College Counseling during the Pandemic: A day in the life of Gina Morrello

I came to CYD after I got my master’s degree in school counseling at Columbia. I did an intern year at a high school focusing on the college process. I loved it. From there, I found the position at CYD where I’ve been for three years. I’m a college counselor at the High School for Health Professions and Human Services (HPHS).

CYD college and career counselors help students and their families navigate the best choices for life after high school. I focus on college. HPHS is a big school – we have more than 1,700 students this year. I help students research and identify the schools that make sense for them, identifying sources of financial aid and scholarships, and helping them put their applications together. Many students at HPHS are the first in their families to go to college, so they really rely on us for this support and information.

Work during the pandemic is the same… and totally different. The CYD college office is located in the school’s library, but since the shutdown in March we have been fully remote. One main thing is that everything takes a lot longer. I used to meet with students in person. They would get their college lists approved at my desk, it would take 5 minutes; now we are doing this in Google Classroom and there’s a lot of back and forth. I had 100 student emails just today. I miss seeing the kids in person.

Gina Morrello
Just a few short months ago – Gina Morrello, M.A., Ed. M., helps a student with her college application.

A typical November day: There are 460 seniors this year, and we work with juniors, too. I have a caseload of 200 students. There are four of us on the CYD team here and we work very closely together. Right now we are in the thick of college application season. HPHS has a large college-going culture – 90% go on to college, and about two-thirds typically go to CUNY, so we are making sure students have a strong CUNY list. I spend these days reviewing the lists and the college paperwork, financial aid eligibility, and guiding students through that process either on Zoom or Google Classroom. Students who aren’t quite college ready or who have other interests explore other opportunities with my colleague Ashley Falzone, our Employment Coordinator.

Creating resources that are accessible anytime. We used to share all our information in person, but now we have to disseminate things to students who have complicated schedules. To do that, our team has created new resources: online step-by-step guides and ‘how to’ videos that we post on our YouTube channel. Now when a student emails asking how to do their college research or how to read their transcript, for example, I can just link a video. I did one on how to understand financial aid for parents – those FAFSA forms are incredibly complicated. Some of our videos already have 200 views – kids are really using them as a resource.

Giving students a safe, quiet place. What the kids really miss about school is the community. They miss their friends, their teachers, and their counselors. To help with this I’ve created spaces for them where they can just talk, and it innately helps their mental health. One of the most popular things we’ve instituted this year is Office Hours, times when students can log into Zoom and spend time with their classmates as they each work on the topic of the week. Two weeks ago it was the common application for colleges, and we had 150 students join. Last week it was their CUNY lists and applications. I play quiet music and they can ask me questions.

Helping students cope with emotions. With the pandemic there’s been a huge amount of fear and anxiety, and a lot of students are feeling overwhelmed. Some have lost family members. I am trained as a school counselor, so I can offer moral support; and if it is just stress about college stuff then I can usually talk them down. If it’s more serious I’ll connect the student to the school’s social worker and stay in touch to make sure any problems get resolved.

The highlight of my week is when we’re finishing up Office Hours and the Zoom chat explodes: This was so amazing! So helpful! Thank you so much! I was so stressed and now I am not stressed! Some of my students have asked permission to invite friends from other high schools that don’t have strong college counseling departments to sit in on my office hours and look at some of our online materials. This makes me happy! One of the silver linings of this time is to be able to reach young people across the city.

What I love most about my job is being able to build the personal relationships with the kids. We talk college, of course. But what I really miss is hanging out with them and talking with them about life.

Thank You.