MANKATO, MN—Nick Wisniewski, 35, a guidance counselor at William Henry Harrison High School, announced Tuesday that the door to his office is always open.
"Feel free to drop in any time, kids, whether you need help with your schedule, are having trouble at home, or just want to rap," said Wisniewski, who has maintained an "open door" policy throughout his seven years at Harrison High. "Whatever may be on your mind, I'm here to listen."
Speaking from his office in the back hallway next to the shop, Wisniewski added: "I'm available during regular class periods, as well as before and after school every day except Fridays."
In addition to accepting students on a "first come, first served" basis, Wisniewski said students can make appointments to see him by signing up on the clipboard hanging outside his door. Or, if they prefer, students can place a note in the adjacent padlocked box marked "For Mr. Wisniewski—100% Confidential."
"Whatever I talk to a student about is kept between the two of us," said Wisniewski, simulating a zipper closing over his lips. "Earning the kids' trust is the key to being a good guidance counselor."
When not encouraging students to "pop in for a minute," Wisniewski is usually busy updating the Career Fields Rainbow bulletin board and organizing the racks of college brochures and anti-drug pamphlets that cover a wall of his windowless office.
"If you want to talk about something, please, don't feel shy about coming to see me," said Wisniewski from behind his desk, the front of which is decorated with a Ziggy poster reading, "Find What You Do Best, And Stick To It." "After all, that's what I'm here for."
"Mr. Wisniewski's great," Harrison High sophomore Casey Billups said. "Like, if you want to get out of some boring class, you just tell the teacher you need to talk to Mr. Wisniewski about something. A lot of times, they'll believe you and let you go."
Of the three or four students who seek out Wisniewski during the average week, most wind up filling out career-choice questionnaires that gather such information as whether a student is a people-person, is creative, or likes to work with his or her hands. The results are then plotted on career wheels which are later found on the floor by the drinking fountain.
"Helping a student choose a career is not as simple as just reading off some piece of paper, though," said Wisniewski. "A student might test into a career in the fine arts, but, based upon what I know about that particular student, I might have to try to convince him that the military is a better choice."
Students who find their way to Wisniewski's office door, distinguishable from the janitor's closet by posters for Capri Cosmetology College and the DeVry Institute, say he is always willing to lend an understanding ear or a helping hand.
"He gave me a bunch of stuff about Mankato Area Technical College's restaurant-management program," said junior Jennifer Thaler, "but it must have been from last year, because the dates were all wrong."
"I know first-hand how hard it is to know what you want to do with your life," said Wisniewski, rearranging a bookshelf containing such titles as What Color Is Your Parachute? and Nursing: What An Adventure! "It wasn't until my divorce nine years ago that I realized I wanted to do something that would allow me to make an actual difference in people's lives."
Before becoming a guidance counselor, Wisniewski was a bank-teller on track for a management position until he realized "it just wasn't for me." The career change has provided Wisniewski the opportunity to find fulfillment every day in working with young people.
"So, you're a Keough? Are you related to Debbie Keough?" Wisniewski asked junior Brett Keough. "Oh, I thought maybe she was your older sister—she graduated from here five or six years ago."
Added Wisniewski, "How about Kevin Keough?"
Never content, Wisniewski continually strives to be a better guidance counselor, always searching for new ways to help the students of Harrison High. Just last week, he unveiled a new teen-suicide-prevention video library, from which any student can borrow videos on the honor system.
"There's really nothing more satisfying than the feeling you get guiding youngsters through that difficult period known as adolescence," Wisniewski said. "Some of the kids are reluctant to come to me because I'm an adult, but, as I always tell them, 'Hey, I was a teen once, too—I wasn't born 35, you know.' Basically, whatever I can do to help, I do. After all, we're all on this crazy rock together, folks."