College fairs or the importance of the human touch

College fairs or the importance of the human touch


Social media, search engines, and websites are sources of human connection that allow us to initiate relationships which, in business, love or other aspects of life, can prove to be transformative encounters. I’m sure every reader knows someone who has found work, business opportunities, or marriage partners by means of the web.

Like work, love, and friendship, education is a life-changing human encounter – a watershed experience, that normally has lasting effects on all aspects of life, not least the former three. In a similar manner as these parts of life are increasingly influenced if not determined by the internet, so too, our educational choices, particularly with regards to higher education, increasingly are being informed and formatted by the web and what the web offers.

It is entirely commonplace, nowadays, for young students and their parents to ascertain what university they will attend based entirely on information gleaned from the internet. Not infrequently, the entire selection process for both the student choosing a college, and for the university choosing the student, can occur solely on the basis of electronic bits and bytes travelling vast distances across cyberspace. This is, obviously not per se a bad thing but it may carry a small risk, and that is that by limiting or reducing to zero the human contact in making a key, life-changing decision, one gets everything right, except perhaps the most important thing: the human factor.

In my decades of working as a college counselor, I have at times met students who expressed some disillusion with the institutions that they believed they were getting into to, not necessarily because the information on their websites was misleading although this could conceivably happen, but simply they failed to grasp more intangible aspects of their college experience which could hardly have been captured by a web page. I have known students, for example, who complained that while their campuses were as picturesque and their course of study as rigorous as presented on the institution’s webpage, they found the atmosphere at these colleges somewhat alienating, indeed dehumanizing, perhaps precisely because these colleges were the kind of high-powered, high achievement places likely to be touted on a web site as a perfect institution.

Sometimes, for example these places had cut-throat competitive atmospheres that undermined the potential for a more satisfying interpersonal experience, or perhaps the dynamic of the student-professor relationship wasn’t right – maybe too distant.

Similarly, and in some cases more dramatically, there have been reports of significant discrepancies between the candidates admission officials encounter on an electronic file and the actual human versions. In recent years, some ivy league schools have decided to severely curtail or even shut their admission to some countries for the lapse of a year.

Students, understandably put their best image forth: their most polished, eloquent and idealistic selves. In this process, increasingly they might even solicit the services of specialised companies, which abound in Asia, and some of which charge astronomical amounts to produce completed applications which include impressive accomplishments (some fictitious), flawless essays, flowing golden tongue prose, sports competitions, concerts, publications, and volunteer work sufficient to eclipse Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer combined.

Human all too human, right?

But the problem here is not an excess humanity or human contact, but the lack thereof – the priority given to electronic information without the human, flesh and bone contact. In some ways, forgive the crude comparison, the quasi-Darwinian cyber-selection happening between universities and candidates bears some kinship with that occurring on dating websites, where one can Photoshop, and spin one’s profile in a flattering, occasionally misleading ways.

Experienced college counselors often tell students, that it is recommendable to visit the campus of the universities they are applying to. Both parties benefit: the students and the institutions. The visits invariably make a lasting, real impression of what a university is like, and conversely, admissions staff get to see a candidate and pass on important information that is not always published. Students frequently come back from these visits saying, “you know I was sure that I wanted to study at College X, but after speaking with the students, seeing the facilities and talking with representatives, I am definitely convinced that my top choice is College Y.”

Of course, as in every aspect of the college selection process, money plays a role. Not all families have the budget necessary to go on a trip to visit all the colleges they are applying to. For this reason it makes a great deal of sense to go to a college fair.

A college fair is an ad hoc event organised by career counseling professionals in conjunction with university officials in order to provide students in a personalised, manner the most relevant information corresponding to their needs. College fairs are targeted to the student population of a specific city or region, for example the International Baccalaureate students in Germany, or Mexico, or Hungary or Kazakhstan. The personal touch is there, the information is directed to a specific audience and interactivity and dialogue are guaranteed. All this makes college fairs a value-added experience both for the universities attending and for the candidates.

Important encounters can occur at these events. To name a few: a candidate learns about a subject combination he or she had never thought about. A candidate meets another candidate and they exchange notes and information that prove to be crucial in the long run for their career choices. A college discovers a highly motivated candidate and suggests that he or she apply for a specific form of financial support for highly motivated candidates, the candidate then proceeds to obtain said scholarship or bursary.

A further aspect that deserves mention, is that SRT college fairs invariably provide contact with a college counselor. These are seasoned professionals, who can help a student make smart decisions based on factual information rather than hype.

At recent college fairs I attended with SRT in Germany and Italy, I encountered extremely motivated students who had very specific career goals involving interdisciplinary research. Because I myself had worked as a researcher in those fields, I was able to steer those students towards optimal solutions providing them with inside knowledge. I was also able to warn them of some of the possible pitfalls on their path. A college counselor can always advice a student how to avoid certain time traps. This information is not always on the web. I can say with great satisfaction, that I saved those students and their families tens of thousands of dollars.

All of these and many other encounters can happen at a college fair. It represents a net gain of relevant information for all parties involved. Think about it: If you had to make a life-changing decision that involved a commitment of vast amounts of emotion, time and, money, whether in love or education (which is also a labour of love) would you do it solely and exclusively on the basis of websites?

About the author: Dr. Luis F. Murillo is the College Counselor for SRT. He studied Philosophy, Neurobiology, and Psychology in Canada and Switzerland. He was a post-doctoral researcher in Sweden and Germany. He has been a college counselor in Europe and Asia and has published three books and several interviews. He was formerly a career coach and psychologist at the Shanghai Community Centre and is currently based at ELTE University in Budapest.

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