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DCE Magazine

Alumni Spotlight: Lighting the Pathway to College

Fall 2020

A desire to help families find the right college fit inspired this recent DCE graduate and Alumni Achievement Award-winner to start her own consulting business.

“…my favorite part was getting to know the other students and the instructors. The instructors had all been consultants for many years and had a wealth of information, which they were very willing to share.” Jill Athenour

Jill Athenour developed a passion for higher education when she was a college admission rep back in the ‘90s, working her way up to Director of Marketing and Admissions. She left to start a training and development company but decided to switch back to academia when her two children were old enough to start exploring their college options.

Jill was shocked at how much had changed — the pressure, competition and skyrocketing tuition were eye-opening to say the least. The experience motivated her to get back into college admissions counseling and soon afterward earn an Independent Educational Consultant certificate from UCI, one of the few university programs that prepares participants to build their own business.

I was in the consulting business a full year before I started the UCI program,” Jill said. I had been reading everything I could get my hands on, attending conferences and webinars, and touring colleges. Somewhere along the way I learned of the UCI program, but by then I wasn’t sure if it would be worthwhile because I had some pretty good momentum going. It proved to be very worthwhile! I am a huge believer in continuing education, and I felt I owed it to my students and families to make sure I was doing the best job I could.”

A desire to help families navigate the often-overwhelming maze of college applications, essays and admissions to find the right academic fit set Jill on a path to launch her Head to College consulting business, all while continuing to learn and burnish her considerable credentials.

I couldn’t believe how much the college admissions world had changed and how complicated the process had become,” Jill said. I wanted to work with families and help them shift their thinking from ‘getting in’ to ‘fitting in.’ There are plenty of colleges for every student. It’s a matter of finding the ones that are a good match academically, socially, and now more than ever, financially.”

The Independent Educational Consultant program took Head to College to the next level, and Jill was recently presented an Alumni Achievement Award in recognition of her overall contributions and accomplishments. In addition to her DCE certificate, she’s a Certified Educational Planner (CEP) and has a master’s in counseling.

Jill was kind enough to field some questions from her home high in the mountains in Evergreen, Colorado, where she lives with her husband of 30 years and awesome” dog (who often makes cameos on her Zoom meetings).

First off, tell me about your business. How does the counseling process work?

I love to learn about each student’s strengths and interests, then we explore what the student is looking for in a college, their hopes and dreams. I get to know them and they get to know themselves really well! From there we develop a list of colleges that meet their needs inside and outside of the classroom, where they can be happy and successful. I also help students create applications and essays that highlight their strengths and accomplishments and express who they are in a confident and authentic way. Students often don’t realize how unique and special they are and it’s fun and rewarding to help them see that.

How did the UCI program benefit Head to College?

The program is very comprehensive and covers key topics all college consultants should know, all the stages of the college planning process — financial aid, college resources, and best practices and ethics. It also includes courses that are designed to help consultants develop and build a business. Being self-employed is not for everybody and it’s important to know what it takes going into it. Getting my certificate was an important step in that direction. This industry, like many others, is not regulated and anyone can hang a shingle. It’s up to each of us to learn as much as we can, and the UCI program was the beginning of that for me.

What was the best part of taking the program?

I loved that the program was online and I could do the work at times that were best for me, but by far my favorite part was getting to know the other students and the instructors. The instructors had all been consultants for many years and had a wealth of information, which they were very willing to share. My peers were open to ideas and very supportive of one another. I see some of those people at conferences now and feel they are part of my tribe.

Winning an Alumni Achievement Award must have really validated all that you’ve accomplished so far.

I was surprised and humbled to receive it. And I’m grateful to UCI because I quickly found out there is always more to learn. I care deeply about this industry and the families we serve, and to do our jobs well we have to continually be staying up on current trends in college admissions — the changes come fast and furious. I urge anyone who is thinking about going into this business to get the UCI certificate, and then to continue their education along the way. Join professional associations, go to conferences, visit colleges.

Which associations have you joined?

I’m currently a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) as well as the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). I have also been a member of the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) since 2015, and this year I was elected to their Board of Directors as Standards and Ethics Chair. I’m responsible for providing professional development, advancing ethical standards of conduct, and promoting equity and access to higher education for all students.

You’re obviously very devoted to your calling. What’s the key to your success?

I take a limited number of students so I’m able to give them more personalized attention than a high school counselor has time to provide. The transition from high school to college is an important part of a young person’s life, and I get to be a part of that journey. The relationships that develop with my students and parents are what make it all worthwhile for me.

Learn more about the Independent Educational Consultant program.