Northwest school counselor recognized for service
Andie Zink is a familiar face around the Northwest Arctic. For the last seven years, she's been working at many of the borough's schools as a counselor. This month, she was honored for her years of service.
"I just want to say thank you to all of my students and also, all of the kids in the region for making it a very rewarding and enjoyable career for me. If it wasn't for them and who they are, it wouldn't be as fun. I really, really do enjoy my job. I really love these kids," said Zink, who currently works in Shungnak.
On Nov. 17, she was named the 2017 School Counselor of the Year by the Alaska School Counselor Association. Her fellow awardee at the association's annual conference was Karen Stephan, from Kodiak High School, who was named 2017 Advocate of the Year.
"It took me by surprise," she said, smiling.
Zink has a long history of working in education. She started off as a teacher and coach in California, where she focused on practical subjects at the high school level like computer literacy, business, graphics and web design and consumer math.
"I've also always coached one sport or another like volleyball, track and field, cross-country, basketball," she said. "Whatever sport they needed somebody for, I would cover."
After years in the classroom and out on the field, though, she felt like it was time for a change. She'd always wanted to try counseling.
"I really wanted to help more than just my immediate students. It was about 10 or 11 years ago now that I decided I needed to expand my horizons," she said. "I wanted to be able to help more kids and help them make life changes in a positive way."
Her new path brought her up to Alaska, where she was placed in one of the northernmost school districts: the Northwest Arctic Borough. Her first assignment was Selawik.
She credits her work with her first counselor coordinator, Michelle Woods, for getting her involved with the community, as well as the school.
She started helping out with the Youth Leader program and other local activities.
"It kind of went off from there. I just got really involved in it and with students from all over the region," she said. "It just felt like something I was meant to do."
Those are passionate words from a passionate person. Hearing Zink speak about her chosen career path makes it clear why she ended up where she did.
"Being able to see the positive changes in kids and having them come up to me and be really excited or proud of small changes, big changes, life-altering moments, just them seeking advice and help in all areas, not just the good moments and academics, but also when they struggle with the things they have to deal with on a daily basis, and having them really trust and confide in me — that's what really solidified it for me," Zink said.
Since her first placement in Selawik, she's worked across the region in Kiana, Noorvik, Ambler, Kobuk and Shungnak. Though she's usually based at one school, she sometimes fills in at her old sites when the need arises.
"On a daily basis, I'm in and out of the classroom informing them about a lot of the social aspects of life and their social awareness needs, making sure the kids are on track to graduate," she said. "Right now, there's a big push to make sure that all our kids are either applying to a university or have applied and are doing their federal aid scholarships. So, my main focus is making sure my seniors are all on target to get their senior checklist done."
Being a school counselor is about learning to wear many hats, she explained. Sometimes she's helping kids with academics. Other times, she's helping work through the nitty gritty of complicated financial aid forms and applications.
When kids need someone to turn to about their grades, their hopes, their future plans or navigating social challenges, she's there to help.
"It can be going into the classroom and teaching social skills, talking about substance abuse, suicide, the effects of that, or academic and career guidance," she said. "It's going into different classrooms and speaking to kids from pre-kindergarten all the way up to high school and even after they graduate, they come back and seek help and advice."
That's where it ties into her original goal of reaching students outside of just the immediate classroom. She has to be prepared to help kids make their way through stages of life, through good times and bad.
"Because a lot of them don't have it anywhere else," she explained. "Some parents either don't know or don't have time or access to that information. I guess, we're their first line of information. So, [it's important] for me to be present and say, 'Hey, I'm here if you need anything,' otherwise they wouldn't seek out help. That's one of the biggest things, where students are just scared of how much they have to get done before they graduate. It can become this enormous task for them and they don't know where to begin. So, it's important that we can break it down for them, so that they can see that it's doable, that they can accomplish the tasks."
At the end of the day, it's about helping the students succeed in whatever way fits each one of them best. For some, that may be going to college. For others, it's finding a rewarding job right at home.
"To see every student happy and healthy and safe — I think, for me, when they walk in the door, that's my first priority. There's so much [that's important], like graduating, but really, if they're not safe, healthy, and happy, or content, at least, we won't get that. We won't get them to graduate or finish school, so the first thing I look at and think, 'I can call this a success,' is when I look at them and can tell they're happy, healthy and safe," she said.
As someone who works with students of all ages, from many different walks of life, at many points in life and often encounters them at some of their most challenging moments, there's one consistent message she hopes each and every kid takes to heart: they can be successful.
"Their parents, their past, where they live doesn't define who they're going to be; only they can," she said. "Everyone has a choice and you can choose your destiny."