Susanna Campbell ’23 interviewed new Director of University and College Counseling Ms. Johanna Fishbein, who brings a great deal of experience and enthusiasm to TASIS and strives to empower all students to take control of their own college planning process.
Can you please tell me about your background and career in education prior to your arrival at TASIS this fall?
I went to a public high school in the US outside Boston, in a suburb called Sharon, where actually [TASIS High School Academic Dean] Dr. Abisi used to teach. He taught there for one year, so that’s a fun fact.
After graduating from Sharon High School, I went to George Washington University in Washington, DC. I picked GW because I have a twin brother, and they offered us half price for the second tuition if we both went there, so it made a lot of sense for our family financially. They have coed dorms at GW, and they assigned us two rooms right next to each other. I had wanted to go to college to be independent, but it ended up being great because now we have all the same friends from college.
I had no idea what I wanted to study when I got to GW. It’s a liberal arts school, so I ended up majoring in Criminal Justice and Psychology. Criminal Justice was basically sociology, and I picked it because I thought forensic science was really cool and that you could combine forensic science with psychology. But I really had no direction. When senior year rolled around, I had to get a job, so I applied to a program called the New York City Teaching Fellows. It's kind of like Teach for America, but only in New York. I chose that program because I wanted to be in New York City public schools, and I ended up being a full-time teacher in a middle school for two years. And then at night, I went and got my master's degree in Education for free. That was how the program worked.
After that, I went to work at a charter school in New York City for a year. And then I was accepted to a year-long fellowship in Greece, where I was a teaching fellow at the Hellenic-American Education Foundation in Athens. It was a great experience and made me believe that international education is amazing, but after a year I had to return home because my visa was up. I then got a job in international student admissions because I knew I wanted to be in education, but I didn't want to teach anymore. I worked at Barnard College, where I was the director of their summer program.
I continued at Barnard but moved on to a new role, Coordinator of International Recruitment, and handled all of their international applicants at the time. It was a great job. I got to travel to international schools all over the world, including TASIS. I visited TASIS with a representative from Colorado College, and we met students in De Nobili. It was so fun!
I remember coming to TASIS and thinking, “That school, I want to work there someday.” I worked at Barnard for three years in total, and then I wanted to get back to the high school side. I moved to Belgium and took a job at the International School of Brussels as their Director of College Counseling.
After three years in Brussels, I moved to Singapore to become, as they call it, the University Advisor for United World College of South East Asia (Dover Campus). And then I became their Head of University Advising as well. I was in Singapore for six years and met my husband there, and we also got our dog there.
A job opened up at TASIS, which I'd been watching for years because I always knew I wanted to come back after that one visit. I have family near here, I love the school, and I love the students. So I applied last year and feel so fortunate to have gotten the job!
The approach of our whole department is to make sure students take ownership of the process and feel really empowered.
How have you learned to navigate the world of international admissions?
International admissions is a very small world—we kind of all know each other. There are some professional organizations I volunteered with to get to know the industry a little better. It's been nice because I've gotten to do a lot of volunteer work with the International Association for College Admission Counseling. I've learned about the ethics of admissions, and I also sat on an advisory board for the College Board, which administers the SAT. Now I sit on an advisory board for the common application. It's really fun because I love nerding out about higher education.
The crazy thing about this field, and I'm sure you see this, is that it's always changing. Just within the past week, for example, the College Board decided to cancel SAT subject tests. What does that mean? How will it affect our students? Challenges like this make the job really exciting and interesting. And it's never boring.
How would you describe your approach to college counseling?
The approach of our whole department is to make sure students take ownership of the process and feel really empowered. We know there's a lot of anxiety around the process and a lot of unknowns, and we want students to feel excited about the possibilities in front of them. We want them to take charge of their future. And so my philosophy is that it should be a student-led process, and that we are here as college counselors to support and cheer them on and help them be the strongest applicants they can be.
Mr. Birk, who was the Director of University and College Counseling at TASIS for many years and agreed to stay on for one more year to help me transition to this new role, always talks about how the student is the athlete and we're here to coach them and make sure they're practicing and getting in the best position to be successful. And Mr. Birk set up this entire program. Our Headmaster, Mr. Nikoloff, refers to him as the architect of college counseling at TASIS, which is true. It's been really fun to come into a program that’s so student-centered because that's what college counseling should be.
Ms. Fishbein walks a student through a mock interview in advance of his university meeting.
What are some of the longer-term goals you have for your department?
I think we need to make sure that as college counselors we’re as informed as possible about all of the options available to our students because it's so hard to stay on top of all the amazing programs that are out there. A goal for us is to make sure we're constantly sharing the most up-to-date information with our students and their families.
I would love to see students feeling really excited to come into the College Counseling Office. Post-Covid I would love this to be a place students come to just to hang out or do their college research. I don't want college research or college applications to feel like a chore. I want it to be something students are excited to do, and I think that's a goal for our whole department.
Another goal is to keep up our great reputation with the universities so that universities around the world know TASIS, know our students, and know our counselors. We need to also make sure that our students continue to always be ethical in their applications and that the transparency and honesty continues.
But really for me, the biggest thing is that our students are more excited than anxious when it comes to college planning. We just want students to always think along the lines of, “Okay, there'll be a university for me, and we're going to find them together.” And that's what we'll do. Because the last two years of high school should be an amazing time in a student’s life, and we don't want the anxiety of college planning to overshadow our students’ enjoyment of high school. That’s important to me.
Even though you've only been here for a short time, I wanted to know how you think college admissions officers regard candidates from TASIS. And do you think the reputation differs in different parts of the world?
That's a good question. I can speak to the reputation in the US first. I know every university representative we talk to wants to come visit because they think TASIS is the most beautiful school in the world. So the reputation is that TASIS has a beautiful campus and wonderful students. I think our reputation is really, really strong—especially as universities see that TASIS students are very engaged but also have balance. And I think they notice that our students are very independent and very good at taking care of each other, which is really, really nice.
In Europe, some of the universities are less interested in the personalities of our students and more interested in their academic preparation. They see TASIS as a place that really prepares students very well and like that our students can pick different pathways to success. It’s a strength that we offer the IB Diploma, AP courses, and amazing art, service, and travel programs. Students can go in many different directions.
In general, I would say that TASIS has a really good reputation around the world. Our students are in a great position to go where they want to go. And it’s really cool that they are going all over the place. Students in the Class of 2020 are now going to university in 17 different countries.
I've worked in many different schools, and I love the students at TASIS because while I think academics are important—and students here do really try hard in the classroom—I can see that TASIS students also have great balance.
That leads perfectly into my next question. Is it exciting that you have students wanting to apply all over the world, or do you see it as, “Oh, this is a tougher job for me to try to figure out connections to all these different places?”
It's definitely more exciting. I love it. This is why we work in international education. Because if you were to work at a high school in the US, it wouldn’t be uncommon for all your students to go to a university in the US, whereas here we have students going all over and it's super fun. I think for students, sometimes it can be a little bit of a blessing and a curse. I just discussed this with my college support class. It is awesome to have all this choice, and it's something that comes with being at an international school like TASIS. You really have the entire world in front of you to pick from, but then it does mean you have more choice, which sometimes can be difficult for students. And sometimes I think it's hard for students to think, “Okay, I'm only going to apply to this one country.” But actually in many schools, that's how it would be—you would just be looking at one country.
Overall, I think it’s definitely a good thing to have so many choices. But sometimes it's hard at the beginning because students feel like, “Wait, but should I try this? Or should I try that?” And so a big part of our job is to help students narrow their focus as they get older, and a lot of this work intensifies in grade 11. That's when we start saying to students, “Okay, we know you want all of these things. Let's start by focusing on a few.”
That's great. For myself, I'd always thought, “Oh, I'm going to college in America.” And then I came here this fall, and now I'm starting to think I’ll want to apply to schools in England, Germany, and possibly some other places.
So you can see how that happens to TASIS students. When I went to high school, I applied to three universities because that's what you did, you went to school either in your state or nearby. It never even occurred to me that you could go to university outside your home country. So I think it's a very exciting thing, even if it is sometimes hard.
What do you like most about working at TASIS so far?
I love TASIS students. I've worked in many different schools, and I love the students at TASIS because while I think academics are important—and students here do really try hard in the classroom—I can see that TASIS students also have great balance. They are social and kind to each other. They are having fun as high school students, and their Global Service Program is so interesting, and the students are so engaged with it. I love that they come into my office and are like, “We'll talk about college, but first I have to tell you what happened this weekend.” They are just really interesting kids—very personable, very outgoing, and with wonderful personalities—and no two students are the same. I enjoy the students here so much.
Ms. Fishbein and her team led a panel discussion at the “Road to College” luncheon back in September.
In what ways has the pandemic affected college counseling for you?
I think it's weird to have to meet students with a mask on. I know everyone is feeling that right now. And one of the great things about college counseling is that you sometimes get to meet with students and their families—there have been many times when I’ve had a whole family, including siblings, in my office—so moving all of that to a virtual platform has been different. But in some ways, it's made it a lot more accessible, in that a boarding student’s parents can join a meeting just as easily as someone whose parents live in Lugano. That's quite nice, I think.
All of our programming now is also virtual. We used to be able to do really engaging presentations, and I like to be interactive. We're trying to do that virtually, but it's just not quite as interesting.
I think that for families and students, the pandemic has affected what they're looking for in universities. Some students don't want to go as far. I think some students are thinking, “Is this country going to be safe or not?” It brings up a whole different layer of your college request list. I think helping families navigate that is a new challenge, but it's certainly part of our job. It's just a new layer.
I think the best advice I can give is to keep an open mind.
What is one rumor or myth about the college admissions process that you want to debunk?
Oh, I have so many!
The TASIS rumor that I keep hearing, and it might be because we're currently working on grade 10 course selection, is that if you want to go to school in the US, you should only take AP courses and shouldn’t pursue an IB Diploma. The reality is that the IB curriculum is extremely well-known in the US and is not just a European curriculum. You really can’t go wrong with either program—AP or IB—if you want to study in the US. They're both considered honors-level courses by US universities.
Another myth I’ve heard is that universities won't take more than one student from TASIS. And that's simply not true. Universities will admit as many students as they have space for or as they want. There's certainly no rule stating that if one TASIS student gets into a school, no one else should apply there!
There's another myth that if a school is test-optional, as some universities in the US now are for the SAT or ACT, students should submit one anyway because it will make them a stronger applicant. That's completely untrue, and the universities have actually shared the data with us to prove that. When they look at who's admitted and who's not, there's no difference between those who submitted testing and those who did not. They shared that this year because that rumor is still out there.
There are lots of other myths, but I’m curious about what you hear as a student. Have you heard other rumors?
Well, I hear all the time that if you go into the IB, you will be having emotional stress basically 24/7. Is it really as difficult as many students make it seem?
Well, the IB Diploma program is designed in a way that gives you, when you choose your subjects, the ability to take some Higher Level (HL) and some Standard Level (SL) courses. I think when students are thinking of their own strengths as they develop their course load—rather than what they think someone else needs—the IB is super doable.
You just have to be organized, and you can't fall behind. It's really an awesome program. It prepares you extremely well for university—the thinking skills you gain and the writing skills you develop—and does not need to be anxiety producing. But I think sometimes students put themselves in a position where maybe they're either not taking the right classes or they're not keeping up with the work, and then it becomes harder. But there are plenty of students in grade 12 who are doing great. And we have a wonderful IB Coordinator, Ms. Kathy Anderson, who supports students throughout the program.
What's one piece of advice you'd like to give TASIS students with regard to the college planning process?
I think the best advice I can give is to keep an open mind. When it comes to universities, we tend to have certain names in mind because of our families, our background, or the media, but we don't always stop to think, “Is it really the best choice for me?”
We talk a lot about fit. What is the best place for each student to really thrive—not simply survive, but really enjoy themselves and find that balance between what they want academically, what they want socially, and what they ultimately want in terms of employment. It is best to take any preconceived notions and throw them out, staying as open-minded as possible when starting the process.
That's my big advice. At TASIS, we have a very extensive college counseling program. We want students to use us, to be meeting with us, and to come to us with questions or rumors. That's what we're here for. I hope we're approachable, and I hope students will take advantage of us being here.