By Max Marinelli (Editor-in-Chief, ‘22)
Please welcome our newest Associate Director of College Counseling, Ms. Sonja Bhan. Sonja received her bachelor’s from Barnard College (a self-sustaining women’s college under the Columbia-University umbrella) in Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures before going on to earn a master’s degree in International Educational Development from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn).
From Albany to New York City to Philadelphia, Sonja had moved around the northeastern United States for some time after graduation as an international recruiter and admissions counselor at her alma mater, Barnard College, and the University of Pennsylvania respectively. Her travels had only begun, though, as her “experience working with a lot of Chinese students in Philadelphia [and at a New York City NGO]” opened up an opportunity for her to work abroad as a college counselor in China at the Nanjing Foreign Language School. This move sparked a series of stints as a college counselor abroad, first in China, then in Jordan (at King’s Academy), and lastly in Singapore (at Tanglin Trust School) before moving back to the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Sonja wasn’t necessarily planning for her career path to take her across the globe and back again,
her interest in education and her fascination with young minds has never wavered. Her global experience has left her well-rounded and capable of helping students from all backgrounds and abilities. In sitting down with her, I also quickly noticed her welcoming and personable demeanor.
Sonja “loved her [four years] in Jordan, and thought the students were fascinating.” Living at a boarding school allowed her “to know her students so well… and she loved it.” Her passion for meaningful relationships with students beyond the classroom led to her seamless transition from admissions, where she was forced to merely see students sort of as “statistics,” to a college counselor, where she was finally able to connect with students on a personal level. The pandemic saw Sonja feel pressured to return to the States to reunite with family and friends in and around Philadelphia and upstate New York, but her commitment to college counseling hasn’t shown any signs of slowing. Sonja was initially drawn to FCS because she “loves the city,” but what sealed the deal was the “vibe that the staff at FCS really cared about the students… and because there was a consistent emphasis on truly following the mission statement across all of her interviews.” It was promised to Sonja that “the students at FCS were different,” and while she is still getting to find out the numerous ways that that statement rings true, she wanted to “challenge students to consider how and why they wish to be different.” One aspect of Friends’ students that Sonja has already noticed is our “concern for community,” especially shown through the community’s continued efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at school.
When asked about Sonja’s favorite part of her job, she echoed how important “student contact” is. “Being able to see students and advocate for them from beginning to end” is one of the most rewarding facets of college counseling, Sonja informed me. As for the anxiety involved with admissions, Sonja wanted to stress that although “[choosing a college] doesn’t feel short term, it really is. [Students] have to remember that they will grow so much in college, and none of the decisions they make right now have to impact their entire lives.” Even with the above statement mentioned, Sonja is aware that the college process is inherently overwhelming—especially during the recent circumstances—but she is hopeful that some positive changes in the process will arise from the pandemic, such as the removal or minimization of standardized testing in the admissions process. SATs and ACTs aside, Sonja wants students to know: “I am here to help, and especially since I don’t have a full caseload of seniors, I am more available than the other college counselors at this time. College counseling shouldn’t be seen as ‘just another service’ the school provides, but perhaps the most important one.” Please set up an appointment to meet with Sonja in the college counseling office whenever you need any advice, counseling, or essay-writing help, and please feel free to chat with Sonja whenever you see her in the halls. Student interaction is and has been, after all, a part of some of the most rewarding experiences of Sonja’s career.
Both Sonja and I want to extend our well-wishes to the seniors as they send in their applications for Early Action and Early Decision I (and soon for Regular Decision and Early Decision II)! As for the juniors, who are approaching the start of their college process in the coming months, Sonja urges that they “come in for appointments and get to know their counselors! The better we get to know a student, the more personal context we get to give to that student in their letters of recommendation.” College counseling is more than just a “job” to Sonja and the rest of the counselors, as she assured me several times that they all “want to support students and see them [succeed].” Oh, and as a last note to all students, please check your emails(!) at least once a day.