XXIII put it. In response, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary made some changes, too (among them, not wearing their habits all of the time) — many of which were deemed too liberal by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, who banned the Sisters from all Archdiocese schools.

As a result, ultimately, the order broke apart, with many of the Sisters deciding to be released from their vows and forming the Immaculate Heart Community, a group of religious women. Today Immaculate Heart High School — and Immaculate Heart Middle School — are run by the Community.

“There is a very, very strong belief in the power of women,” says Clark. “Our goal is to help form young women of “great heart and right conscience”, and I think we do a great job. All of us are committed to this — in the classroom, through athletics, the arts, community service. We work to help our students become: well-educated women of faith, character and service. No small task, but entirely enjoyable and rewarding.”

A former fencer, who now spends her weekends flamenco dancing, Clark is also active professionally, having served as a past president of the Western Association for College Admission Counseling (WACAC) and on the Greater Los Angeles National College Fair committee for many years.

She has also been on the other side of the college counseling desk as a parent of three children. Her daughter, who is now an artist, attended Immaculate Heart before going on to New York University as an undergraduate and pursuing a Masters degree at University of California San Diego. Of her two sons, one attended the United States Naval Academy and is now a captain in the Marine Corps and the other attended Pomona College and now heads his own IT company, FeedWire.

As to the future, Clark says she hopes to stay at Immaculate Heart forever. “I really enjoy my job working with students and I really love our girls.”

We’re thrilled to feature her as our Counselor of the Month for May. Learn more about her and take advantage of her considerable expertise here:

How did you become a college counselor?

When I was in high school we didn’t have much college counseling going on. It wasn’t that there was neither interest nor concern for our futures, but the counselor wasn’t trained and didn’t have much knowledge about colleges. It was certainly a much different and less competitive era. When I finally settled on a major in college (after two other attempts and probably a third if I’d had the time) in German and Psychology, I discovered that there actually is a degree in school counseling. Going forward, I never forgot that confusion my classmates and I underwent in high school, put a number of interests together – psychology, research and discovery, working with others, and counseling – and pursued first a school counseling degree in graduate school then as time progressed further found my niche and best fit within the college counseling profession.

What is your motto?

My motto changes – sometimes more frequently than I’d like. On the whole, it is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (12 years of Catholic education does rub off on you). Sometimes it’s more “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine” or “I’d never want to have lived without ever having disturbed anyone”, depending on the circumstance or season of year, but my default motto is always the first one above.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Hmmm. I don’t think virtues can be overrated.  According to a dictionary, virtue is “Moral excellence and righteousness; goodness; or an example or kind of moral excellence: the virtue of patience” Perhaps what’s overrated is the perception of what is virtuous, or bragging in the name of virtue.  That type of behavior certainly irks me.

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

It depends on the students and their backgrounds – socially, culturally, and socioeconomically. Sometimes discussing colleges may awaken in a student the desire to push herself to achieve more – which can be productive and positive. On the other hand, it can allow a student to push herself to achieve more – which can be damaging. I believe truly serving and being aware of the population the secondary school serves will determine whether the meeting with a college counselor is too early or not soon enough.

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

It depends on the student and her family. If a student (and parents) needs a great deal of hand holding throughout this process, then begin researching independent counselors. Don’t stop with the first one met. Ask questions to verify the experiences the counselor touts as well as review references. The most expensive independent counselor doesn’t necessarily mean the best counselor.

But compare and contrast the independent counselor’s offerings with what is available in your school. Maybe you don’t really need to work with an independent counselor after all….

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

I tend to opt for the “do’s”:

Do be honest.

Do listen.

Do communicate.

Do share.

Do ask questions. Remember that privacy laws protect the counselor/student relationship. Students should feel comfortable sharing as much information as needed for a counselor to understand their background, needs and perspectives.

What should a student do if she thinks her counselor does not like her or doesn’t fully appreciate her gifts?

Talk to the counselor. Speak up! If there is a personality clash or another counselor may fit the student and her family better, changes can be made. But nothing can be done unless all involved are aware. Also, this type of counselor-student interaction is good practice for discussing issues and concerns with professors/work colleagues in later years.

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

Talk to the child’s counselor, either in person, online or via phone calls – whichever best fits the needs of the parents. The more parents share with the counselor, the better the counselor can respond to those needs. Calling every day is certainly too much, but a phone or email appointment once a week may provide a solution to help calm the more serious cases of parental anxiety.

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

Don’t fill out your child’s application.

Don’t make appointments for your children to visit colleges (without them knowing. Sometimes time crunches may allow for parents to sign your children up for appointments online, but never do so without your child’s permission).

Don’t call admissions offices on your child’s behalf.

Don’t rewrite her admission essay/personal statement. These are her applications and her process.

Don’t brag so much about where she is applying, this may cause too much anxiety in waiting for outcomes. Ask your child if you can share this information – it is her process, her responsibility, her life.

Do talk about financial issues with your children as well as geographical constraints. If you want your child to stay close to home or are limited in the amount of aid you can contribute to her education, let her know.

Do help your child keep on track with deadlines.

Do share your perceptions of colleges – your own alma mater as well as those visited.

Do listen to your child. What she says (and doesn’t say) are important.

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

Promise acceptance. There are so many variables involved in this process, guaranteeing a “sure thing” can’t always be delivered.

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

Listen to her students.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Never refuse to consider a college option based solely on financial aid issues. The process changes yearly, college funding can change yearly, family circumstances can change yearly. Allow your children to apply to all well researched schools (with the knowledge that some may be more affordable than others). You may be surprised. Also, initially, parents and students may want to share the same email address so that parents can more readily keep up with financial aid deadlines.

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

Parents are responsible for their children’s education. That is the bottom line. With this in mind, financial aid officers are not our adversaries; they do their best with the resources they have to provide the best financial aid packages to the neediest students. Be honest and work with the financial aid offices. If you have questions, talk to them.

How do you manage to stay up to date with the rapidly changing world of college admission?

I attend a couple of conferences each year – one national and one local. I also participate in the local (statewide) programs for counselors including the University of California, California State University and Regional Admission Counselors of California workshops. I read as much as I can get my hands on. I visit colleges via counselor fly-in programs and attend college sponsored counselor breakfasts. I subscribe to the NACAC list serve.  The most valuable information I receive, however, is via my colleagues. We share a lot of information – recommendations, ideas, advice.

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

College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step by Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde

The College Finder by Steven Antonoff

Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson

I’m Going to College – Not You!: Surviving the College Search with Your Child by Jennifer Delahunty

Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting into College by Sally P. Springer, Jon Reider and Marion R. Franck

The Blessing of a B- by Wendy Mogel

College Unranked edited by Lloyd Thacker

Fiske Guide to Colleges by Edward Fiske

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

Naviance/Family Connection. This site has changed the way I work with faculty, staff and students. We use it to communicate with each other via newsletters, email, and updates throughout the process. It provides a wealth of information from the practical to data collection. (By subscription only.)

The College Board: www.collegeboard.org

The ACT: www.act.org

Financial aid information: www.finaid.org

Fastweb (scholarships): www.fastweb.com

The Common Application: www.commonapp.org

Colleges That Change Lives: www.ctcl.org

NCAA Clearinghouse: www.ncaa.org

National Association for College Admission Counseling: www.nacacnet.org

Free Application for Federal Student Aid: www.fafsa.gov

The Blog of the Book: College Admission: www.collegeadmissionbook.com

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

Being entirely unrealistic in her goals.

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

Know yourself – your likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses – then begin to research colleges. And do serious research, including visiting colleges.

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?

Yes(ish). The general application timelines are the same, to be sure. But the learning timelines need to be lengthened, perhaps even to middle school. The students need to learn about college – what it’s all about – earlier so that they can begin to better formulate their future plans. Seeing themselves in college and realizing it’s possible to make it happen need to be addressed sooner than later so more solid preparation can begin.

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

Concern for both the institutions they represent and the students applying. Acknowledging the best fit and being able to explain it in words students can understand. Honesty.

Which Common Application prompt would you choose if you were writing the Common App essay?

Describe a Character in fiction, historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

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