I will be talking with Maria Furtado, the Executive Director of the Colleges That Change Lives organization.
I read the book written by Loren Pope Colleges That Change Lives about forty-plus colleges that will change the way you think about college. The amazing thing is that you may not have heard of them. This was Loren’s main point. He was an education journalist with the New York Times and author of a few books that helped change the way students, parents, and counselors viewed the college search process. He served as a role model for college admissions officers and challenged institutions to look at the whole student and not just the numbers such as test scores or GPA. He counseled thousands of students to focus more on best fit, not rank, and that there is so much beyond the Ivy League. Loren lived until 98 in 2008 and this organization carries on his original mission.
About Colleges That Change Lives
Colleges That Change Lives puts the student in the center of the college search. They are a leading advocate on the subject of college admissions and college selection. Their philosophy is to work and help students look beyond ratings and rankings. They support those in college counseling roles who share this philosophy.
In This Episode You Will Learn
- why students and parents fear the college admissions process
- how to find great schools that you have not heard of
- how to find a best fit college
- the origin and mission of the Colleges That Change Lives organization
- what a liberal arts education is
- how to make your college experience as good as it can be and also put you in position to go get that job or go get into that next level of professional school
- ways can people reach Maria and find out more about Colleges That Change Live
Helpful Links And Resources
Colleges That Change Lives website (where you can follow on facebook, twitter, and subscribe for news distribution)
Colleges That Change Lives book
JH Hi. Welcome to this episode of the Hired Graduate Podcast. I’m your host, Jason Hilliard and today we are interviewing Maria Furtado, executive director of the Colleges That Change Lives organization, with a mission of keeping the student in the center of the college search. A first generation college student herself, Maria has counseled thousands of students over her career on the topic of college admissions, and has led the admissions department at both Clark and Eckerd Colleges. Maria, thank you for taking the time to talk today. We do appreciate it.
MF Thank you very much for having me, Jason.
JH I’ll just jump in. We are real happy to have you. You’ve got some amazing experience and I’m sure our listeners are going to be excited to hear some of the answers. I think the college search process is intimidating to many. A lot of high schoolers that don’t really know what to do, and in what order. There are a lot of parents that are trying to figure out how to make it through this entire process, making the right decisions, and figuring out which schools are right and concepts of best fit and those types of things.
Why do you think students and parents fear the college admissions process as much as they do? And what advice would you offer to help ease their fears?
MF I think the fears come in several areas. One is the most basic parental fear in that you want your child to be well and do well. And so that’s for all families, regardless of background, regardless of socioeconomic status. All of them, the first question is: will my student be well and do well? Will people care about them, or will they take care of him/her? Will they make sure that their student is challenged? And really trying to feel that they’re bringing their child to the right next step in their lives. We all hope that our children will go off and be successful, however we define that. This is such a big step and there’s so much conversation about it. And I think that creates additional fear factors for families.
For families for whom the financial aid piece is big, it’s about money from first, for all families I think there’s always a conversation about money, whether it’s from a need-based perspective or from a will we get some help for perceived need perspective. So I think the financial aid piece plays into that very heavily for all families.
Said then in another way, I think that we as a culture have created a feeling of fear around the college search because we are such a narrowly focused culture. As much as we’d like to think that Americans are big thinkers, that we are ready to step outside our comfort zones and see the world and do things differently, we are in many ways very parochial thinkers. And so that idea of looking at a school that we don’t know that is not instantly familiar, that does not instantly get the “oooh” and “aaah” from whomever you mention it to. To get students and parents to step outside that little zone and look at a wide range of institutions where they might find places that would be a much better fit financially, academically, personally, and socially. And they’re hesitant to do that because of our culture and the way that we have become so focused on things we know and things that we are already comfortable with. It’s a difficult thing for people to step beyond that.
JH Right, I don’t think there’s just one right school for people, I think there’s many schools that will work. I think about myself. I’m sure I would have been okay going to many different schools. I’m glad I went to the school I went to. That only might mean that it worked well enough for me, but I have to think that I had a lot to do with the experience of college as well as what the college provided to me. It’s about what school you go to, but also how you approach your own experience.
What would you say to somebody that’s wanting to explore, but not knowing how to go about doing it and figuring out… How do you go about finding schools that you’re not aware of? What would be some of the steps that you would take?
MF I think one piece I’d like to reply to are your comments and do believe that what you do at an institution in so many ways is more valuable than the particular institution. If you go as a student, if you’re admitted to a very selective, very well known institution, but you just kind of wiggle your way through and you don’t really build relationships, you don’t really take advantage of all the opportunities that are in front of you, then you don’t really come out the other end with the best experience. On the other hand, if you go to a school that is not as well known, perhaps, but you take the time to take advantage of all the opportunities in front of you, or as many opportunities as you can, and you create relationships with faculty, you create relationships with staff, you create relationships with alumni and with your fellow students, then you absolutely put yourself in a position of having a better experience.
For those families and for most of us who are not really sure what to do at all, there’s also resources out there that will give them the steps. Sign up for testing, think about going to a college fair, then you go to a college fair, do these things.
What I like to encourage people to do even before that is to do a little bit of introspective work because as soon as students hit their junior year, and in some communities even before that, but as soon as they get to junior year typically, there’s lots of conversations about lists and majors and career paths and what are you going to do. So we’re not actually stepping back as adults and asking these students: what kind of community do you want to be in? Can you articulate that? And if you can’t, tell me about all the things, or three things that you love about your high school and three things that you hate about your high school. And so, that can help students start to step back and be a little bit more thoughtful about what they are hoping will happen in their college experience. So for some people who have had great high school experience, they want to replicate much of what was there. And that actually informs their search in a lot of ways. And for students who are trying to move beyond high school because it was not a great experience that can inform their experience as well. Jumping in too quickly is almost the thing that we do wrong with students is we want to push them right along to lists and majors and getting ready to evaluate institutions. But first, they really need to evaluate who they are. How do they learn? Who do they want to be with? What kind of experience do they hope to have outside the classroom?
So what I often do when I do presentations is I say: if I had to vet a brand new school that I’d never heard of before perhaps because some mail came in my door because I signed up on the PSAT or the pre-ACT. I would ask three questions:
- Who teaches? And I would have a second half of that question is who teaches intro classes?
- If I have an area of interest, and I don’t think students need to know yet, but if I had an area of interest, I would go on the website and actually look at the classes offered in that major and then related majors. So if you’re interested in biology, look at chemistry and physics and math, too. If you’re interested in history, look at sociology, maybe look at economics and poli-sci as well. And actually look at the classes because the psych department at one place is not exactly the same as the psych department at another place. And digging just a little bit deeper, they give you a good sense of the faculty interest is a good interest for you intellectually
- What do I do as a person outside academics that has helped me create a support system? So where have I found my friends? Have I found them through athletics? Have I found them through intramural athletics? Have I found them through volunteering? Have I found them through church communities? Have I found them through theater? And when I find an answer to that question, then I think the student can look on the websites and look at the materials on the institutions and say: if I look at the theater department, do I see and do I read information that calls to me and says oh, I will be able to find my people here. I’ll be able to find my group of people here. Because I think that so much of the college experience is not just about the relationships you get academically. It’s about the relationships you build outside the classroom. And so finding that you have some people with common thought patterns, common interests really can help get an idea of how you can originally vet those schools.
And all of that has nothing to do with making a list. All it has to do is say when trying to figure out who you are and what you want and are there schools out there that have it. And I think the intimidating fact is the fact that there are 2,700+ four year colleges and universities that people can say oh my goodness, how could I possibly figure it out?
JH Exactly. There are tools available. I’ve been out to multiple sites and you go to College Board and you can use these tools to filter. Naviance was a tool. And you can put in different criteria that will start to narrow down a list, but there’s a lot of different factors. And so which ones are the right ones to look at can become difficult, but these are really helpful tips and pieces of information I think people can grab onto. I think that introspective, look at yourself first to start your search for where you might want to be from a college perspective or what career and major, that you do have to start to think about the type of learner that you are. And that starts to frame up what schools might be candidate schools.
And part of that fit, I heard you speak about the social element, it’s not all academic. Academic is a big piece of your best fit equation, but that social element is important. A school has people, and school has faculty, and what type of faculty of people go to that school? And you don’t know until you start to understand a little bit more about the school. Neil Pasricha, the founder of The Institute for Global Happiness and the author of multiple books like The Book of Awesome and The Happiness Equation. I heard him speak to what he called a bench test. And he recommends that if you go and sit in the middle of a campus on a busy day, when semester’s in full swing and just observe and listen for an hour, you can learn a lot about the social feel of things. And then talk to somebody. Talk to a couple people and just meet people. And that was a way that you could start to tell, hey you know, does this feel right? Does this fit socially? Does this start to…? What is your response to that?
Do you think the College Bench Test is a valid test? That it’s something worthwhile doing?
MF I think it is. I don’t put it quite as elegantly as this gentleman does, but I call it the Pajama Pants Test. If you go to a campus, I know it sounds a little strange, but some people, you go to a campus and there’s a feeling of comfort as soon as they get there. And some of that might be just in looking at the students and seeing the way that they interact with each other and they interact with people that they don’t know.
So for example, in visiting campus you can get a feel for the people on campus, do they hold the door, are they welcoming. But also take a look and see, is it a casually dressed campus? Is it a formally dressed campus? And where do you sit with that? It seems in some ways a little bit shallow, but that is part of who you are as a person. If you are a pajama pants person and you’re going to a school where most of the people who come by are more of the pressed, and I mean by that they’re a little more formally dressed, I think that there’s a feeling of: is this my place?
And for some people, they want to be the catalysts for conversations so they’re okay with being a little bit less in the mainstream. That sort of was my college experience. I don’t feel like I fit in very well, but it was very good for me to not fit in very well because it made me bolder than I might have been otherwise. I’m not always sure my mother appreciated that, but in the long term I think that was good for me. So I think that there’s that idea that you can sit and watch people interact. And they do interact differently on different campuses and it doesn’t take long to start seeing that as a family when a family’s out there visiting.
The tricky part is that the observing piece is very good for the more introverted student, the sitting and watching. And they would therefore gather different information than the extroverted student because they’re more willing to walk up to somebody, a group of students and say: I’m visiting. Do you like it here? And maybe that’s okay because that’s how introverts and extroverts are going to go through the world anyway. So maybe that makes sense in the long run.
JH I like that. The pajama pants test. That’s funny and it reminds me of a story. The guy that lived next to me freshman year in the dorm, he actually pressed his pants. He wore Ralph Lauren. The whole dress thing was important and the attire. But a lot of kids at my college actually went to private high schools and they had to wear collared shirts and they had to wear certain uniforms and so they grew up that way. And because it was a Jesuit university, there were students, both boys and girls that had some of that more formal kind of upbringing with the structure of that dress. And so that’s a pretty good point to be made. So it kind of just depends on each particular school and its situation. And so I appreciate that.
So from Colleges That Change Lives organization you’re involved with, it has roots based on the career of Loren Pope and the multiple books he’s written. Briefly describe the organization and its origin and the mission of your organization.
MF So we came together, as you absolutely pointed out correctly, is because of the books Colleges That Change Lives. So when the first book was published about 20 years ago, a very smart person working at one of the institutions said you know, this might be a really good cohort to collaborate with, work together. And so we had an unofficial meeting, had a conference and said well let’s give this a try and see.
So we started by doing one set of programs on the west coast. And we put up 200 chairs and we advertised to students in the databases from each of the institutions and said let’s see what happens. And at that point in time, Loren Pope was traveling with us.
So it was really exciting to see over these 20 years how much has Change in what we do and how much has stayed the same. So we still work together in a very collaborative way, but as Loren aged, because he was in his 80s when he wrote his first book, as Loren aged, he worked on two additional versions of the book, but when he worked on the last one he was in his 90s. And we had already been working together for about ten years unofficially. And we wanted to be sure that his message continued to go forward.
Loren’s message really was that students can look at this process differently than they tend to. They can look at this as a way of finding institutions that are a good fit and not getting caught up in all of the name brand that comes across our desks and across our screens so quickly. He did this, he really loved the small liberal arts college experience. He really had researched a lot in his career as a writer for the New York Times. He read about colleges and he evaluated the system on each campus as he wrote about them and thought about them.
Initially he started advising parents and students in the process. But he loved the fact that they would go out to these small schools and come back and say: this place Change my life. The experience was transformative. The faculty saw strengths and weaknesses in me that I didn’t know I had and they helped me with both. They made my strengths stronger, they made my weaknesses stronger, better, less weak. And he really started seeing those transformative experiences through the students’ eyes and through their families’ eyes.
And when families came to him and said: Loren, you’ve done so much writing and so much evaluation of higher education in our country. Can you make a list of quote/unquote good schools? And he said no, but I’ll write a book. And that’s where he started in his career path as I say in his eighties and writing books.
So we felt that his message should continue to go forward. We really wanted to continue our collaborative work. But we also knew that in the culture in which we live, new is exciting. So the idea that there may not be another book after the one that he had worked on, the last one he worked on in 2006. The idea that there might not be another book meant that we needed to come up with another way to keep his message going to continue to help families and students look at this differently. To help counselors with tools as they work with students and families. So that’s why we went to him and asked for his blessing to start the nonprofit and he was very, very supportive.
In 2012 after Loren had passed away, his family and the publisher hired an author, Hilary Masell Oswald to do a revision of the book in 2012. Loren’s family had complete control over the books. And so they worked with a publisher and decided whether or not there should be another book at any point in time. And we don’t know if there ever will be another book.
But we continue to feel that the message is valid. And the message of looking at liberal arts colleges and giving them a chance in the conversation. The student may decide it’s not the right place, but at least giving them a chance to be a part of the conversation, that idea of a liberal arts college. And then the idea that college can be transformative in many ways. But because each of these institutions delivers a strong liberal arts education in a different and distinct way, it gives students many schools to consider that they might not have thought of otherwise.
And to be very honest, because your families are thinking about it, people listening to this podcast, and you’re thinking about it, it helps the institutions as well because they get to be part of a bigger conversation often times in students and families about education and what they hope for. And it gives us a chance to help the schools with a little bit of visibility outside their traditional areas of visibility.
JH I read the book Colleges That Change Lives and I look here at the cover. 40 schools that will change the way you think about colleges. The one thing it did, it told me a lot of stories about colleges that I might not have heard of before. But it also expanded my thinking as to how I approached the college search process and that the takeaway I get when I boil it all down is that there are a lot of very phenomenal schools out there across wherever you are in the country. And I think reading the book, you get a kind of a glimpse, a kind of a narrative, a story line for each of these schools.
Just pulling from a couple quotes from the book, Dr. Richard Ray at Hope College. I really liked his statement. “Students graduate from this place with their priorities in order and deep knowledge of themselves. We get you ready for real life to be a professional, a spouse, a parent, a voter, a parishioner. We’re concerned with the whole person.” And Dr. Rock Jones, president of Ohio Wesleyan, I liked what he said. “Citizens educated in liberal arts colleges know how to listen to and analyze different viewpoints, identify sound reasoning, problem solve, and then communicate these solutions. So our world desperately needs the benefit of citizens who can do these things.”
So I think that there is a lot of value to understanding these schools and all the schools out there that people maybe just with a little bit of evaluation. And everybody gets caught up in the published national rankings that come out each year. And I honestly believe you can start your search without looking at any of those schools and have a really good search process and then end up at a really good school that you end up having kind of a profound experience with.
Well for folks that are not so familiar with liberal arts education, how would you describe what a liberal arts education is?
MF College in general should ask a student to step outside their comfort zone personally. But academically, a liberal arts college, I think that’s the main takeaway is to ask them to step outside that comfort zone. So the scientists still need to take the theater class or something in the arts. The artist will need to take the science class. That everybody typically is taking some type of course that asks them to think big picture, philosophically, ethically, whether it’s about an issue like global hunger or about homelessness. They’re asking students to be more broadly educated.
It doesn’t mean that this is the best kind of education. It means that it works very well for many types of students. A more technical education works well for a student who wants to be more focused, needs to be more focused, and perhaps prepared to be more focused. In some ways, I think the liberal arts education is good for many types of students because it pushes them away from that with which they’re comfortable.
So lots of times they’ll have the science kids come up in a program and say, well I really want to do science. I don’t get why a liberal arts college would help me. And I say, because when you’re in a classroom, maybe not your most advanced classes, but even in intro classes, you might be in classrooms with an artist. And when you and the artist both look through the microscope, you see different things. You see it from different perspectives. Maybe I should say you’re seeing from a different perspective. And that may cause you to think about it differently. And it may cause that artist to think about it differently. And that can broaden your ability to problem solve. That can broaden your ability to come up with a new way of doing something in your lab experience.
I remember a student saying to me once, I have to take my arts class and I’m really nervous about that and I really hope that my organic chemistry class will bring up my theater grade, will balance them out, I guess how she was looking at it. And it was the first time I, being a nonscientist, thinking organic chemistry would bring anything up because for me it sounded quite frightening. But for her, going into the theater class sounded even more frightening. The fascinating part to watch, and she worked at our office so I could see this happen over a semester. The really interesting thing was how being in the theater class and physically using her body differently caused her to look at things differently when she went back into the lab. And she was so stunned, I think is a good word that the theater class tickled something in her brain that she didn’t expect on her scientific side. So I think she enjoyed that class so much more than she would have or than she ever expected to. And I think that if a student is at a school where they’re able to focus more quickly and more consistently, that they can lose a little bit of that joy of being surprised by what they learn at a Liberal Arts school.
JH Yes that’s great. I had a conversation recently with somebody that went to Scripps College, a small liberal arts college in California, and she’d stated that just because a school is a liberal arts college does not mean that everyone majors in the humanities. Scripps produces dozens of successful students with degrees in STEM every year, and who go on to become successful doctors and engineers. And so she mentioned that at Scripps they structure their curriculum where it gives these STEM majors the chance to study abroad and still graduate in four years, which makes them a more valuable candidate in their practical job.
So to your point, if you’re able to be a science student and you’re used to working in labs, but you’re pushed or stretched to go act or do art, you’re going to bring that value, your experience with you to the lab or to your research. And it’s going to have an impact in that research or work that you do. Especially because in most things in life, even if you’re a researcher, you’re collaborating. I’ve been in corporate America for a while. I know that the value of learning to work with others is huge and very important to be successful. And so I think you definitely can get a lot of that benefit and value through a liberal arts program. So really good feedback. Thank you for that.
Question about the advice that you might give to kids, figuring out what to do to prepared for life after college. We’ll close here. We’re running short on time.
How do you make your college experience as good as it can be and also put you in position to go get that job or go get into that next level of professional school?
MF There are many people who can advise you and recognize that not every adviser is your official advisor.
- An official advisor will give you class advice and helps you with the path through your major, through your minor, “oh did you know that you may pick up a second minor if you pick up this one other course.” That official advising is valuable, absolutely.
- The mentors that you have may also be outside, someone other than that particular advisor. And they might be the ones that see something in you and then ask a question that pushes you toward an unexpected internship or pushes you to think about how you as a person can take your experience and use it to help others whose voices are not being heard in a particular situation, whether at work or whether in a bigger problem solving situation
- An internship creates a stronger resume
- Being involved on campus can create a stronger resume
- Having the ability to network and be willing to step outside your comfort zone at an event and walk up to somebody and as simple as compliment them on their work and then hope the conversation grows from there. Taking advantage of all those pieces is what sets you up well when you’re looking at graduate school, when you’re looking at going out and looking for jobs
- Often we use the word research very narrowly. We tend to use it and we think mostly of STEM fields. Whereas research at the college level is broad and it means research within philosophy. It means research within history and sociology as well as research within biology, chemistry and physics. And so getting involved with a research team, something that a faculty person is doing could really position a student to do more than they might have expected and to teach them that when you offer up your time and energy, maybe for no compensation, no money, you are putting yourself in a position to then be seen as a person willing to do more. And those people are very appealing to management because management always has more to give them to do.
So I think that really trying to maximize that experience is very, very important. And were I talking to my 18 year old self again, going backwards, I would tell myself to do more of that because that was something I did not do well in college at all even though I went to a small school. I went to a small liberal arts institution, but I did not reach out beyond what I needed to do and that would be something I would tell myself to do better.
I think colleges as a whole are doing much better at grabbing students when they first come in the door as first year students and saying: let’s think about your long term path. You don’t know what to do for a career right now, but let’s look at these internships. Would any of this have been of interest to you had you looked at this this year? And so really starting to grab them earlier so that they’re not juniors trying to squeeze everything in.
JH What that says speaks to the approach to college. And it’s more about training and how to go to college. Because you’re right. You show up as a freshman and you’ve just had high school and you did what you could to get the best you could out of your grades and out of your classwork. But you weren’t offered some of those opportunities just because you didn’t have staff that did research and you didn’t have majors and people that really invested time into projects and collaborative kind of efforts.
But in college, those kind of opportunities are available to you. So I think understanding what opportunities are available to you is very important. And if you can have and establish that early in your college career by talking, getting the right academic advisement and faculty advisement in the areas that you’re interested in majoring. And then talking to other students. I think those are all very valuable pieces of information and advice.
So thank you definitely very much for that. And I know that Colleges That Change Lives organization has many events, such as hosting college fairs and information events around the United States.
What ways can people reach you and find out more about Colleges That Change Lives?
MF In 2017, we’ll do one tour in May and then we’ll do three tours starting late July and through the month of August. And those will all be up on our website. You can follow us on Facebook and I try to post stories about student success, faculty interest, alumni process, or alumni successes, I should say. And that also feeds our Twitter feed. So you can find us on Facebook on Colleges That Change Lives. Our Twitter handle is @ctclcolleges. And then if you’re interested in the individual colleges, absolutely go to their websites. And if you’re a student or a counselor and want more information, there’s easy ways to get more information, more than you probably ever wanted, really.
JH Great. Well I will include this information in our show notes for folks that weren’t able to keep up with all that information, but I think the key is that, and I follow you on Twitter and I do appreciate those posts that do come through Twitterland. And you get a lot of good articles and different information and event information as well. So that is very helpful information to have for folks that are in the college search process, thinking about where to go, how to do their search. And I think it’s all about the student being in the center of that search and figuring out what’s right for each student. I think that’s the key.
Maria, thank you very much for your time today. We definitely appreciate it. And thanks for all of our listeners that have tuned in to listen to an episode of Hired Graduate, focusing on Colleges That Change Lives with their executive director, Maria Furtado. Thank you everybody.