During almost 40 years in education, Mary True has amassed her share of certifications, including principal credentials.
“I thought maybe I’d go into administration,” she recalled. “But that just wasn’t in the cards for me. The interviews didn’t go well for whatever reason.
“That was hard. But now I’m very grateful I didn’t take that path.”
Instead, True’s path took her to North Central High School, where her upbeat attitude and broad range of experiences made her a natural fit for her current job as college and career readiness counselor.
“It can be really disappointing for students when they don’t get accepted by their top college choice,” she said. “But we always have them apply to a pretty solid second school, plus a fallback option. So if one doesn’t work out, they still can feel good about themselves.”
During a recent interview, True discussed fried chicken, FAFSA applications and full-ride scholarships.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
True: In Seattle. I went to Federal Way High School.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class?
True: I loved biology – the hands-on nature of it.
S-R: What career did you aspire to?
True: I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
S-R: Do you remember meeting with counselors in high school?
True: Not really. When I was in school, you only went to the counselor when you were in trouble. And because my father was a college professor and my mother was a college librarian, they were the ones who said, “You’re going to college.”
S-R: What was your first real job?
True: When I was 16, I worked the front counter at a Kentucky Fried Chicken until 2 in the morning. On school nights!
S-R: Did you go home smelling of chicken?
True: Oh, terrible. And grease underneath my fingernails.
S-R: What brought you to Spokane?
True: My father got a job teaching the DECA (formerly Distributive Education Clubs of America) program at Spokane Falls, so the day after I graduated from high school, we moved here.
S-R: What college did you attend?
True: I started out at Eastern, then dropped out, went down to Arizona, got engaged, got unengaged, came back, and went to Spokane Falls. That’s when I got really involved with DECA and ended up majoring in marketing and business when I returned to Eastern.
S-R: How long have you been at North Central?
True: I first taught here while a student at Eastern – six periods of typing, 120 manual typewriters, 15-foot-high ceilings. When I graduated, I was hired here full time. But a year later, my husband was transferred to Walla Walla, and I taught there for two years.
S-R: When did you return to Spokane?
True: In 1982. I taught at Spokane Falls, Spokane Public Schools’ Multi-Adolescent Program and substituted in School District 82 – all at the same time – before going to Havermale alternative high school in 1995, where I taught business and marketing, and helped students with independent projects. I loved that job. When Havermale closed in 2015, I was reassigned to North Central as the college and career readiness counselor. As sad as it was leaving alternative education, I feel so lucky. The last four years have been great.
S-R: How has high school culture changed since you were a student?
True: The range of support we give students today is huge – everything from health and medical care to funding to housing assistance. And schools have lots of outside resources – especially at North Central, because we have such a high percentage of low-income households.
S-R: Does your current job require any special certification?
True: The district wants you to at least have a master’s degree in teaching. And they really prefer someone who – I probably shouldn’t say this – is older and has a broad range of experience, so they understand the college-going culture.
S-R: Have you had mentors?
True: Several. Georgialee Smithpeters was my first district director, and she got me on every committee I needed to get onto in business. Another was Margaret Ross at Spokane Falls, who mentored several of us young women when I was about 19. One day she took us to lunch and as she introduced us to someone; she looked at me and said, “Mary, you show him your business card.” I said, “I don’t have a business card.” And right in front of everyone, she said, “Mary, going without a business card is like walking around without underwear.” Now I have three different business cards.
S-R: What are your responsibilities as a college and career counselor?
True: My primary job is making sure all of the seniors complete the High School and Beyond Plan. That consists of filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), putting together a résumé, preparing a budget for when they live independently and any navigation help they need getting into college. I do a lot of SAT test fee waivers, because of the low-income nature of the school.
S-R: Did any skills you learned at Kentucky Fried Chicken or Havermale transfer to this job?
True: That first job taught me how to work with customers. And Havermale taught me to consider where students are coming from. I was raised middle class, so working at an alternative school really opened my eyes and gave me compassion for the students.
S-R: What advice would you offer about communicating with students?
True: The biggest thing is to be honest and don’t sugarcoat anything.
S-R: Do students tend to underestimate their options, or overestimate them?
True: We get both. And whatever their goal, we assist them with that. But one thing I do is show them how competitive some colleges are. So when a student comes to me and says, “I want to attend the University of Washington and become a doctor,” I let them know what SAT scores and GPA it takes to get in.
S-R: Do some students beat the statistical odds?
True: They do. We have between 20 and 25 students a year accepted at Ivy League and other high-achieving schools. One way students can rise above their GPA numbers is to write a really good essay explaining why they got off to a rough start their first year but turned things around.
S-R: Whose expectations are higher – yours or the students’?
True: I think mine are higher, because about 30 percent of our students end up not going to college when they could. Students with great grades but fairly low income often qualify for full-tuition scholarships. I’ll reach out to those and say, “I think you’re college material, and I’d love to help you apply.”
S-R: How many college recruiters do you work with?
True: About 50.
S-R: What are they looking for?
True: They definitely like the 1 percent of the 1 percent – those national scholars. But generally, they’re looking for well-rounded students whose résumés demonstrate leadership, community service and evidence of strong communication skills.
S-R: What factors influence which schools students apply to?
True: Of course, money is a factor. So is proximity to Spokane. Some students want to stay here, while others just want to get away. A good football team is another plus.
S-R: How about students who have no interest in college?
True: We work with them, too. College is really important for the right kids, but we also need skilled tradespeople. Opportunities in the trades are huge right now, and you end up with little or no student debt. So if kids are interested in that, we steer them toward apprenticeship programs.
S-R: What mistakes do students make as they prepare to take the next step toward a career?
True: Not filling out all the forms sent to their email. Schools and the government communicate back and forth, and if something is missing, it creates a back-and-forth pingpong effect.
S-R: How about parents?
True: Some don’t see the benefit of filling out the FAFSA, and as a result, their kids decide not to go to college because they’re worried about the cost.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for your job?
True: Someone who has been around the block and worked with students in other capacities.
S-R: What’s a typical workday for you?
True: When I get here at 7:30, kids are waiting at the door. I’m also busy during lunchtime and after school. I’m typically here until 3:30.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
True: Connecting with students. I have another job – I’m also a chaplain at Unity at 29th and Bernard – and in that capacity I’ve performed about 25 weddings for former students.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at email@example.com.
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