Over Alice Kleeman's 20 years of advising Menlo-Atherton High School students on their plans for college, with her summers abbreviated to the month of July, she said she's been exhausted by her job and sometimes stressed out, but never bored.
"It's that school that I love. It's all about M-A. It's just magical," she said in a conversation with the Almanac about her plans to retire on June 30. Ms. Kleeman has offered to advise her successor for the upcoming school year "on a very part time basis," if asked.
M-A's magic may be in its mix, she said. Students come from families with huge differences in wealth and academic preparation. There are citizenship problems among the undocumented and families that see college as a secondary priority. Ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in advanced-placement and honors classes has improved, but an observer could justifiably say there's a long way to go, Ms. Kleeman said. Self-segregation among students along ethnic lines has lessened, but there's room for improvement, she said.
And notwithstanding wealth and academic preparation, students often have unrealistic dreams and expectations. "We help their expectations become adjusted somewhat," she said. A stellar student resume, for example, is not a "golden ticket" to any particular school. "There are legions of people with these qualifications," Ms. Kleeman said. "There isn't room at Harvard for everybody who's amazing."
"I think trying to serve all these students is a lofty goal," she said. "It's incredibly challenging. We're just constantly trying to do a better job and to serve kids better. ... Nobody around here sits back and says, 'That's good enough.'"
A well-educated mom
Speaking of Harvard University, that is Ms. Kleeman's alma mater -- a biographical note not widely known, she said. She applied to eight universities, including Smith, Wellesley, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin. "I would have happily, happily gone to any one," she said. Harvard wasn't her first choice. She stopped by for an interview on her way to another college, she said.
Her focuses in college were Romance languages, specifically French and Portuguese, and literature. She picked up Spanish later by listening to a Spanish-language station on her car radio for three years, she said.
As for Harvard, "I was the least intellectual person that I'd met there in four years," she said. "My career goal, from forever, was to be a mom." She said she chose Harvard because she didn't think it would hurt to be a well-educated mom.
She went on to raise three children while working at home. A "super fast" typist, she earned an income by transcribing interviews, a sideline that continues to this day, she said. It's interesting work, it pays well and she can set her own schedule, she said.
Of her children, all three teach in the Menlo Park City School District and two are married to teachers. At Thanksgiving, they talk about their students and education. "We're probably really boring," she said.
Ms. Kleeman is 64 and now situated so she no longer has to work full time, but she will be volunteering somehow. "I'm not going to sit around and do nothing," she said. "Well maybe for a month. I'd like to see what it feels like to wake up in the morning and not have an enormous agenda."
'Almost like triage'
In the lives of her seniors, Ms. Kleeman frequently represented another adult, an extension of parenting, she said.
The most demanding aspect of her job was volume. As M-A's lone college adviser, her office was a convergence point for 450 seniors every year. Not all of them stopped by, but 14-hour days were common, she said. If it wasn't an essay to review, it was a college application.
"It's just overwhelming," she said. "It was almost like triage. Every day is so different and so crazy. ... There are all kinds of things that upset the apple cart."
She established a tradition of a Sunday email to remind seniors of what they should be thinking about in the upcoming week. If six or seven seniors asked a particular question in the previous week, she would include it and answer it in the email.
It was strategic. Communicate with the seniors as a group, answering some questions ahead of time, so as to make time for higher quality exchanges when speaking person-to-person.
Her job required her to stay on top of changes to processes for applying to college. The critical issues: changes at the University of California and California State University systems, financial aid, testing, and changes to "common" applications -- online applications that hundreds of colleges now accept. The days of folding, stamping and mailing applications are mostly gone, she said.
She visited hundreds of campuses, paid for by the universities and usually in early December, a slow period for her. She typically spent several days there talking with professors and students and going on tours. "I don't think you could do this job without (those visits)," she said.
When she considered a particular student's plans and recommended a college as potentially a good fit, parents may turn around and book a flight to that campus. "That's a huge responsibility that requires a lot of trust and credibility," she said. "I take it very seriously."
Parents ran the gamut in terms of their engagement. Some were uninvolved, so she spent her time vigorously encouraging them to get involved. Others she had to ask to step back and let the student handle the issue. She chose her words carefully.
She has two bits of advice that apply across the board: Always apply for financial aid, and arrange your high school experience with an eye to balance and health.
Don't take too many AP or honors classes simultaneously, and never ask the question, "Will this look good to a college?" she said. "Incredibly, you'll have lots of great college options."