Reflections From Blackberry River Retreat

Reflections From Blackberry River Retreat
Britten Nelson, University Prep
Samantha Schreiber, Polytechnic School
May 10, 2024

For three days, 39 ACCIS counselors, joined by Emmi Harward, Jeff Kurtzman and Amy Selinger, moved into the Wylie Center and Tupper Manor at Endicott College for the Blackberry River Retreat. We were joined by Mark Whitaker, Roland Davis and Paula Chu from the Stanley H. King Institute. Different from any other professional development we’ve attended, here are our takeaways as we continue to learn more about deep listening and its application to college counseling. We’ve already put some of our knowledge to practice! And, while we don’t want to give away any secrets – we encourage you all to attend the retreat, if possible – we wanted to share a few of the lessons we learned from our time together at Blackberry.


Sam Schreiber:
Deep listening is an action

Our jobs are very action oriented – research, visit, write, edit, submit – and when we aren’t outlining actions, we are giving mountains of information – data, trends, REA/ED, demonstrated interest, etc. – so the idea of a meeting where there is no action or resolution feels odd. Blackberry encouraged me to take a breath in a meeting and recognize that the (not so simple) act of listening is an action of itself and, often, might be what a student or parent is looking for. People don’t always want to hear about the latest school to reinstate testing or my diatribe about Georgetown’s application. Sometimes listening is enough. 

Don’t take the bait
Thanks to college counselors’ efficiency at getting things done, finding solutions and solving problems, students may often come to us with the immediate expectation that we will fix things for them. The same way we hope students and families will process receiving a denial before storming our offices (or worse, the college admissions office), we need to help students develop that practice by resisting the urge to immediately jump into problem-solving mode. Does that lower-than-expected test grade in AP Calc need a meeting this instant? Is an application update on November 3 effective? Don’t take the bait to leap into action mode every time a student enters your office. Sitting with a feeling or perceived problem to digest is an important skill for everyone to build. 

Photo of Britten and Sam overlayed over brittens intricate doodleDiscomfort is not unsafe
This is my soapbox now. In most of my meetings about students, their safety and wellbeing comes up as we work to understand and try to repair lasting effects of COVID. At the same time, it is not our job to erase all discomfort. Rather, our job is to help students (and their parents) tolerate and work through the discomfort of normal, often expected, obstacles and difficulties. It is a service to our students to help them sit with and ultimately confront discomfort. 

Britten Nelson:  

Silence is appropriate
I’m the kind of person who always feels the need to fill in the blank spaces – whether in conversation or in my doodles (see photo of my doodles during Blackberry). My first big takeaway from Blackberry is that silence is appropriate and doesn’t always have to be awkward. When I’m meeting with a student, and the room gets quiet while they think about the answer to a question, or pause while sharing a thought, it’s okay to sit in that silence. I realize now that I am automatically programmed to say something. I might suggest an answer, insert a funny joke to lighten the mood, or shift topics to keep the conversation moving. However, I don’t have to fill in the negative space to try to make things feel less awkward. My time at Blackberry was a reminder that deep listening takes a lot of practice. I’m going to have to give myself grace while I hone these new skills and let the blank spaces remain blank. Sometimes, that’s where the magic happens.

Empathize with disappointment
My time at Blackberry was a great reminder about empathy. Setting expectations in advance can only go so far if we don’t listen with compassion. The College Counseling Office is the place where students come when they’re feeling disappointed by a college decision. We are accustomed to comforting students as they manage disappointment, sometimes for the first time in their lives, even though we see it all the time. I feel like I have set the expectations ahead of time that disappointment is a normal part of this process, but rejection still hurts. My gut reaction, in those moments, is to give advice to help students move forward. However, sometimes the best response is to wait and listen – which isn’t always easy. The Blackberry River Retreat reaffirmed for me that even when I anticipate bad news, my goal is to be compassionate and let students grieve through disappointment. 

Parents need to feel heard, too
While much of the time spent at Blackberry was to talk about deep listening when it comes to our students, it was also a reminder that these skills can be applied to parents and families, too. Often, when parents have questions about a college list that includes schools they’ve never heard of, or are disappointed with a college decision, or are worried about their child’s academic performance, my immediate reaction is to ply them with data, facts, and anecdotes. My time at Blackberry was a reminder that it takes time to build trust. The key to building that trust is to listen – deeply – to what parents are saying. Often, their concerns about the college list are a reflection of how stressful the college application process can be overall; they aren’t a reflection of my work. I can always follow up an in-person conversation with an email that includes charts and scattergrams. But when we are in dialogue with each other, the best way to build trust is for parents to feel heard in the moment.

Our time together at Endicott College this spring was a well-timed retreat away from the madness of pre-May 1st decisions. We had perfectly crisp, clear spring weather, delicious food, and we were surrounded by colleagues who understand and can relate to our lived experiences as college counselors from around the country and across the globe. If you have the opportunity to sign up for the Blackberry River Retreat next year, we encourage you to do so! 

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