CK Insights

March 19, 2018

Women Who Inspire Us: Shohreh Tolou, Henry Street Settlement

Heather Caufield

As a college access counselor, Shohreh “Sho” Tolou has worked tirelessly for nearly a decade to ensure equity, success and well-being for public high school students in New York City. She has spent the last six years with Henry Street Settlement and is currently the College Counselor for the non-profit’s partner school, Orchard Collegiate Academy. Sho coordinates and facilitates various comprehensive college access programs to promote post-secondary exposure and career aspirations / awareness for students in grades 9-12. Her work has led to an increase in the college application rate, acceptances and college enrollment within Orchard Collegiate Academy. A 100% acceptance rate has been achieved each program year since 2013.


I was lucky to have Sho assigned as one of my freshman year roommates at Fordham University. Throughout our four years at school, she was the friend who was always excited to talk to you about what career path you were thinking about pursuing or internship you might be applying for that semester. If you mentioned a particular interest, you were bound to get an email or AIM message from Sho with links to internships or jobs in that field. So her own career path was no surprise. And her dedication to her students never ceases to amaze and inspire me.


CooperKatz (CK): What inspires you to come to work each day?


Shohreh Tolou (ST): I was inspired to enter the field of college access because of my own personal experience. As an immigrant, I grappled with navigating the college admissions and financial aid process. While my parents were very insistent that I go to college and supportive along the way, they had never applied to college in the U.S. and could only provide me with limited guidance. I know firsthand just how overwhelming it can be to apply to colleges.


But what keeps me inspired every day will always be my students. If not for them, there would be no reason for me to do the work I do. The majority of our students are first-generation college bound and are also coming from families that are burdened by low socioeconomic status. I haven’t gone through a fraction of what some of them have faced and yet they are persevering. Despite the obstacles and barriers to their education they have an indomitable spirit to realize their dreams. It is a both an honor and a privilege to support them. 


And then there are the alumni who return and share their success stories with me, such as the student who had never left New York State but has now studied abroad in not just one but two countries, the student whose summer internship led to a job offer upon graduation and the student who returned for a visit amazed at “the amount of opportunity available at college.” These success stories inspire me to show up each day.


(CK): What is your favorite thing about the work that you do?


(ST): I attended a conference panel last year where a college access counselor described our field as: work that takes your life, but at the same time gives you life. College admissions and financial aid is ever evolving and produces stress not only for the students, but also for their counselor. Despite some of the stressors, getting to know my 12th graders and guiding them through the process is my favorite part of the work that I do.  It all becomes worth it when a student comes into my office beaming with pride because they received their first acceptance letter! For many of my students it’s truly a monumental moment. Several weeks ago, when a student came to my office to excitedly show me their first acceptance letter, they shared that when they told their sibling the news, their sibling cried. The student represented the first person in the family to apply and be accepted to college. I am not crying. You are.


(CK): Do you have a compelling quote or piece of advice that keeps you motivated?


(ST): “Don’t decrease the goal. Increase the effort.” I recently saw this on an Instagram post of a college admissions professional. There are numerous challenges that come with college access work (national policies, laws, budget cuts, etc.) and it often becomes difficult to meet our ultimate goal of ensuring our students follow a post-secondary plan that allows for success. In the moments when that goal begins to become blurry I remind myself to keep trying, problem-solve, and increase my own efforts to surmount these challenges and do what’s best for the student.


“Together we are stronger.”  College access cannot be done by one; I would not be able to help my students without the collective efforts of families, administrators, teachers, counselors, community members, policymakers, etc. 


(CK): What do you hope to see from – or for – the next generation of female leaders?


(ST): Leadership development opportunities – especially for women in male-dominated fields! And I’m not just talking about the ones that immediately come to mind like STEM jobs. I recently read a statistic that while the field of education is dominated by females, less than one third of district superintendents are female. I would like to see even more dialogue and conversation examining why more women are not in leadership roles and figure tangible steps on how we can continue to move towards equity. Also–paid family leave for all!


(CK): Who are the women you admire — and why?


(ST): I am surrounded by strong women in my field, family and friend group. The common thread among the women I admire is that they are resilient; they fearlessly pursue their personal and professional goals.


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