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Engaging our school community and beyond

by Patrick Desbarats and Niki Dinsdale

One of the things we love about our job as counsellors at the United World College South East Asia, East Campus, is the way it allows us to connect with people. We build relationships, trust, understanding and there is a sense of privilege that we are a part of a family’s growth as a young person literally becomes an adult before our eyes and moves from a dependent to an independent person.

As our communities grow in size and our distractions grow in number it can feel like the clarity of that basic element of our role can become a little blurred. It’s more difficult for everyone to gather, there are so many ways to communicate, is our message lost in the blizzard of the inbox and social media? 

We are as interested in the social media whirl as anyone if we’re completely honest. It’s exciting to know that you can Tweet an idea, press send and watch as people interact with your thinking from across the globe. Facebook is a well-trodden path for us too, as is Instagram and other forms of messaging. All of these ways to communicate have their place but is there an inherent distance in them? A way in which we place ourselves as the giver and sharer of knowledge? 

And so we turned to the podcast. From the outset we saw this as a way of getting back to that core relation-building, sharing knowledge and ideas but in a discursive way. Demonstrating how we think and why. A way to present ideas, not necessarily as a fully formed missive but as a dialogue, a discussion. There’s something very approachable about this, very human. By publishing our podcast, all of a sudden we could explain and consider and thrash out thinking and share that with our community (and beyond) and they would be able to access these conversations whether or not they could make it into our office. This feels very egalitarian. If education is about equality, accessing opportunities, then the podcast allows us to be a part of this. Anyone can listen to our podcast, not just people lucky enough to have a college counsellor.

Our first episode was extremely simple - interview students and parents as they enter and exit our grade eleven university night.  We wanted to capture the excitement, nervousness, sense of discovery and trepidation of thinking about life beyond school at a formal evening with this as a focus. Our aim was about building empathy. A move away from the pressure to only show only the “best” sides of ourselves and help other people to see that we all feel a whole range of emotions about this process. We asked people to share their hopes and their fears about the next few years, we recorded on a school microphone and our phones.  The episode captures a range of emotions and all the buzz of a school’s university evening. With the interviews done we had the foundation for a great launch into the podcast world. Our Digital Literacy coach, Tricia Friedman, supported us with the technology and production thinking, she helped us to shape the story we wanted to tell. Tricia uses Garageband to pull everything together and she is teaching us to be able to do this for ourselves. Creative muscles and ability we didn’t know we had and all of this nudges us towards the creative and intellectual risk taking that we also want to see in our students. Even more opportunity for empathy!

The podcast allows us to veer away from communications driven by timelines, deadlines, applications, essay submissions and reminders. The podcast offered us a way to think about the bigger picture. As a part of our series, we have captured sound bites from alumni who have come back to the school to visit, they are the real experts in this process and their reflections provide excellent guidance to our current students. We ’ve taken our listeners on to college campuses, to read and respond to articles that are driving discussion in our field, to consider wellness in this process and in so doing, get back to the essence of where we all started. As we said at the beginning, we’re pretty lucky to be a part of this. It’s a fantastic job and the podcast is a wonderful way to share. In fact, we’re at over a thousand listeners now...who knew two college counsellors could go viral?


Patrick Desbarats has worked a guidance counsellor and university advisor for the past fifteen years in Canada, Qatar and Singapore.  He is currently loving being part of a the dynamic University Advising Centre at United World College South East Asia, East Campus.   

Niki Dinsdale is a University Advisor at UWCSEA, East Campus in Singapore and is thoroughly enjoying collaborating, learning and pushing her thinking about the profession in new ways with her colleagues there. Previously Niki has also worked within this wonderful role at UWCSEA Dover Campus (Singapore) in the UK and in Shanghai, China.