Journeys: three roads that crossed at counseling
MVHS’s four counselors share the paths they’ve taken that brought them to the counseling profession
January 9, 2020
In his junior year of high school, counselor Clay Stiver’s favorite class was physics — Stiver had always been good at math and science. When he stumbled upon physics, which applied all the concepts that had always come so easily to him, he was sure that he wanted to do something with physics for the rest of his life.
Working at NASA had always been Stiver’s dream and after realizing that his childhood dream of playing in the NBA would not find fruition, Stiver decided to pursue his love for science fiction and physics as a career. He applied as a physics major to CalPoly, ready to start at NASA as soon as he graduated.
However, as soon as Stiver started taking physics courses in college, he immediately realized that it wasn’t the right path for him. He explains that the classes were immensely difficult and he simply couldn’t see a future in the career.
“I fell on my face — I just sucked,” Stiver said. “I just found myself not as motivated to learn [physics] and I didn’t feel like I fit in with the major in the classes. Something felt off, I didn’t feel energized or hopeful for the future in this career this or this major.”
Not wanting to waste money on a subject he hated and a field he wanted no future in, Stiver left college after his first year. He moved back to the Bay Area, took some classes at De Anza College, and decided to change his major to math. Much to his dismay, he faced a similar turn of events despite the change in major.
The first year of changing majors and not finding passion or excitement in what he was doing had as emotional toll on Stiver. He felt unable to see a future in doing anything that he loved and became depressed.
“That first year, I [couldn’t] even see a future,” Stiver said. “I was depressed and I went to the doctor to see a therapist because I was just a mess … It was hard and it felt like a long time.”
After deciding not to be a math major, Stiver took an on-site psychology course during his second quarter at De Anza, where he finally found the passion and motivation for a subject that he had been looking for for the past year.
“I just loved it, and it was way more what I’m about, like learning about people and talking to people,” Stiver said. “[I] loved learning about behavior and how to help others and that’s really what what led me towards the path I [am] on today.”
After deciding to change his major to psychology, Stiver headed back to CalPoly and after graduating he moved back to the Bay Area. He heard about an opportunity to become an instructional aide with the special education classes from a friend and decided to take that job to gain some experience in the classroom.
Initially, he had thought of taking the route of becoming a therapist, because he had enjoyed that line of work as well. However, Stiver realized that he felt a lot more stimulated by the diversity that working with students gave him.
“I thought it might be fun to work in education,” Stiver said. “And from there, I learned what a guidance counselor does [and] I saw it from a school perspective. I realized they get to do academic counseling they get to do college counseling and social-emotional counseling that [I’d] like to do that.”
After realizing that becoming a high school counselor was the path that he wanted to take, Stiver went back to San Jose State University, where he got his masters degree and credentials.
Stiver’s journey to becoming a counselor was long and laden with hardships, but he believes that this journey has helped him give perspective to his students. Stiver didn’t become a full-time counselor until age 28, and because that was later than when he planned on arriving at his full-time career, it helped him quell his initial misconceptions on deciding on a career.
“I think had this idea that when you graduate college, you have your career forever. But things don’t always go so straight and narrow, and you may think you [know] what you want to do but then you never know [what] things can come up.”
Stiver encourages his students to conduct a lot of self analysis before choosing a career path, a vital step that he skipped. He believes that students should try their best to learn about themselves and find what excites them before choosing to do something for the rest of their life. Stiver worries that in the Bay Area specifically, students are often pressured into pursuing a career in a field where they have no passion.
“I worry that a lot of these careers are ideas from parents,” Stiver said. “We’re in the Bay Area Silicon Valley, so I think it’s a lot of tech stuff and doctors and surgeons and there’s just so many jobs out there. I just want our students to know that there’s so many freaking jobs out there it’s ridiculous.”
Stiver also believes that because he personally struggled so much with finding a career that excited him, and had to undergo so much disappointment and difficulty, he offers a unique perspective that can benefit a lot of his students.
“You’re only in high school — you may not always know exactly what you want to do,” Stiver said. “Some students know what they want and they go for it. Others have the route more like me and it takes a couple steps before we really figure it out and I think it’s having that perspective gives me an advantage when working with students who may not know what they want to do, or maybe challenging students who think they know to just have an open mind, because you never know what can come up and where life takes you.”
Being a counselor has presented Stiver with its own set of difficulties. He struggles with separating his personal life from his work life, and managing his time so that he is not constantly working. He also gets very emotionally invested in his students, and feels the pressure as a side effect of that investment.
“If I feel like I fail a student or if I have a parent that comes in and yells at me, it makes me sad and I don’t feel good about it,” Stiver said. “I want to do a good job, and so it’s hard to balance that and it’s to keep work at work.”
Despite the challenges he faced on his journey to becoming a counselor, Stiver still finds joy in what he does every day. His favorite part of his job is being able to help his students achieve their goals, be it passing a class or attending their dream college.
“Helping [students] just feels good, it’s very rewarding,” Stiver said. “It makes me feel like I’m useful in this world and like [I’m] really making a mark on someone or something and it’s what I want. It’s different for different students but I always like that idea [that] a student could leave my office and be like, ‘Okay I at least had one person in high school that was supportive, or I connected with at least one adult’ you know, something like that.”
Counselor Sylvia Lam had no idea what she wanted to do in life as a high schooler, but she knew she liked psychology and working with kids. Because her high school placed a strong emphasis on community service, Lam became a frequent volunteer at several afterschool programs where she discovered a passion for helping children.
When Lam started attending UC Davis as an undeclared major, she knew that she didn’t have a particular career in mind, but her high school psychology classes gave her a strong interest in the subject.
“I started to take a lot of psychology and human development classes,” Lam said. “I ended up declaring a major in psychology and human development and […] I found the psychology courses so fascinating and just loved working with people.”
After graduating with a double major in psychology and human development, Lam started attending a counseling program at the University of San Francisco, where she pursued a masters in counseling psychology, specifically in the school setting. While earning her degree, Lam was given the opportunity to work in several school environments — elementary, middle and high schools — to understand what a future career in that setting would feel like.
“I really enjoyed working with high school students and […] the connections that I’ve made over the years,” Lam said. “The one-to-one connections are really meaningful to me. And so that’s why I chose high school counseling specifically.”
Even before Lam was given the opportunity to work in a high school environment, she knew that she wanted to become a counselor. Her father was very sick while she was in high school and she credits several counseling-related initiatives at her high school with helping her overcome the hardships presented by her father’s illness.
“I was going through a lot, and I feel like the only I got through a lot of emotional challenges was by working with my counselor, my psychology teacher and our peer counseling group that we had in high school,” Lam said. “There was just so much support in my high school that centered around counseling [and] I felt like they gave so much to me that I felt like that’s something I want to be able to give back.”
Lam was able to turn her high school interests and passions into a career as well as having a relatively easygoing attitude about her future. Because she went into college as an undeclared major, she feels that she was able to pay attention to her interests and gain experience in those fields, an approach she encourages her students to take as well.
“I was pretty laid back in the sense that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I liked,” Lam said. “I just took the time to take a whole bunch of courses and participate in internships that really confirmed that [counseling] was something I wanted to do. And I’m lucky that as I explored what I thought I enjoyed, it’s really something I do enjoy and still enjoy.”
Today, after being a counselor for 20 years, Lam has faced several hardships over the course of her career, the most challenging of which is convincing students that they are more than just a grade. Lam feels that the attitude that students have towards their grades is exacerbated by their community, and she works hard to help students combat that.
“I always tell students that [you shouldn’t] measure yourself by your grade,” Lam said. “Your self worth should be about your character and who you are and what your goals are and who you stand for and how resilient you are. Because at the end of the day, that grade five years from now or 10 years from now is not going to mean anything.”
Despite all the challenges, Lam finds believes she is more passionate about helping her students than ever. Lam values each connection that she makes with her students and the privilege to watch her students mature over throughout their high school experiences.
“[Students] grow so much, and I’ve been in business for so long, I’ve had students [who] graduated and are actually married and have kids themselves,” Lam said. “And so making those connections and seeing how great you guys are and how accomplished you are, is really what’s most meaningful.”
Above everything, Lam wants her students to know that in spite of all the challenges they may face during and after high school, they have a bright future in front of them.
“I’ve been doing this for so long that no matter what you guys end up with here, you guys are all successful,” Lam said. “I have so many kids that come back to me and they all find their path to success, they all carve that. ”
When counselor Monique Balentine was seven years old, her dream was to be a singing dentist. She enjoyed singing and going to the dentist, so a singing dentist seemed like the natural option.
A few years later, after realizing that being a singing dentist was perhaps not the most sustainable or realistic career option, Balentine decided that she wanted to be a lawyer. She felt that she was reasonably good at forming arguments and that lawyers made good money. Young and eager to choose a career that would allow her to lead a financially comfortable life, Balentine felt that going into law would be the best option for her throughout middle school and the beginning of high school.
However, at one point during her junior year in high school, after learning how long and how much school time she would need to dedicate to pursue law, Balentine decided that becoming a lawyer just wasn’t the right option for her.
During this time, Balentine had been attending classes at middle college, which gave a glimpse into the college lifestyle. She was presented with the opportunity to take a variety of classes, one of which happened to be a psychology course, where she first discovered her passion for the subject.
Balentine also found that people would often ask her for help on their issues and she volunteered at an eldery home throughout high school helping senior citizens with technology, which further helped her realize how much she enjoyed helping others.
“I had a lot of patience and I liked listening to people’s stories,” Balentine said. “So I think a lot of it was also just happenstance. I grew as a person and I learned more about myself and [being a] counselor just felt like the right fit.”
When Balentine applied to college, she had no doubt that she wanted to pursue psychology. She applied to six schools and ended up attending Menlo College. As soon as she started psychology attending classes at Menlo, Balentine knew that she had made the right choice.
“When I went into [the psychology department], I was really with my people,” Balentine said. “I remember taking abnormal psychology and finding all these different things and then I started thinking, ‘Do I have any of these traits?’ and it really helped me to reflect and figure out myself.”
In college, Balentine knew that she wanted to work with children in a school environment. She partially attributes this to her brother’s experience in credit recovery school as a teenager, where his own counselor had been of immense help to him.
“[My brother and I] were both kids where the traditional setting wasn’t exactly for us,” Balentine said. “So I think that definitely plays a role. My brother is super awesome and cool and I think that in a traditional setting, he just didn’t get exactly what he needed. But his counselor helped him to get to a place where he could thrive and not just ‘be at school’ but be at school, so I think that definitely plays a part in what I decided to do.”
After graduating from Menlo College, Balentine attended university in San Diego. She graduated at age 22 after accumulating enough credits to graduate early, and then moved back to the Bay Area to be with her family.
Despite having her sights on being a school counselor, most employers didn’t believe that Balentine was experienced enough to take that job. The first job that Balentine took after graduating was as an aftercare tutor. Because she had to commute to Eastside San Jose for a job that paid her $20 a day, Balentine ended up quitting because the job was not financially sustainable.
After a brief period of unemployment, Balentine found herself working at MVHS as the Study Buddy Society (SBS) coordinator. She also worked in the Mountain View school district as a paraeducator and in the Campbell Union High School District as an instructional assistant in adult education, which totaled to three jobs at the same time.
This period of her journey to becoming a counselor was the most difficult for Balentine. She often found it challenging to be present in all three jobs, a skill that she had to learn but now finds very useful today.
“I think when I worked three jobs at one time it was really hard to make sure that in every job, I was present,” Balentine said. “Just because you work three jobs, people don’t really care about that. They want you to be there and to help them so I think that’s kind of a hard part of being a counselor too. Sometimes I go from one thing to another thing to [another], and you have to be present without forgetting all the things you might need to follow up with. It [was] a lot of multitasking.”
After three years, Balentine found a position in attendance at MVHS, and from there, became a counselor. Balentine’s journey to becoming a counselor was difficult, but she attributed a lot of the experience she gained before she was finally able to become a counselor to the obstacles that she had to face.
“It was definitely a path,” Balentine said. “People were basically like, ‘You don’t have enough experience to be a counselor’ and I was also pretty young. So I went out and worked three jobs to get all the experience that I could. And it was all very beneficial.”
Despite the hardships that the journey to become a counselor presented her, Balentine is thrilled that her dreams of working in a school setting and in psychology have both been realized. Today, her favorite part of counseling is helping other students plan for their futures, just as she had always hoped to do.
“I think the [my] favorite thing is second semester. I love helping to plan for college. I love helping plan for courses next year. So all of that hopes and dreams and fuzzy stuff is my favorite,” Balentine said.