Theresa Urist: A passion for education | Aga Khan Academies

Theresa Urist: A passion for education

An Interview with Theresa Urist, Global Director of University Counselling at the Aga Khan Academies

Theresa Urist has always loved to learn. Growing up in a rural community in New York state, where many of her classmates did not go on to college, her thirst for education led her to Stanford, where she earned a B.A. with Honours in American Studies and tutored high school students in her spare time. She realised that she loved teaching as much as she loved to learn, so she secured a spot in the Master of Education programme at Harvard University before becoming a high school teacher and, later, a university counsellor.

After more than two decades as a counsellor in the United States, where she directed college counselling at three different schools, Theresa’s desire to support students from poor communities led her to the Aga Khan Academies, where she became the Global Director of University Counselling in 2015. Her role is essential to the mission of the Academies, which aim to produce effective, ethical leaders with the skills and knowledge to support positive development in their societies. As the networks’ university expert, she coordinates the university counselling process so that the students are admitted to and select universities where they will flourish in their chosen fields.

Aga Khan Academies writer Alia Dharssi sat down for a conversation with Theresa about her passion for education, her work at the Academies and what makes her tick. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Alia: Can you tell me about yourself and how you wound up becoming a university counsellor? 

Theresa: I was born and raised in a very small town on Long Island in New York State. I wanted to be a journalist as a kid and wound up writing for my college daily newspaper, where I had a 1am news deadline. It was crazy and frenetic. I realised that’s not what I wanted to do, but I had also begun tutoring at a nearby school and I really, really loved working with the students. That experience put me in the direction of education. I earned a Masters of Education from Harvard and became an English and history teacher. In 1995, I answered the call to become an interviewer for Harvard undergraduate admissions. I loved talking to students about their future plans and goals during the interviews, so I put the pieces together and entered the field of university counselling.

Alia: What makes you passionate about education? 

Theresa: The way I see it, education is the key to social mobility. When students – like the ones on full financial aid at the Academies who are selected through our talent identification programme – become educated, it’s something that doesn’t just benefit them. It benefits their family and their community and has a ripple effect. I see it as a way that entire communities can get themselves out of poverty in one generation. Education is the most concentrated way you can effect lasting social change. That’s what gets me up in the morning every single day to do the work that I do.

Alia: Have you always thought about education in this way?

Theresa: Education is always something that has been at the forefront of my mind.  My parents were well educated, but I grew up in a very rural community where a lot of people had not studied beyond the secondary level. So, when I went off to university at Stanford 3,000 miles away from home, it was an eye-opening experience. I was surrounded by very motivated people with a lot of interesting ideas. I had been a big fish in a little pond in my secondary school because I was somebody who was very hungry for education. I tried to access a lot of educational opportunities despite the fact that I attended a regional, rural public high school that did not offer the most enriching academic experience. College was the first time in my life I was surrounded by students who had had very different life experiences, who had gone to schools that were very academically rigorous, who were incredibly curious. It was vibrant and transformative.

Alia: That sounds like an amazing experience. You started working at the Academies after two decades of working as a counsellor in the US.  What inspired you to take the job?  

Theresa: When I heard about the job, it seemed like a perfect fusion of my interests. The mission of the Academies in terms of providing educational opportunities for students regardless of their means is one that spoke to my heart.  In two decades of counselling, I had gone from working in college prep, private schools to working at an urban public school with very low-income students. There are so many talented kids whose socioeconomic background prevents them from accessing very good academic opportunities in places where they’re going to flourish. And so, in my own job search, I was looking for an organisation that provided such opportunities for students in need. I was also interested in international education – in addition to being a US citizen, I’m also a Swiss citizen and I’ve spent a good amount of time overseas – so this position really spoke to me.

Alia: What kinds of struggles have you seen students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds face when it comes to getting a good education?

Theresa: In my last role in the US, I was working in an urban public charter school with low-income students from all over the world. The majority of my students were first generation, meaning their parents had immigrated to the US. They did not speak English at home and they would be the first in their families to access higher education. I helped them navigate the system. Many of their families came from countries where poverty was a problem. Just getting to the US was a big hurdle. In addition, education is very, very expensive in the US, so it was a challenge for those students to figure out how to finance their education.

Alia:  That sounds quite different from your role at the Academy. How do the two experiences compare?

Theresa: I certainly have a lengthy background in university counselling, but when I was based in one single school, it was quite limiting in a lot of ways. My work at the Academies requires a much larger scope in terms of finding what universities are a best fit for particular students. I had good working knowledge of US and Canadian schools coming in. What’s newer for me is some of the other schools beyond that, particularly schools in the UK. It’s given me a greater global perspective on education in terms of the different programmes that exist and the ways in which universities are trying to position themselves globally.

Alia: Can you tell me about your trips to the Academies? What was your first impression?

Theresa: My first visit was to Hyderabad. I found the students compelling and the facilities stunning. Everything exists in the service of students and forwarding their academic and personal growth. When I first made a visit to the Mombasa school, I found the level of arts that students were doing and the level of introspection that went into what they were creating was incredibly deep and heartfelt. It was more advanced than what I’d seen at other schools. A lot of the students’ art projects dealt with issues of social justice and presented very clear messages that made me hopeful. Seeing that level of attention given to something that is often peripheral at other schools speaks volumes about the Academies.

Alia:  Absolutely. Why is your role important to the Academies’ vision? 

Theresa: As we grow as a network, we want to make sure we are offering a consistent quality of university counselling services across campuses, so that’s a really important part of my work. We want colleges and universities across the globe to know who we are and why they should admit our students and fund them, so a big part of my job is conducting outreach to universities and colleges. When a university takes a risk on a student and that student does well, then it knows that it has a viable academic candidate and will admit more and more students from our schools. My job is to try to create pipelines for students at academically rigorous universities that recognise who we are and why our students are so interesting and compelling.

I also conduct some professional development like workshops for faculty members where they receive training about best practices for writing recommendations for students. Both campuses are now on the Naviance platform, which is an online portal that allows students to track all their applications and send documents to universities electronically. We also track data on the admissions process on the platform.  

Alia: That’s important work, but now for a less serious question. What do you do when you’re not busy counselling?

Theresa: I love to cook and bake. In particular, I like making fancy cakes and tortes. Every year, during the holidays, I create a gingerbread house. They’re not basic ones; I have architectural plans. Last year, I made a church with candy stained glass windows. The year before, it was a Victorian house. Every year I do a different structure.  

Alia: That’s quite a hobby. Do you eat the houses?

Theresa: Yes, eventually I do. My friend’s kids help me decorate the house, it stays up and then it gets destroyed. So that’s one of my hobbies. To balance my baking interests, I was a distance runner and had run a bunch of marathons, but I had to stop after an injury. But I still really like to be active. I like hiking and skiing and being outside.

Alia: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Theresa: I love the work I do. I feel like mine is a really important role, so I’m just very grateful for the opportunity to work on behalf of the Academies.