Elaine Chan grew up in the United Kingdom (UK) and moved to California when she was in eighth grade. During her secondary years, college admissions and career planning wasn’t top of mind for Elaine or her family.
“I knew nothing about the U.S. college system and, as a first-generation student, my parents were unable to help,” Elaine recalls.
It also didn’t help that Elaine lost support she was receiving from a high school guidance counselor who was let go due to the school district’s financial situation, leaving Elaine to self-assess possible career paths based on her strengths and interests.
“I knew of the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems from word-of-mouth but I received no guidance or preparation in applying for college,” she relates. “My school in Mountain View was closed due to under-enrollment in the 1980s, and I went from working with a counselor who knew me well to one who didn't know me at all. I recall meeting her once and she asked me what I'd like to study in college—with no assessments or deep questioning. She pointed me to industrial psychology, of which I knew nothing. I also don't remember there being—or being unaware of—a college and career center.”
Nevertheless, Elaine based her college decisions on what she did know. “I applied to two colleges that were closest to home—San José State University (SJSU) and UC Santa Cruz,” she says. “I was admitted to both. As a student from a low-income household, I chose the less expensive option—which meant living at home and commuting—and attended SJSU.”
Elaine’s college choice may have been made, but what field she would pursue for a career was still up in the air.
“Initially, I applied as a sociology major to better understand behavior of different groups of people,” she explains. “Growing up in a Chinese household in England and then moving to the U.S., I wanted to make sense of the three distinct cultures that were part of my own experience. I also wanted to be a social worker to help others in need.
“However, I pivoted to studying business after learning that while social work is truly meaningful and can help so many others, starting a career in social work may not help me with the economic mobility that I was seeking. I enjoyed studying survey research and learned that I could apply those skills in a business setting.”
Elaine earned a Bachelor of Science in business administration with a minor in sociology instead and began a career in market research.
Exploring Educational Opportunities
Over the next two decades, Elaine worked as a senior project manager with JD Power and Associates, a market research manager at Oracle, a consultant for EBL Market Research and a market research director at Pacific Consulting Group.
“My manager—and mentor—encouraged me to pursue an M.B.A. knowing that such a degree is important in the business-consulting profession,” she says. “Needing to maintain full-time employment, I opted for ‘night school,’ taking one or two classes per semester before earning my master’s degree from San José State two years later.”
But it was Elaine’s volunteer roles in local educational communities that made the biggest impact for a career shift. As volunteer teaching and administrative support in the Palo Alto Unified, Cupertino Union and Berkeley Unified School Districts from January 2000 to 2016, Elaine was making a difference in the lives of youth, as well as her own.
“After a long and successful career in customer-service improvement consulting, I had an opportunity to scale back from full-time work and pursue something that ‘feeds my soul,’” she says.
“While volunteering at my son's high school as a writing coach, I met students who reminded me of my younger self, particularly students from low-income households and those who are first in their families to attend college.
“During this period of volunteering and figuring out my ‘next act,’ I received a mailer from UC Berkeley Extension. Having recently helped my son through his college planning process, the Certificate Program in College Admissions and Career Planning caught my eye. I thought about the under-represented students whom I was helping at Berkeley High and it immediately felt right to pursue this program.”
By completing the certificate program, Elaine would be able to serve historically under-represented students and help those who, like herself, had received little to no guidance on college admissions.
“I had an opportunity to scale back from full-time work and to pursue something that ‘feeds my soul.’”
Elaine was drawn to our college admissions certificate program because the courses are taught by professionals, as well as for the opportunity to develop connections with other like-minded people. Her instructors also shared their personal involvement and experiences working with historically under-represented students, including times they went above and beyond that of a traditional college counselor role.
“My instructors talked about their experiences helping first-generation students and students with limited resources, impressing upon me just how much support such students need to be successful,” she recalls. “They gave examples of driving students between home and college (and vice-versa) when students were experiencing meltdowns and on the edge of quitting college. I think of those examples often when my students face similar challenges and want to give up. It takes a high level of advocacy for students and their support teams to help them through difficult situations.
“They also invited a speaker who spoke about a summer college-planning program. I adopted parts of that program when I worked for UCSF one summer, running a college planning component to complement its high school intern program. Since UCSF has merged with Children's Hospital Research Institute (CHORI), I have also given presentations to CHORI summer program participants.”
During her time in the certificate program, Elaine volunteered at Y-Scholars, helping students with college admissions, and completed her practicum with East Bay College Fund (now known as Oakland Promise), where she also learned the importance of helping students be successful in college.
“I enjoyed both of these experiences so much that I developed presentations to help students identify affordable colleges and to help them manage their money and tips for college success,” she says. “While volunteering at the Y, I applied for and received a $5,000 grant from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). I used those funds to host a set of community-wide workshops on identifying career and affordable college options. I stay current with developments like increased financial aid to California students that I enjoy sharing with others.”
Staying current includes reconnecting with her Extension cohort. “Seven of us who were in the same cohort keep in touch and hold monthly meetings where we share resources and offer support to one another.”
Pivoting From One Successful Career to Another
In 2017, after completing the college admissions and career planning program, Elaine went on to work for the Acalanes Union High School District to help their first-generation students and those from low-income households with college planning.
“I worked one-to-one with students to guide them on career planning and identifying affordable colleges, and helped them with their applications and college essays, financial aid applications and scholarships,” she explains. “I also shifted my volunteering at Berkeley High from the general writing program to college essay guidance. When their College and Career Center underwent a change in staff, I created essay workshops and helped recruit additional essay readers for the program. It is now well-managed by the current staff and I continue to help first-generation Berkeley High students by providing essay support. I value education equity so it's important to me to serve those who don't have resources to guide them through this process.”
Elaine’s ongoing support as a college admissions and career planning counselor continues what she hopes to be her career legacy. And our certificate program’s instructors helped her see what was possible in this role.
“My Extension instructors were shining examples,” Elaine says, “and what they taught has helped me to guide students to advocate for themselves. Successfully guiding historically under-represented students who have had little support from family is a ‘high-touch’ experience. I keep in touch with several students with whom I've worked and have helped them with issues such as financial aid, seeking internships, housing—even accompanying one to an IRS office and the County department to get set up with Medi-Cal health insurance and CalFresh for food support. I'm really proud of their self-advocacy, and they are all on track to graduate within four years.”
Yet not only has the wisdom and compassion from our instructors made an impact on her success, but also Elaine's own business knowledge and skills has.
“While I didn't appreciate the connections while I was going through the certificate program, I have since learned that many of the skills gained from my market-research and business-consulting days have helped me to be successful in guiding students and families through the complex world of college admissions,” she says.
“I use data analysis, my market-research skills to identify resources that are helpful to families, my project-management skills to stay organized with the various students with whom I work, and my customer-service skills to ensure that I exceed student and family expectations. Most importantly is my experience volunteering with teens and as a mom of two kids who have gone through this process.”
However, not all of her focus is on the volunteering aspect of the profession.
“While my heart and much of my energy is devoted to volunteering in helping students who don't have support at home, I maintain a small private business inspired by my manager while at Las Lomas High. Serving paying clients keeps me learning about facets of the industry that aren't as relevant to students from low-income households—for example, certain college options and academic or extracurricular programs.”
In her private business as an independent educational consultant (IEC), Elaine continues to use tools acquired in our program in her day-to-day tasks, such as various career planning tools, college essay brainstorming techniques and holistic evaluation sessions.
So which path does this college admissions and career planning graduate prefer? “I've enjoyed both settings,” Elaine answers.
“Being around the energy of youth at a school is exciting and I can serve more students in that capacity. However, being an IEC offers greater flexibility in my schedule. I also love that I can either ‘scale up’ or ‘scale down’ the amount of work depending on other life priorities.”
For Elaine, it all comes back around to her original life goal: “Helping students through their college planning process has been a full-circle experience in coming back to my initial desire to be in a helping profession.”