In my former position as the Assistant Director for a nationally recognized research program, I came to know different types of loss: loss of patience, loss of perspective, loss of staff, loss of energy, loss of respect, and loss of students. Of all the types of loss I came to know, the worst type was the loss of students.
I decided to pursue a career in counseling for the very simple reason that I want to help people attain their educational aspirations. This means that in my commitment to help students I also agreed to be their advocate. This belief was reaffirmed in my counseling program where everything we were taught revolved around the notion of retaining our students by equipping them with the skills necessary to successfully navigate educational systems. So, when the day came to tell one of our students that he was being dismissed from the program, my emotions were at war with themselves.
A part of me knew that the student had to be reprimanded for their actions; but the other part of me rebelled at the idea that the reprimand entailed taking away a source of support for a student who was systemically disadvantaged as a student of color in higher education. How was this option acceptable to my Director who wore “social justice” on their lips as though it were a badge of honor? But my Director wouldn’t have it any other way. The student was dismissed in order to teach the cohort a lesson.
Being the person I am, I think I would have overcome this incident had it not been complicated by my Director’s decision to continue helping the student in their research pursuits by offering the same services without the program’s title. The conflict I experienced wasn’t due to the fact that they helped the student, rather it was due to the fact that they applied their punishment inconsistently. Other students had been dismissed from the program but only this student had been offered a modified participation in the program. Where was the fairness in that? What sort of twisted lesson were we teaching the cohort?
The day we dismissed the student I went home with a heavy heart and wondered whether witnessing the dismissal and being unable to stop it made me a bad counselor. More importantly though, was the question of whether or not my quarreling personal biases and professional ethics were indicative of a defective trait in me, The Professional Counselor.
Unfortunately I was unable to answer my questions that day, and I have yet to find an adequate answer today. However, over time I’ve learned that counselors live in a space that requires them to simultaneously enforce educational policies while helping students navigate those policies. It’s a difficult space to be in, and no one has the right answers. Some answers seem more right than others, but ultimately how strongly we view the rightness or wrongness of certain situations depends strictly on our personal biases and professional mores. There is no right or wrong, there is only a question of whether or not we can live with the knowledge that comes with understanding how our professional actions affect the very personal lives of our students.
“Loss” by Azul Serena