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Fostering Inclusivity in College Counseling

Picture of Sam Joustra
By Sam Joustra on March, 29 2024 | 7 minute read

No two students are alike. In this blog, we'll share some of the ways Collegewise fosters inclusivity in our college counseling practice for students and their families.

As college counselors, it is our privilege to work with students from all walks of life, representing a diverse range of backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences. And it is our responsibility to be as inclusive as possible in that work, to honor and celebrate our students’ identities. Language is a powerful tool that shapes our worldview and how we see ourselves, and so in all the ways that we communicate, we must do so with the highest regard for inclusivity.

College counseling exists within the larger ecosystem of a young person’s self-discovery, reflection, and transformation. We can only do our jobs well if we contribute positively to that growth process. The inclusive counseling practices below will help ensure we do our part to empower the next generation to embrace their identities, step into their full selves, and continue the work of creating a kinder and more inclusive world.

Pronoun Usage

One fundamental aspect of creating an inclusive counseling environment, right from the first stage of working with a student or family, is respecting and affirming individuals' gender identities through proper pronoun usage. It’s important to be proactive in this space: make it a habit to share your own pronouns when introducing yourself for the first time, as this can invite others to share their pronouns, too. Anytime you’re on a Zoom call, whether for a client meeting, presentation, or something else, include your pronouns in your name display. It might not be everyone’s instinct to share their pronouns, but modeling this practice can help create an environment where others become comfortable sharing theirs. This also mitigates any hesitancy or uncertainty when it comes to addressing others. While modeling your own pronoun usage may prompt others to share theirs, you might not always be in a situation where someone’s pronouns are known. If you’re unsure of someone’s pronouns, it’s entirely appropriate and encouraged to ask them.

The more we normalize pronoun usage by asking for pronouns and sharing our own, the less taboo it becomes, all in service of helping our students feel seen, heard, and valued in their work (and development) with us. Effective counseling begins with establishing trusting partnerships with students and their families and honoring their gender identity and pronoun usage is an important step in building those relationships. For more information on this subject, check out Collegewise’s guide to Inclusive Language Best Practices for Gender and Pronoun Usage.


Other Inclusive Language Choices

"Parent" versus "Guardian"

Another simple but powerful language shift is using the word “guardian” instead of (or at least, in addition to) exclusively using “parent.” It's important not to make assumptions about a student’s family situation. Not every student has a parent or one with whom they have a close relationship and who may be part of their life. The role of a supportive adult can be played by many different people in a student’s life, and using words like “guardian,” “caretaker,” or even “advocate” broadens the scope of that relationship.

"Learning Disability" versus "Learning Difference"

At every turn, it’s best practice to minimize language that serves “other” students or makes them feel that any part of themselves is “less than.” There is no “better” or “worse”; there’s just “different.” “Disability” conveys a deficiency, whereas “difference” more accurately captures another way of learning. Even other small changes like using “neurodiverse” instead of “neurodivergent” are a signal of inclusivity and honoring a student’s lived experiences and contributions.

Respecting Cultural Holidays and Days of Significance

Another way to honor a student’s background and identity is to be respectful and inclusive of their cultural days of significance. At Collegewise, we have created an internal calendar of religious holidays and cultural days of importance in addition to the U.S. holidays that are more Eurocentric and based on Christianity. Not only does it allow us to be more aware of holidays and days of recognition that our colleagues may observe, but it reminds us of dates that our students may also observe. Never make assumptions of what a student might celebrate or observe based on any part of their perceived racial, ethnic, or faith identity. Like pronoun usage, sharing holidays and cultural days of significance with others can invite them to share theirs. For example, I share with my families that I will take off work for several Jewish holidays throughout the year. Just as I would hope my students and families would respect my pause from work during these times, I want to make sure I am showing that same respect for them. It’s important to be sensitive to these holidays when scheduling meetings or assigning tasks for students to complete so that no events conflict with these important dates.


Honoring Students’ Various Identities and Not Falling for Stereotypes

Inclusive counseling means not making assumptions of what a student might be interested in based on a judgment you make about a part of their identity. This means embracing a student’s varied perspectives and identities, whether it be their race, ethnicity, gender identity, faith, or anything else. No two students are the same, and I’m willing to bet that no counselor counsels in the exact same way for each student. Understanding your students’ unique challenges, experiences, and contributions will help you personalize your counseling and truly fulfill what it means to “meet students where they are at,” providing each student the opportunity to authentically be themselves.

Be aware of instances in which you may, even subconsciously, be steering a student toward or away from an academic field because of an assumption about how interested or capable you think they may be. Just because a student is drawn to arts and other creative fields does not mean they would dislike or perform poorly in a math class. Don’t assume female-identifying students will naturally prefer the humanities or that students from a specific cultural background will be drawn to a particular academic area or career field. And when you have a student who you feel doesn’t align with a given stereotype, don’t show your surprise- that can serve to reinforce those expectations.

Always remember that while students are shaped by their identities (and often the intersections of more than one), they may not wish to be defined by that identity. Take care not to impose a similar assumption on any student or place them in a figurative box according to what you come to learn about them, as no single population or community is a monolith. Striving to create spaces for students where they can fully express their interests or beliefs will allow them to trust their instincts and feel encouraged in their pursuits without worry or concern about how they will be perceived by others. In turn, this will encourage students to be more confident in their own identity work and advocate for others as they take their next steps in higher education.

Final Thoughts

We hope that the inclusive practices shared in this blog post can help counselors implement and standardize practices in their own counseling relationships where all students can feel seen, valued, supported, and empowered. Seemingly small gestures and practices can go a long way in helping students feel supported and valued in our work together. Embracing inclusive counseling practices is more than a goal; it is a critical step as students reflect on their identities and shape their educational journeys in college and beyond.

Additional Resources

Additional Resources:

About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the family. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for your student to be their best self - whether in the classroom, the applications, or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, lead to 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


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