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College Counseling Team Focused on Finding the Right Fit

Story by Leslie King

Within the walls of Durham Academy’s college counseling suite are 50 years of collective experience in the college admissions landscape. As the 117 members of the Class of 2023 prepare to head off to 74 colleges and universities as unique as the students themselves, we sat down with DA’s college counseling team and reached out to recent graduates to talk about DA’s individualized approach that is focused on finding each student’s ideal fit. Here are their top five takeaways about how DA helps students navigate the college admissions process and find their college and career path — and equips them with long-lasting life skills.

Members of the class of 2023 proudly wore their college t-shirts in a celebration of finding the right fit for them

Photo by Dave Chandler


1. It’s about trusting the process.

Jazmin Garcia Smith, senior dean of college counseling: It starts with a focus on building relationships with students and families. We want to get to know our students as individuals, what they love to learn about, what kinds of things they love to do and most importantly, why. 

Katie McEnroe, dean of college counseling: There are family parameters, sometimes it's financial, sometimes it's location; there are personal goals, academically or socially what your next four years would look like; maybe a major or the academic snapshot of where they are right now; and learning a little bit about the educational marketplace. That's how we find that the middle of the Venn diagram, the fit.

Christopher Briggs, dean of college counseling: Some fits are better than others. And we’re helping students understand what they necessarily need to have and what they won't do without. And so as they're evaluating schools … we want them to find an ideal fit. But that's a moving target at times.

McEnroe: If they trust that we have their best interests in mind and they're confident that we see their wonderfulness, then the opportunities expand in such an amazing way. We get to have deep, important conversations about their life and what they want from it and how they're going to get there.

Nechama Huba ’19 (Wellesley College ’23, Columbia University ’25): While I was one of only a handful of students in my year that ended up at a women's college, I felt continuously cheered on.

Carlton zum Brunnen ’20 (Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service ’24): While I considered a wide variety of options at the college counselors’ encouragement, the college counseling office ultimately ended up giving me indispensable support to accomplish a goal I already had firmly in mind.

117 seniors will attend 74 colleges/universities.

2. It’s about looking beyond brand names. 

Briggs: There are definitely a group of schools that parents think of from their own experience as “good” colleges. But we know there are more than just that group, and we introduce them to a lot of schools to help them understand the range of opportunities available to them, including colleges that they may not have heard of before. 

Garcia Smith: Those are some of the most exciting moments I think I have with students and families, when they can really seriously consider something they hadn't thought of before and find that [it] is a really great place for them. 

Briggs: Students are well-positioned to have a group of choices — choices that they're excited about, choices that they feel could all present them the types of growth opportunities they're excited about, choices that are aligned with their values, and places that they want to celebrate.

Cal Baker ’22 (Elon University ’26): I just wrapped up my first year [at Elon] and it couldn’t be a better fit. ... I greatly appreciated the opportunities and advice that they provided, especially regarding feedback on applications and organized events to meet with a representative from a huge variety of colleges. 

McEnroe: When they engage and remain open to all the ideas, the relationship is so much fun!

75 students will continue studies outside of North Carolina. 2 will attend international universities.

3. It’s about discovering your passion.

Briggs: The thing that I love about college that is really different from high school is that the people who are cool in college are people who love themselves. They confidently pursue their passion with a joy and spirit that just can't be shattered.

Huba: One of the main aspects I learned through the college process was the importance of forging your own academic path — regardless of what your other peers are doing — both in terms of the college you choose but also in what you choose to study.

Zum Brunnen: I could not be living this dream without the support of Durham Academy’s community — I’ve had the chance to meet leading politicians, journalists and diplomats, and I love living just a few miles away from the most powerful physical representations of American democracy. 

Garcia Smith: Seeing students come back after they've graduated, having them share their successes, their failures, and all the growth that happens is really meaningful and special. 

3 seniors will attend Women's colleges.

4. It’s about personal transformation and growth.

Lori Reade, DA student development and career exploration counselor: This is the first time that they're really being vulnerable and sharing, when [typically] it's all about fitting in, wanting to be the same as your peers. It's really the first time that they're stopping to say, ‘what makes me me?’ 

Briggs: We see it when they finish their Common Application essays and are ready to send those off, that they've done something risky. They've shown a piece of themselves that sometimes they haven't shared with anyone else before.

McEnroe: We’re asked probably 10 to 20 times a year, ‘what are colleges looking for these days?’ And the answer, although simple, doesn't feel simple, because it’s not a prescription. Colleges are looking for the best version of you. A strong citizen of their community, at DA or beyond. And the best version of you challenges yourself, pursues what you want in meaningful ways and works hard. 

Zum Brunnen: I learned that persistence pays in catching a big dream. ... A diligent effort to determine what kind of college experience I wanted and curate it for myself paid off handsomely. Additionally, I learned never to doubt that I was loved and supported at Durham Academy.

2 seniors will attend HBCUs.

5. It’s about preparation for life.

McEnroe: Our hope is that they'll learn about decision-making not just in the college process, but in every step of their life. If you’re moving to a different city for a job — I want you to investigate that city and that job, I want you to talk to your board of advisors (your dear family and friends who care for you) and ask those important questions so you can figure it out.

Briggs: This is the first time they get to make this major life decision. It's also the last time they have a board of advisors to help them through it — the last time someone's telling them, ‘it's time to decide.’ Resiliency is really important because one of the things we talk about is tolerance for uncertainty. When they send those applications off, they are putting themselves and their next steps in someone else's hands. The tolerance of uncertainty is both ‘how is this process going to end for me this year?’ and also, ‘who do I imagine I will be long term, not just at the end of high school?’

McEnroe: There's a transformation of their self-confidence that they can do hard things, that they can deal with the unknown, and they can handle it because they know how to access resources, they know how to ask themselves good questions, they know how to take steps to make choices for themselves in the future. And if a student can do that, we are truly, truly successful.