Each spring, the Basalt High School Library occasionally resounds with the deep thrum of a ringing gong. It’s not the death knell of a talent show act but part of the effort since 2012 to build a strong college and career planning program for students.
Although current College and Career Counselor Liz Penzel will be moving on at the end of the year to work closer to home at Roaring Fork High School, she leaves behind a solid program that encourages all Basalt students to plan for post-secondary college or career choices.
“Students with a destination in mind find a purpose in their work,” said Principal Peter Mueller. “Liz has done such an outstanding job helping students connect with what that destination looks like. Her passion for and support of each student in each graduating class has been awesome.”
Before 2012, Basalt’s college counseling efforts followed a typical public education model where a school counselor handled everything from social emotional support to college counseling.
In 2012, the Aspen Community Foundation started a pilot program to fund a dedicated college and career counselor at high schools in the Roaring Fork Valley. Then-principal Dave Schmid hired Carolyn Williams and Susan Walters to kick off the program. When Penzel began six years ago, she brought extensive experience in mental health counseling and working with Latino students. She spent a year learning the college and career counseling side from Williams, who now owns a private college counseling business, and then set out to run the program on her own.
Since then, the Aspen Community Foundation's Cradle to Career initiative, Basalt High School, and the Roaring Fork School District have continued to fund the dedicated position.
BHS students first meet Penzel as juniors when most opt to take her semester-long discovery class. The class introduces them to the college process and helps them think about their strengths, interests, passions and what they might like to do after high school. In senior year, Penzel works one-on-one with all students to create post-secondary plans, apply to college, and find financial aid.
“Seniors can come see me as much as they need to,” Penzel said. “They really have embraced the whole process and they now seek out the support.”
Anecdotally, Penzel says more students are applying to college as a result of the program but she emphasizes that her work is not about racking up admissions letters or acceptances to Ivy League schools.
“Part of our philosophy is to give kids options and not to have them leave Basalt thinking they can only do one thing,” said Penzel. “We want them to have explored their options and chosen the best one for them. For me, that’s what’s important.”
Although Penzel has filled the college and career niche in the counseling department, she didn't check her mental health expertise at the door. In fact, she's most proud of how Basalt's counselors have pulled together.
“Basalt has worked incredibly hard to integrate the counseling department into a team,” she said. “Students are getting incredible wraparound services. It’s really got to be a continuum. I don’t think an unhealthy kid can go off to college and be successful. The more you can see this as a holistic process, the better.”
In today’s high stakes college admissions climate, that collaboration has never been more important. The biggest challenge Penzel faces is caused by the myths that circulate about higher education affordability and choice that stress and overwhelm students.
“They hear so much from the media and community of how important this choice is, and it is important, but they’re hearing that it’s make it or break it,” said Penzel. “They get overwhelmed and they decide maybe they can’t do it.”
Senior Elise Shaw was one such student initially. “I don’t know if I would be going to college if I didn't have that guidance because it’s such an overwhelming time senior year having all these deadlines thrown at you,” she said. “I don’t know if I would have been able to find an application for a school and complete it or even know what anything meant without her.”
In addition to coaching students, simplifying the admissions system for them, and assisting with financial aid, Penzel’s role has also included cheerleading. She’s helped build potent rituals into beloved school-wide traditions. A space near her office behind the library has been turned into the “Tea Room,” which not only boasts a tea and coffee service station for students but also serves as a hang-out spot for seniors filling out applications or studying. The room is home to a loud gong that students ring when they get into a college.
“When you ring it, everyone is aware of your hard work, including students you don’t really know,” said Shaw. “They are excited for you and so it kind of shows that there are many people rooting for you and your success here.”
Another important ritual that began five years ago followed Michelle Obama’s lead by co-opting the notion of a national athlete signing day into a more inclusive school-wide event. At a school-wide assembly, students gather to watch each senior announce their post-secondary plans and sign a certificate. To Shaw, who revealed that she’ll be attending Regis University to study nursing this fall, it’s a day of pride for seniors and the chance to show where their hard work has led them. It also sets an example for younger students, herself included.
“My freshman and sophomore year, I didn’t focus on school a lot, but signing day spoke to me,” she said. “I thought if you want to get to where these kids are going, you have to step up and do your work and motivate yourself. At the end of these four years you can go wherever you want if you try and if you believe in yourself.”
That kind of growth resounds as loudly as any gong and is pure music to a college and career counselor’s ears. BHS plans to fill Penzel’s position in time for the start of the new school year.