“I don’t believe in just chasing the numbers” – An interview with Dr Rick Cameron

Last month, Dr. Rick Cameron, Director of Higher Ed Advisory, and a leading college and university guidance expert, was in town to mentor our B.D. Somani University Guidance Counsellors. Dr Cameron is a former school headmaster and university administrator, who holds degrees in Counselling Processes from Harvard and in Human Development – Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. This was Dr. Cameron’s first visit to India, and we sat down with him for an informal chat towards the tail end of his two-week trip. We were very taken by his charming and warm personality and most of all, by his mellifluous diction.

Please tell our readers a little about yourself.
RC: I was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, in America’s deep south. Growing up, I was more interested in music and always believed I’d become a professional musician. But my parents encouraged me to study even as I practised my music. When I graduated high school, I applied to universities on the East Coast and was accepted at Harvard. For a country boy from Mississippi, Harvard was a massive culture shock. For the longest time, I believed they’d made a mistake and kept expecting a knock on the door telling me I didn’t belong. But that didn’t happen. And much later, I found out that pretty much every student at Harvard felt precisely the same way – like Harvard had made a mistake! This just goes to show you that when you work hard, whether you’re a student at B.D. Somani or anywhere in the world, you really can earn a world-class education. I used my Harvard degree as a stepping stone to my doctorate in psychology at UPenn. After this, I became a House Dean at UPenn responsible for reviewing hundreds of university applications.

I had always wanted to work internationally – I believe you are better able to appreciate your own culture when you step outside of it, so when the opportunity presented itself, I took it. My first stint was at the International School of Stavanger in Norway, a beautiful campus overlooking the fjords. I stayed there for two years before moving to direct the guidance department at The International School of Brussels. Soon after this, I went independent in my practice. One of the schools I worked with was the Antwerp International School in Belguim, and this is where I met Dr. Geoffrey Fisher. We developed a great working relationship and connected on other projects over the years. When he moved to B.D. Somani, he invited me to work alongside the guidance department and help set up an effective support system for North American and British university applications.

What has your Mumbai experience been thus far?
This is my first time in India. It’s warm and humid, quite like Jackson. I think there are only good restaurants in Mumbai with food to die for. Or at least those are the only restaurants I have been to so far. (laughs)

Tell us about the work you are doing with the B.D. Somani Guidance Department.
I’m quite impressed with everything I’ve seen. These beautiful offices the guidance department is housed in show that the school has prioritised the work that goes on here.

I will be coming over every other month or so and throughout this and future visits, I hope to help the department develop efficiencies. I’m working with them to refine B.D. Somani imaging to universities from school profile to transcripts and communications. Since I come from the university side of the process, I am in a position to share tips that help with this imaging. With transcripts, all universities are interested in is the final grade. Sometimes the university’s perspective is lost in all the stories we want to tell in the transcript. So we’re building an efficient document with a bird’s eye view of the student’s performance on one page. I’ve spent some time laying out a newsletter that will help us share information across the ecosystem efficiently and without having to repeat ourselves in every conversation. It’s quite similar to how the school website has all the information that best represents the school.

I’ve also been meeting with students and their families. During these meetings, I can put my University Dean hat on and give them constructive critiques on what I would have like to have seen communicated. Through these exchanges, I hope to see the community grow itself. Students who work to earn their spots will be able to get into the universities they want with the right kind of support from the Guidance Department.

What are the most common questions you get from parents?
Well, the most common question I get is, What does my child need to do to get into ‘this’ university? And it’s a tricky one to answer. Most of the time, it’s not an answer they were expecting. I think the mistake we make is to look for a recipe for excellence and this doesn’t really exist. Any such recipe, if it did exist, would produce a superficial student. A student who sleeps with a physics book for the sake of a high score rather than an understanding of physics, how it complements engineering or solves a problem. As an admissions representative, I always looked for students who digested their learning and talked intelligently about some of the subjects they were learning. I think students have to be passionate about their learning. They have to approach their studies as something they will do irrespective of whether there is the opportunity to go to university. Where the love for learning is so deep, you do it in spite of the reward.

You’ve met several B.D. Somani students. What is the school getting right? How do we compare to other schools you’ve been associated with?
I think B.D. Somani is doing an excellent job having educators capable of teaching the best and the brightest. When you have these skills available within your faculty, then there are no limits for your students. When you have a culture where people are driven to excel and exceed expectations and when you have that represented in your staff, that certainly trickles down to students too. Some of the SAT results – 800s wherever you look, As and A+s… wow. On paper, these students look good. With the University admissions process – a third is a transcript, a third is standardised tests, and the rest is the stories and the passion that you show in the stories you tell about yourself. So I will say that B.D. Somani has two components spot on. These students are capable of competing with the best – not just here in Mumbai or India but clearly around the world because they’re performing in the top 2 percentile sometimes with these tests.

What advice do you have for students and parents who don’t make it into a university they had their hearts set on?
I’ll say it’s never about just the grades. Harvard, for example, brags about rejecting more straight-A students than they accept. Top universities are accepting some B students with impressive stories. Students who go out and build houses and do amazing volunteer work. This is also why I don’t believe in just chasing the numbers.

It’s a two-year process, and I’m hoping to start the work with students and parents in 11th grade. While it is an excellent idea reach for the stars, it also helps to look at matched schools where you can vastly overachieve the expectations for acceptance. I believe in having intelligent conversations about the odds – chances are you’re going to get some nos, but, you are definitely going to get some yesses. In my experience, families are willing to work with this framework.

What is the role you play as a guidance counsellor with universities?
I view a guidance counsellor’s relationship with the university as that of an advocate for the students. Sometimes this means following up with a university when it would probably be inappropriate for a student to send more documents. As guidance counsellors, we can send as many documents as we want. For example, when a student has worked on an exciting research project after they sent in their application. Usually, the university doesn’t want to hear from the student, but they will accept this information from the guidance counsellor. Part of my role with the B.D. Somani guidance department is to let my colleagues know when it is and isn’t appropriate times to reach out to a University. Not to spam the university – but when a student really has done something that we really want to to share. Our role is also to reach out regularly and let them know about us. Sometimes this involves inviting these universities to our campus. Other times it means getting on the tour they invite you to so you can introduce yourself, the school and the quality of students they can expect. Back and forth until we become a known entity. The process of how we reach the university involves both advocating for the student and deepening the relationship with the admissions department, so they appreciate the type of student we’re producing here.

Are there any cultural considerations that help or hamper students in the application process?
Every university has a strategy of balancing numbers; otherwise, you might have some cultural groups over-represented. As you can imagine, when you have a country like India, where there is a culture of excellence in academics, there is going to be a disproportionate representation in the applications. Most leading universities try to balance their populations on campus, so your learning environment educates you about differences as well. I know I learnt more from my Jewish roommate or at least as much as I did from any physics class. While this can be a disadvantage for a country like India that sends so many applications, as a psychologist I agree with this approach.

You mentioned you wanted to be a musician when you grew up. How do you align those dreams with your present?
I was just speaking about this to a student today – a student interested in the arts. She reminded me of me. I let her know that sometimes we need to transfer the motivations we feel in the pursuit of our passion to things we may be less interested in. It is easy to study what you love. The IB, however, requires you to do a range of things. And this makes sense for a young person because you need to lay a foundation. Sometimes students can find it challenging to find motivation in the things they’re less engaged with. So, I use my example to relate to them. That it was my passion for music and knowing that I could have it for dessert only if I was good at other subjects first. My passion for music has helped me become a far better student rather than someone with a single perspective.

Who were your role models growing up?
First and foremost, my music teacher. Then, Leontyne Price, a soprano from Mississippi – arguably the best soprano of her generation. She is such an enormous talent. To see her come from a similar humble background and feature on opera stages of the world – it is inspiring not just for opera singers but for anybody. That is why we need role models and examples. Even as guidance counsellors.

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