At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, Sequoyah began a search for a new high school counselor after calls from high school alumni for the hiring of a full-time on-site counselor to support the wellbeing of the student body. Former Human Development instructor, Anais Plasketes, who helped oversee the search and selection process, explained that “we were looking for someone who had experience working with high school students, [someone who] has access to resources outside of campus, has had clinical experience, and [has had] experience teaching Human Development.” According to Plasketes, it was important to find someone “who really demonstrated a desire to form meaningful relationships with students. Someone who is approachable, compassionate, and non-judgmental about issues that come up within our community.” Through a series of interviews with potential candidates, the administration selected Yvonne Chiu Hays as the high school’s new Director of Counseling and Student Wellness, who began her new role in early December, 2020. What follows is The Barefoot Times’s interview with Chiu Hays.
Q: What piqued your interest in Sequoyah?
A: Its progressiveness for one, but its mission and habits of mind for a couple of others. They align with my own ideals and philosophy. Lifelong learning and being a good human are critical components to a purposeful and satisfying life, and I truly believe the way that Sequoyah and its faculty are shaping the lives of young people will cultivate those traits.
Q: What kind of counselor work have you done in the past?
A: I’ve worked in a lot of places and in a lot of different settings. I’ve worked in a hospital setting, in public schools, and in independent schools like Sequoyah. I’ve worked with populations in middle/junior high school, high school, and college. I’ve worked in Philadelphia, in Atlanta, and in the greater Los Angeles area.
Q: What made you want to be a counselor?
A: This is actually a question I reflect on periodically throughout my life and career. It’s important to always ask yourself what are my values and what are my responsibilities, if any, to my community and to make the world a better place; this is not so much as a measurement of my worth, but rather to ask, “Is this the life I want to lead?” But to answer your question, I think I was always drawn to counseling. In my youth, I found it annoying – only at first – that my younger relatives were always trying to bring me their problems. Then it was my friends. I realized it was not so much that I could solve any of their problems but it was because I loved advocating for others. The word they used over and over again was “passionate,” and so I went into journalism. (I was very much a social activist at my core, easily provoked to right a wrong or to bring equity and justice where I saw them lacking.) In my work as a journalist, I had to visit with people sometimes at the depths of their despair, at the height of their anger, or celebrating their highest moments. The commonality I found in all those situations was the power of deep listening and seeing the other person. It transformed them by bringing healing, closure, or a sense of accomplishment. This realization catalyzed me into counseling and psychology because I believed – again – I could affect positive social change if I could learn to do this well. At first I started with really young children. I did a lot of research in early childhood education programs such as Head Start, and worked with some of the best faculty in that area at the University of Pennsylvania and the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. I was also deeply influenced by the sociologists at Princeton University, too. At that point, I thought I might jump into social work because quite frankly I was frustrated. It seemed to me there was a huge gulf between academia and practice and I wanted to contribute to the clinical delivery of what we knew. I also was a little burned out in the lab and only testing theories on people. With only a semester or two of fieldwork and no formal counseling experience, I obtained a position at a hospital that contracted with the Philadelphia School District to provide psychological care to its students. That job launched me into counseling, and I earned my school counseling credential along the way. I think this underscores the power of being young and passionate – adults are persuaded by that and will take a chance on you.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish at Sequoyah?
A: I would like to help the students of Sequoyah and, more broadly, its community. I would like to be a resource, a support, an advocate, a mentor, a friend, or simply a positive presence. The high school is growing and our society is much more complicated; so it seems sensible for the school to consider dedicating exclusive resources to supporting the emotional and social development of its students in addition to their cognitive growth because the philosophy of this place is to nurture the heart and honor the dignity of students’ existence, in addition to their minds.
Q: What is the first issue you plan to focus on?
A: That mandate has been set for me but perhaps mandate is too strong a word. I think our teachers are working extremely hard, and never more so than now because of the shift to online learning. Their talents and their dedication to the craft of teaching need to be unburdened by the other responsibilities of being the good human beings they are. In other words, I am to help them manage the non-academic challenges their students are confronting so when they are all in the “classroom,” each can focus on the exchange of knowledge and skills relevant to that course. However, I do have aspirations beyond that, to provide programs that empower and enrich the lives of everyone. Maybe we can even get our facility to one day offer fresh juices during breaks, a crystal/salt room, or even oxygen therapy – just kidding, or maybe not. I do want the students to dream with me and help me make this part of what makes Sequoyah special.
Q: How does working from home affect your job?
A: Everything and nothing all in the same breath. Human connection is the same. We are social animals and we need it, seek it out, and devote many resources to it. But obviously how we experience that, the way it has to be made, and the ritual of building it are so very different. I struggle with it like everyone else. I get tired, I don’t like looking at people two dimensionally, missing all the important non-verbal language being conveyed. Sometimes I even feel like this whole thing is surreal. That maybe the people on the other side aren’t even real and someone put me in “The Truman Show,” and I don’t even realize it. But, of course, then I lean on my own training. I see this as an opportunity and think how can I embrace it, make the most of it.
Q: Anais met with many students about a lot of their personal issues; how do you plan to pick up where they left off?
A: Anais laid a great foundation, and Emily and Viviana connected me with students whom they felt needed the greatest support. I continue to reach out to Anais periodically about students and the human development course curriculum to ensure a smooth transition to my new role.. However, I think giving students an opportunity to have a fresh start also is beneficial. My Zroom is open for any student to sign up to meet with me. Some students are invited to chat with me because there are indicators that something may be wrong. As a school, we want to be as proactive and as preventative as possible. I want to make Sequoyah a great place and experience for all who are part of it.
To connect with Yvonne, students are encouraged to use the link that can be found on the family portal.