#126 Supporting Jewish Students in their College Search Process with Sam Joustra Transcript


Lisa Marker Robbins 00:56

Previously, we’ve had episodes on faith based colleges for both Protestant students in Episode 76, and Catholic students and episode 67. I’ll link to both of those episodes in the show notes. Today, we’re exploring how Jewish students can find the right college fit and connect with Jewish life on campus. I’m thrilled to be joined by Sam Joustra, who has worked in admissions at Hampshire College mentor belt University and the University of Michigan. Now she brings her expertise to college wise as an independent educational consultant. In our conversation, Sam shares invaluable insights into navigating the college search process for Jewish students from reflecting on current Jewish practices and traditions to researching Jewish life on campus. Using resources like Hillel international will uncover key strategies to help your team find a supportive community and thrive academically and socially. Whether your teen is very serious about their faith, or are more relaxed in their practice, but want a community of belonging that feels like home. So if you’re a parent of a Jewish teenager, or a student yourself seeking guidance on connecting with Jewish life at college, this episode is for you. I’m Lisa Mark Robbins, and I want to welcome you to College and Career Clarity, a florist coaching production. Let’s dive right in to a great conversation.

Lisa Marker Robbins 02:30

Hi, Sam, welcome to the show. Hi, Lisa,

Sam Joustra 02:34

thank you so much for having me today.

Lisa Marker Robbins 02:37

Absolutely. This is an episode that I wanted to do for a while just to help students who come from a Jewish faith background to help them find their fit. You know, I grew up in a community. When I was in high school, we had over 30% of my friends, I’m not Jewish, I’m a Protestant Christian, but I had a lot of Jewish friends, it was over 30% of the kids in my high school. And I my faith is important to me as a Christian, I went to a even though I went to public high school, I went to private liberal arts, Christian University nondenominational. And so I it’s really important for me to support students of whatever faith background finding their fit, you know, it can be, as we both know, because of the work we do. It’s super hard this college bound journey to find the 3700 plus the universities and colleges out there where your fit is. And I think well we layer on top of it this faith piece. It’s good in his a little bit more complicated. So, you know, you’re working at college wise, you come from a vast background of working at fantastic universities, we’ve got them listed in your bio. And I you just are the person that lead us. So if you know as an IEC, I might be working with Jewish student or our listeners right now might be parents who they are Jewish, and they would love to see their kid land on campus. But it can be daunting. You know, there’s lots of like, Oh, here’s the Christian colleges, here’s the Catholic colleges is not that straightforward for the Jewish population. Right.

Sam Joustra 04:25

Right. Right. And one of the biggest takeaways that I think of when I’m talking with any family about how and where to find Jewish life on campus is that it can look like so many different things. I mean, I often say in much in the same way that there’s no one right or wrong way to be Jewish and to engage with your own faith. You know, the way I practice my faith could look very different from another Jewish person and another, much like that. This journey is going to be so individual for every student, what they’re looking for, and all So what resonates with them on a college campus, where they find community, the extent to which they engage with that. And it’s something that is also I think, for many people going to evolve over time. And just to share a little bit about my background, you know, I grew up in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and a very pretty heavily Jewish population. So I was going to barn botnets, those, you know, every, every weekend, when, when everyone was doing that, and I didn’t think much of it because I was so embedded in that community, and went to college, moved to Massachusetts after voucher and then moved to Tennessee for grad school. And being in Nashville was the first time in a long time that I was very hyper aware almost of my own Judaism, because I felt one of very few in my community, my neighborhood in my workplace. And so that was a really interesting exercise for me in my surroundings. And it’s interesting to reflect on that, because I think that’s something that many students can and should be prepared for in life, whether that’s college or beyond that their relationship to their Judaism may change. And that could also be a product of their surroundings as well.

Lisa Marker Robbins 06:16

That is that I love that you’re leading with that, because it’s already saying, like, what, hey, listeners, what it looks like right now, is not necessarily going to be what it looks like. And, and I think we know that but really stopping to think, is just like, you know, you grew up in a heavily Jewish community, I had an awareness because there was a strong Jewish population there. But then I go to this Christian College, I remember when I was in my undergrad, I was a history major. And one of the things we did was we went to a synagogue on a Friday evening. And we we walk in, so my cohort of students, they were all like, blond haired, blue eyed fair scan. And I look a lot like you. And I’m not Jewish, but a lot of times people think I am. And so I walk into the synagogue and in the the people were just like, Oh, hi. And my friends are like, Have you been here before? And I said, I said now and I said, this, this is why it is. And they were it was so foreign to many of them, like to be in a Jewish community. And to me, it was just like, oh, yeah, no, not at all. So like, kids are so led by their parents, and their peers, that it could be the opposite to you, we could have a list of right now. And it’s like, we’re Jewish, or we’re not in a strong Jewish community. And maybe there’s more out there for us. So we’re Yeah, why is these, you know, people are gonna come from all places on this. So what’s even a starting point, you know, where do you advise people to go first?

Sam Joustra 07:55

Yeah, a lot of the advice I give to students in this realm is very similar to advice I would give any student is start by reflecting on your current life, your habits, your ways of living, whether that’s in your school and your family, in your town, in your city. What are the traditions or habits that are important to you that you want to replicate in college, and that could be attending services with your family, maybe you go every Friday night to chump bomb, maybe it’s something as a family needs you together on the High Holy Days, and start to reflect on it something like that is important to you, and start to kind of weigh what is first going to be a non negotiable factor in your college search process. And then once you really name those things that you know, you have to have, or no, you absolutely don’t want to move on to the things that might be nice to have, or this might look a little bit different than what I’m used to. But that’s okay. And I think that the students who are most successful in this process of eventually landing at a school that’s a great fit for them, are the ones that are the most honest with themselves, not what their friends are doing, what their peers are doing. Because, like I said, what’s important to me could be very different than what’s important to somebody else. So starting to really interrogate what they want their life to look like, because the courts and the resources that they want available to them. You know,

Lisa Marker Robbins 09:19

as I think about that, it’s we have a lot of episodes where we talk about, like the parents role, right? Because parents are helping facilitate this, but the parent shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat. You know, there are the passenger along for the journey. And I think as parents sometimes, you know, my Christian faith is very important to me. And our five kids have their own journey, faith journey, as well. And so, it’s, you know, mine are all adults now, and I’m still watching them walk this out, but like what I as a parent might want at for my kid when they’re 17 or 18. You know, those are conversations around values where Sometimes it can be hard because our kids make choices that we wouldn’t always make for them. So I, as I am picturing what you just said, I am picturing like a family centered around talking. And the parents might choose like, you know, we want kosher food and the kids like, well, kosher food is not important to me. And that can, this could be hot and hard conversations. But going at it as a parent with like curiosity, instead of inserting, you know, what they should do not leaving with a lot of shoulds.

Sam Joustra 10:35

Yeah, and I and I’m not a parent. So I can’t speak to that personally. But I think an effort to not impose you know, one’s own expectations, which I imagine is very difficult, especially when it’s your child, and it’s so personal to you. But I think especially with at least my relation to Judaism, it’s so much about the lived values and character and how you treat others. And so even this, kind of the expression of that fate looks a little bit different. I think, if you are in tune to your core values, and that mission, how you live that even if that might look a little bit different, I think you can find peace, knowing that it’s still upholding those core, you know, tenets of the faith, even if it looks a little bit different. My

Lisa Marker Robbins 11:22

you know, inside my college major and career coaching course, we, in when we’re doing the self awareness work, because we build self awareness before we start to look at careers. So we really understand our wiring, the we have like this interactive values exercise, and I encourage the kids to do it. And also, you know, take some notes, and then talk to their parents about it. Because parent and student values students are still developing, and that we’re not always on the same page and values develop, but to have that conversation as a safe place sounds like, you know, a great place to start. And I as I’m imagining, it’s just like, you know, Christian and Catholic universities. This exists, like what they’re gonna be able to find exist on a continuum, right? So, you know, what would you say? I’m curious, somebody who’s not Jewish over here? Not would like the most, the best Jewish environment? Like what are the things that they would be able to find? Because I just heard some stuff like, okay, they’ve got a place to go to temple on campus, on Fridays, they have they celebrate the High Holy Days on campus. What else would be in the the school that over serves the has a community that’s over serving and a good way? The Jewish students, what are the other things that students would be able to find on campus?

Sam Joustra 12:51

Sure, a lot of student organizations, many, which are our student run, though, just did there are identity based student groups are students of all different backgrounds and other faith backgrounds as well, colleges and universities that have, you know, a strong cohort of Jewish student communities, and a lot of those can be intersectional, as well. And there are so many different, you know, denominations and Judaism as well. And so a school that has that type of inclusive representation, where a student who might even still be trying to figure out and define what their faith means to them, or what that looks like. Having a variety of options to explore that I think can be incredibly helpful. Sometimes students might find that they’re drawn to fraternities and sororities, you know, traditionally Jewish organizations like a pie, for example. That’s a more formalized organization community at students could be having kosher dining options, whether that’s a specific kosher dining hall, a specific, you know, kind of area of a larger dining hall where you can still find something that caters to a variety of dietary needs. And something that people don’t always think of, but it might surprise them is the presence of Jewish Studies in the curriculum. And even if you don’t want to study Jewish Studies, or Judaic Studies depends on what the university calls it. I happen to think that the fact that a school offers that is an important signal to how important it is to include that in the curriculum to provide that you provide opportunities for students to engage with that material to learn about the history, the culture, whether you want to major or minor in it,

Lisa Marker Robbins 14:39

that could even fulfill an elective requirement because these students have all these electives and they might be, you know, studying to be a kindergarten teacher, and they’re gonna have electives that they’ll have to fulfill and that class could fulfill their one of their electives.

Sam Joustra 14:59

Yeah, absolutely. And I think and hope that over time, a lot of colleges and universities are really placing an even larger emphasis on making students, you’re exposing them more to classes and areas of study that really highlight the cross cultural awareness and embracing backgrounds and perspectives that might be different from their own lived experiences. And that benefits everyone, not just in college, but in you know, in life. So,

Lisa Marker Robbins 15:31

I have a question for you when it comes to like, so Indiana University I know is, is known for having a vibrant Jewish community. And it’s close to where I live. So that’s probably one of the reasons why I’m as aware of that. Had a lot of friends from high school go there. What like if a, if a family is like, Okay, what percentage of students on a university campus that identify as Jewish like, in the context of law whole campus does is 3%? Big is 10%. Big is 15. And where would they find out that kind of information? Yeah, that’s

Sam Joustra 16:15

a really good question. So one of if not the first places that I often encourage students to look is Hillel International, and love their site on my have an amazing intuitive website, incredibly helpful. Hand they are present diving now over 900 colleges and universities. Sorry, what was you

Lisa Marker Robbins 16:36

like, I’m gonna stop you for just a second say, well, first of all their websites, Hillel H, I ll e l.org. It will also put it in the show notes for our listeners who are driving and can’t write that down right now. Yep. And on that website, that is very searchable. It’s fantastic. But let’s talk about what is a hello,

Sam Joustra 17:02

door. So it is a I’m simplifying it, but you can think of it as a hub of Jewish life on campus. So there will be a director and executive director, a staff. And it’s really this umbrella, often within the university’s office of spiritual life or religious life or again, whatever they might call it. It’s really a hub for Jewish students, they’ll often sponsor and oversee and coordinate the services, the meals for students oversee the student organizations, they’ll often partner with birth right to plan trips to Israel for students to go on and so much other programming as well. So mandate Yeah, perfect. I

Lisa Marker Robbins 17:47

mean, that’s you said it, I know what it is, but you put it in the perfect way in the nutshell, like if the hub of Jewish life is perfect. Okay, so you go to hillel.org, very interactive, searchable site. And so, can we find out the percentage of Jewish students on a campus there? And what do we learn from the Hillel site?

Sam Joustra 18:09

Yes, you absolutely can. That is one of the data points that you can search easily the number or percentage of Jewish students on any given campus as well as other factors if there are kosher dining options available if there is a birth rate program, etc. Halal also has a really great compare colleges tool. So if you have a handful of colleges you’re interested in, you can actually kind of see that side by side comparison of how their Jewish student populations might compare to one another and what opportunities a school has, or maybe doesn’t have. And one thing I always always want to make sure because I think this is a perfect first place to go. But I do want to caution students and families that you have to go beyond the data and you have to go beyond the numbers.

Lisa Marker Robbins 18:54

So so start that Hillel get your numbers in your data. And you’ll find if there’s going to be kosher, because not all campuses are going to have kosher options, right? Room find that information. But okay, it’s a good starting point and take it away. And

Sam Joustra 19:11

then I would recommend you visit the Hello website for the college or university that you’re interested in. So you can actually see what that looks like, in reality in the students lived experience. How does that manifest, because you can attend a college that has, in terms of numbers, a very sizable Jewish population, but that alone doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the population or the community that you’re looking for, or it has what you need. At the same time, you can find a school that has a considerably, much smaller Jewish population, but you might find that the way that that community engages is exactly what you need, and you can feel embraced and included and supported. So it’s, it sounds kind of cliche, but it’s The quality in a lot of cases, more so than just the quantity, quantity is a good place to start. But you have to go beyond that.

Lisa Marker Robbins 20:07

Well, you know, it makes me think of and I can link to this episode in the show notes. But we recently had Marnie Levine on, I don’t know, if you know her, she’s out in New Jersey, love her. She’s a, she’s a friend. She, she’s been on twice. The second time that she was on was recently and March of 2024. And it was really about, like, how to make the final college decision, like, Okay, you’re, you’ve got your options in front of you. How do you make that final decision among sometimes, which are all good options, but, you know, we haven’t been enroll in one. And one of the things that Marty and I were talking about is, you know, it’s okay to apply to colleges that you haven’t necessarily visited in person, and do that online research. However, once the time comes time to enroll, to, to enroll in a campus that you’ve never physically been there and experienced, it is not a wise decision. And you know, I think of my now 26 year old when he was going through this, the school he ended up attending was pretty far away. And we didn’t invest. It wasn’t even about the money, it was just about the time, we did not have time, but his busy high school schedule, my work schedule, to get to that campus. So I said, Hey, let’s apply, let’s see what the aid is. Let’s see if you’re still feeling it. And then we went on an admitted students day later on. So I feel like that kind of resonates with the, you’re saying, like, you’re gonna get great information on the hotel side. But they could have a large number of people, but get on campus and experience that.

Sam Joustra 21:48

And this is such an important point to that not everybody thinks about, I always encourage students to reach out to somebody a contact in parallel, if you have questions about anything. In a similar way, if I had a student who had a question about another aspect of student life, and I would say, pick up the phone and call the admissions office, talk to a counselor, they can answer. That’s what they’re there for. I talked to many directors of Hillels. And they are eager to talk to prospective students. And it’s in the college’s best interest as well for you to get the information you need so that you can arrive at this mutual best match for you. So if you have questions about, okay, I looked at the numbers, but like, what is this? What is this actually like? Or how well attended? Are these events that you put on? Or what kind of conversations are you having with students, we know when incidents if and when incidents pop up, talk to someone to get their real, authentic perspective. And they want to help you and they want to make sure that you feel comfortable, and that you will be coming into a community where you feel is meeting your needs. I always I like to call out I think Penn State and University of Miami in particular, because if you go to their Hello websites, they make it really easy to find contact information, submit a quick form. And if you’re visiting campus, they’ll have someone from Hull actually meet you and, you know, bring you to the Hello building our offense or space on campus so that you get a little bit more of like a private introduction to what that community looks like. And it’s just a great example of the schools wanting to work with you and make sure you get the information that you need.

Lisa Marker Robbins 23:33

Well, you know, as you say that and I want to be clear what you just said like those two schools, they have their own Hello website for like the University of Miami’s Halal websites, we’re not talking about go to halal.org. We’re talking about like, on the at the university, they have their own, and they’ve done a really good job with that. And I would imagine like schools that even don’t have like the form to make it so easy. I mean, hello, forms on websites are fantastic. But even a school that doesn’t maybe have a form like that. You could probably just pick up the phone and call and say we’re coming to campus. And can I come to your you know, dear, you have a building? Do you? Can we go there? Like what does this look like? Absolutely. Don’t be shy. Right. Right.

Sam Joustra 24:24

And I know, you know, I’ve worked with with high school students for whom it can feel really intimidating and scary to send an email to someone you don’t know. So we work on that together, right? Just you know, building up the skill of being able to communicate with an adult or send a cold email or pick up the phone. But if you have questions, that’s the best way to get those answers. So anyone would be more than happy to help.

Lisa Marker Robbins 24:48

You know, you and I are so close to this, that I want to underscore something here for our listeners, like it’s not the parent that’s picking up the phone or sending the email We want to hear from your student. And I know people hear me preach this constantly in every episode. But you just mentioned it without saying, hey, parents don’t do that. But I want to stop for a second say we both agree, hey, parents don’t do that. Support your child and doing it like I’ve got a free download, and I’ll put it in the show notes. It literally is just a one pager and it gives students how to start the email, the email ending that’s going to get the best response in what to do and not do in the body. You know, it’s up flourish coaching co.com, forward slash email. I know that was very creative, and literally just a one pager. And I’ve found that just giving them the confidence that’s helped them be able to write it and feel a little more comfortable and have your parent look at it, but don’t have them write it for you, the school will know is a boarding five year old mom writing it.

Sam Joustra 26:00

Right, right. And I understand I think the impulse to want to do that, especially when these days, students, teenagers lead incredibly busy lives, and I get the desire to want to take a little bit off their plate, but I promise even carving out a little bit of time is going to empower them. And that’s going to pay dividends for them down the line to absolutely.

Lisa Marker Robbins 26:22

So you you mentioned something that also made me think, you know, there’s there’s been because of internationally politically what’s going on and what’s happening here in the US, you know, there’s been really been a rise of anti semitism on obviously, everywhere, you and I are focused on college campuses and supporting teens and figuring out what comes after graduation. But do you have advice to our listeners on like, how do you get a feel for that piece on campus? What role should that play in this college search?

Sam Joustra 26:59

Yeah, this is a really, really important question. I’ll start by answering a question you didn’t ask, which is addressing kind of a shift in conversations that I’ve noticed with students where I really, you know, if a student were to come to me and say, I want to look at colleges, where there’s no anti semitism, I can’t guarantee that you’re going to find any place, like you said, regardless if it’s a college, where I could guarantee that, instead, we have to have a pretty serious conversation around the realities of those incidents taking place. And knowing that how can you best kind of prepare and protect yourself emotionally as well, and have the skills that you need to, you know, if and when God forbid, those things happened, you can respond or do or find what you need to your to the states and to take care of yourself. So we see these incidents pop up, you know, every year, all around the country and all around the world. But I would also caution students not to like I would want students to look beyond that as well look beyond the headlines and really look at what the institution is doing. Not just responding to incidents when they take place, but really, if they’re being proactive, right, what conversations are being had as a community, what research is being done, to pour money and resources into building kind of mechanisms in place to to protect students in really being more proactive and taking initiative is, I think, a better often a better indicator of how a student might feel comfortable on a college campus versus the

Lisa Marker Robbins 28:57

Soviets you say that totally agree. And I’m one that always I opt out of watching the news most of the time, because I’m like, all I find is it gets me unsettled on things that are beyond my control. I’ve always found that things that are big enough. I became aware of that I looked that up, but I don’t stay in the headlines because I think it does. I think we need to look well beyond the headlines and not let that lead. So how would a family know if a school is being proactive? Like what should they look for? Like how do you find that out? It’s great advice. And then my, my practical brains like well, how would I know if my kids school is being proactive? Sure.

Sam Joustra 29:38

So there are colleges and universities that have, you know, centers research centers for Jewish Life or research centers to combat anti semitism on their campuses. And often it’s not just confined to that university. It’s part of a broader research endeavor. So highlighting schools that that have those resources, I think is a great place to start, I also want to come back to the importance of reaching out to folks in the Hillel office, because they’ve got the finger on the pulse of their campus and their students. And they can tell you, again, that authentic insight into what this looks like, the support services that are in place for students, I mean, mental health services, in general, have become so important on college campuses, I think, really over the last decade. And for a lot of students that can be part of the calculus, the University of Washington, I believe, is the first Hello, there. Hello is the first in the country to really embed a mental health professional into the organization. So Oh, wow. That is something that almost independent of your investigating Jewish life, but it could be part of that conversation, making sure that the, your mental health and wellness, knowing what those resources are, and having been taken care of, I think is really important part of the conversation. Cheryl.

Lisa Marker Robbins 31:07

Great advice. Now, is we’re kind of coming into home plate here. Do you feel like you and I both have supported teens over the years on managing the rather large project of applying to college, and reading all the essays and doing it in a timely fashion, so they can beat the deadlines? And they’re authentic and their voices? And they’re not their parents voice? Um, their counselors voice, not their English teachers voice? Is it important that Jewish students express their faith and identity within the application? Like, what approach do you advise students take on that? Yeah,

Sam Joustra 31:46

so a lot of law speak specifically to the supplemental essays, the student can talk about their background and identity and a personal statement if they wish, but also, a lot of colleges have specific supplemental essays that more directly ask students to or invite them to comment on a part of their community, or identities that are important to them. A couple of things I will say are, I never ever want to impose an identity on a student. And for a lot of students, even if being Jewish is an important part of who they are. It’s probably not the only identity that they hold, and it is probably very layered. And I never want to assume or impose that on any student. So my party line is always if it’s important to you, and if it’s authentic to understanding who you are, how you have evolved as a person and your lived experiences. Yes, the colleges wants to hear about that. And so I would encourage students that if that’s their truth that they want to share, yes, there is a place for you to share that. And that is welcomed on college campuses. They do want to create communities of students who have different backgrounds and insights and perspectives and your voice is valid, as long as that’s the story that you want to share.

Lisa Marker Robbins 33:06

You’re absolutely I mean, it’s, you know, what community do you belong to that essay that you mentioned? You know, another one that comes to mind is was your favorite extracurricular? Because sometimes our extracurriculars are faith based, just not there are other things that you’re doing that are probably just for recreation. There are other things that you’re doing that are maybe aimed at the Career figuring out the career side and the college major. So yeah, that’s fantastic. Well, Sam, you have been a wealth of information for our listeners. Thank you for making the time to come. This is an episode I’ve wanted to do for a long time. So it’s been fantastic to meet you. I know we will stay in touch. And if people want to learn more about you and your work with college wise, where’s the best place that they can find you?

Sam Joustra 33:58

Store? Well, first, thank you so much for having me, Lisa. This is such such a thrill. And I’m really grateful to you for having the platform to share a lot of this information. You can learn more about college wise by visiting our website at college wise, one word co ll E. G W is the.com. And I’m also happy to share my email address which is Sam J at college wise.com. If you have questions for me if you want to learn more, and I can put you in touch with someone to share more about our services. I would be happy to

Lisa Marker Robbins 34:32

fantastic and we’ll put both of those in the show notes. Thanks, Sam. Thank you, Lisa.

Lisa Marker Robbins 34:43

Thank you to Sam Joustra for sharing her expertise. As we wrap up. I want to leave you with a practical resource to build on what we’ve discussed today to download the invaluable college wise guide to finding the best fit college for Jewish students. Go to the shownotes for the The link. This comprehensive guide will provide you with beneficial insights and strategies to help your family make informed decision about your teens college journey. If you found today’s episode helpful, please share it with a friend who might benefit from it too. Also, taking a moment to rate and review the podcast would mean the world to me and help us reach more families navigating the college admissions process. Thank you for listening to College Career Clarity podcast, where we help your family move from overwhelmed, confused to motivate a clear and confident about your teens future. I’m Lisa Mark Robbins, and until next time, keep striving for clarity and confidence in your teens college journey.