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OCI Counselors Provide Guidance and Friendship

Intervention counselors Nashwa Emam, Jasdeep Malhi, and Jessie Levin get together

Life is full of challenges in itself, and adding high school to the mix can make it become even more difficult. That’s why, here at Berkeley High School (BHS), students have access to multiple intervention and academic counselors. Though academic counselors are qualified and certainly an option of someone for students to turn to if they ever feel the need to talk, it is the intervention counselors who have that as part of their job description. The intervention counselors at BHS, Nashwa Emam, Jessie Levin, and Jasdeep Malhi are all on campus to help students with what they feel they need. Seeing as BHS is composed of so many unique individuals facing multifarious realities and varying challenges, the intervention counselors at BHS help students work through, or at least talk about, all sorts of problems.

From academic struggles, to couples therapy, to social and emotional assistance, the BHS intervention counselors do it all. The question is: what prompted them to come back to high school and pursue this career path?

In Emam’s case, she “had a lot of friends that ended up in jail, dead, in gangs, or just took all of the wrong paths.” She had been a very high achieving student. Looking back, she realizes that was only so no one would know what was going on in her personal life. She used her grades and good citizenship as a “cloak” to hide the fact that not everything was well in her life. After getting her masters in sociology and interning at multiple organizations, she realized that she wanted to be doing something productive to benefit her community. This led her to eight years of work in foster care, with young, teenage mothers and their children. She was there as a sort of therapist, to talk through everything that was going on in the lives of the young women and offer, again, a safe space to share and discuss their lives and personal situations. Then, about three years ago, she was hired as BHS’s second intervention counselor.

Malhi had already been working here for some time, but, considering the great multitude of people that make up the BHS student body, it was clear that another person was needed for the job.

Without the proper resources, there is no way BHS can offer students the assistance they may need to be in a place where they can properly focus on their academic studies and personal growth, which is BHS’s ultimate goal for students. Even now, it is clear the ratio between students and counselors is very disproportionate.

With only three intervention counselors, who each have an assigned case load of approximately 90 students, and a total student body of over 3000, BHS is in need of more counselors. Though they try to help in every way possible, such as by taking drop-in appointments when they can, there is no way for the BHS intervention counselors to help every single student who might need them. All the same, they continue to try, keeping the students’ best interests in mind.

Similarly to Emam, Levin sees the counseling options at BHS, however limited they may be, as ones she wishes she had access to in her high school years. A bright and vivacious person, Levin earned a degree in sociology. Thereafter, she worked with the homeless citizens of Chicago and, like Emam, with those in the foster care system. She didn’t follow those career paths for quite as long as Emam though, coming back to California instead.

Last year was Levin’s first year at BHS, as an intern. When the internship came to an end, the position as the third intervention counselor opened up.

Though she hadn’t originally planned on working with people of an adolescent age, Levin decided to take the job, after much urging from Malhi and Emam, whom she had come to be friends with through her year as an intern.

Levin said she took the job because she loves BHS and the people who make up the student body. Additionally, she feels that working with students gives her the ability to better understand people.

At her previous jobs, she would only be able to see “a little glimpse” of the person who she was working with. However, her new job as a BHS intervention counselor provides the opportunity to see and interact with people on a deeper, more meaningful level where she feels she can make a more tangible difference in their lives. “Schools feel like places where you can see the whole person,” said Levin. Her job as an intervention counselor gives her the ability to get to know who a student really is. In such a large community, that is something really special.

That said, being an intervention counselor is no easy task. As Levin said, “teenagers go through a lot of really hard stuff … and sometimes, we hear these things all day and it takes a toll on us emotionally.”

To work though everything they feel and hear from students, all three intervention counselors discuss things with each other. Levin finds this practice, along with self-care, helps her to process some of the difficult and intense situations BHS students go through. Even with these practices, it still can be tough emotionally, according to Levin. “It can get really sad sometimes, just knowing people are going through some really hard times,” she said.

Levin also elaborated on the reasons that students at BHS in particular may be in need for intervention counselors. “Berkeley High is so big and I think that sometimes students feel a little lost here. And I think having an adult who’s a safe person to talk to is super helpful. Even if I don’t have a solution to a problem, I try to help kids work through it … or even just having someone to talk to is super helpful,” said Levin.

Her office, as well as those of any of the other two intervention counselors, is meant to be a safe space for students to go to when they need it. “Otherwise, they might just be wandering around with not much support and not knowing that there’s somebody who knows and can hear what they’re going through,” said Levin.