Counselors and counselor educators who have worked with Gerard Lawson describe him as an insightful, genuine and approachable leader who has a gift for listening to others and seeing to the heart of problems to find solutions. At the same time, Lawson, an associate professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech who became the American Counseling Association’s 66th president July 1, is known for having a great sense of humor and not taking himself too seriously.
Nicole R. Hill says she will never forget one particular scene from several years ago when Lawson was president of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), a division of ACA. Lawson walked into his presidential reception at the division’s 2011 annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee, wearing a cowboy-style shirt emblazoned with rhinestones — which he had affixed to the shirt to spell out ACES. To further complete his ensemble, Lawson wore a giant belt buckle, says Hill, who was serving as president-elect of ACES that year.
“I just have this image [of him in that shirt] burned into my mind,” Hill says chuckling. “He really is someone who is willing to put himself out there and has a strong articulated vision for what he thinks needs to happen … but he also just enjoys the humanity side of leadership and professional service. [His approach is], ‘We’re here, we’re working hard and hopefully changing the world, but let’s do it in a way that is celebrating who we are as human beings and we’re just having a good time as well.”
“That’s really how you transform the relationships that you build, those partnerships that you cultivate,” says Hill, who is dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and president-elect of Chi Sigma Iota, the international honor society of counseling.
Lawson is serving a one-year term as ACA’s president through June 30.
Learning, listening, leading
Lawson, who is also a past president of the Virginia Counselors Association, says he never intended to get a doctorate in counselor education and supervision. He began his counseling career working in community agencies, child protective services and with youth in the Virginia court system. He says he always thought he would focus on practice work with clients and clinical supervision.
That changed, however, when Lawson took a few classes at the College of William & Mary to
work toward counselor licensure after earning his master’s degree at Longwood College. He was given an opportunity to teach as part of an internship at William & Mary, and Lawson says he “fell in love with it.”
Now, after 15 years as a professor at Virginia Tech, Lawson says one of the things he most enjoys about the job is seeing students grow and find their own voice as counselors. In turn, he says, his students have taught him that there is no one “right” way to be a good counselor.
“They [students] come in wanting to rescue people, wanting to be the one that rides in and saves the day. That’s not really what we do as counselors. We walk along with people, but we don’t ride in and rescue them. That’s one of the things I enjoy watching — how they learn where their strengths are and to walk that path with their clients,” Lawson says. “One of the things that usually happens — for all of us — is that what they think of as their vulnerabilities turn out to be their strengths. That’s always fun to watch, that self-exploration of finding that what’s best for them is best for their clients.
“One of the things that has been the most eye-opening for me over the years is that there is no one way to do this job well. There are all kinds of personalities, backgrounds and belief systems that come into this profession, and they can all become stellar counselors. There are lots of different ways that you can be really good at this. Once you see [students] find their voice, whatever that voice sounds like, that’s when they hit a new gear, and the growth that comes with that is a lot of fun to watch.”
Paying it forward
Virginia Tech — as well as Lawson’s tenure there — is inextricably connected to the tragedy of April 16, 2007, when a student killed 32 of his peers and professors in a mass shooting on campus before killing himself. The incident stood as America’s most fatal shooting by a single individual until the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016.
Lawson, then an assistant professor at Virginia Tech, remembers getting involved in response efforts the day of the shooting, as soon as the campuswide lockdown was lifted. At first, he counseled faculty and staff members who needed someone to talk to. In the week that followed, he worked with victims’ families, offering everything from psychological first aid to assistance with the logistics of making funeral arrangements.
Lawson then helped coordinate the campus’ mental health response. When classes resumed at Virginia Tech, there were 600 counselors on campus, he remembers. For three years after the tragedy, Lawson taught half time; the other half of his duties were devoted to recovery efforts on campus. This included facilitating wellness activities for students and workshops for faculty members on how to handle sensitive questions and discussions in the classroom.
“What do you do when your students want to talk about the shooting in class? For counseling faculty, we wouldn’t think twice about that. But for [faculty members] in the engineering program, it might not be second nature for them,” Lawson says. “We talked about reflective listening and other skills, and also how to take care of themselves. In the immediate aftermath, a lot of it was about normalizing what people are experiencing — the fact that they can’t stop thinking about it or have trouble sleeping. That’s normal.”
Lawson remains instrumental in organizing remembrance events — and ensuring that counselors are available — on each anniversary of the shooting. He also helped Virginia Tech develop and initiate a disaster mental health plan, which the campus didn’t have prior to the 2007 tragedy.
Thinking back on the past 10 years and the various ways he has tried to help the Virginia Tech community recover from the tragedy, Lawson puts it simply: There have been opportunities for him to share skills that he is good at — counseling and helping people — and he knew he should take those opportunities.
“Virginia Tech’s motto is ‘that I may serve,’ and that has always been how I approach this work, whether that’s the client who is sitting in front of me, or the community that I’m living in or the university that I work for,” Lawson says. “That’s an important part of how I’ve made sense of this.
“Virginia Tech was so well-supported by the counseling world, and the world more broadly, following the shooting, that I feel like I have an obligation to pay that forward. If there are ways that the skills that I have, the things that I have to offer, are helpful or meaningful, I want to be sure that there are opportunities for me to provide that. That’s a small way to repay the way we were supported. We’ve felt love from every corner of the world. If there are ways that I can help to pay that forward, I think that’s part of the responsibility as well.”
There is no doubt that the tragedy — and Lawson’s ongoing role in the university’s response to it — changed the trajectory of his career and his personal perspective.
“The reality is that if something like that can happen at Virginia Tech, something like that can happen anywhere,” Lawson says. “You have two choices: You can either be paralyzed with fear, or you can realize that you need to live your life. You need to be willing to do the things you want to do, the things that are important to you, and not get drawn in to things that are less important. Make sure you’re using the time that you have wisely and taking advantage of opportunities around you.”
In good hands
The many titles and accolades on Lawson’s résumé would suggest that he is a gifted leader, practitioner, educator, counselor supervisor and conference speaker. But those who know Lawson well speak of other attributes: his sense of humility, his approachability, his authenticity.
Bryan Carr, the coordinator for school counseling in the Chesterfield County Public Schools system in Virginia, calls Lawson “a leader by consensus and collaboration.”
“The organization [ACA] is in good hands,” says Carr, who worked with Lawson on the boards of the Virginia Counselors Association (VCA) and the VCA Foundation. “He is a good listener. He is not one who needs to be heard. But when he speaks, people listen. … He’s approachable and sincerely out to better whatever group or organization he’s a part of. He’s always able and willing to assist. He sacrifices more of his time and energy than most people will, with a sense of compulsion toward making things better along the way.”
“In stressful situations, he’s able to put things into perspective pretty quickly,” Carr adds. “He’s able to disarm a situation and help with problem-solving.”
Carr worked closely with Lawson roughly five years ago, after Carr’s school district experienced a series of student suicides. The district invited Lawson to help with response efforts. He put in more than a year of intense work, both at the local and state levels, all pro bono, Carr says. Part of the work included creating and rolling out a training model for faculty and staff districtwide to recognize and report the signs of suicide risk.
“We did a lot of soul-searching on how to best approach [the situation],” Carr remembers. “Having his wise counsel and his ability to listen brought perspective to a complex issue. He helped us figure out what we needed. … He was not coming to the table saying, ‘look at what we’ve done’ [related to trauma response at Virginia Tech], but he was an honest broker at the table.”
“[Lawson] is very approachable and compassionate about what he does,” Carr continues. “He has terrific reasoning skills. … It’s easy to talk about an issue and all the complexities about it. He has a real gift to be able to cut to the chase and figure out what options exist and the best option [to choose].”
Hill notes that although Lawson has a relational, approachable style, he “doesn’t hesitate to be bold” if the circumstances call for it. He doesn’t back away from advocating for or taking a stance on issues he feels strongly about, even if his opinion may be unpopular, she says.
“He’s very good at articulating things that are hard but need to be said,” agrees Corrine Sackett, a former student of Lawson’s who is now an assistant professor and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Hill and Sackett both cite examples from a few years ago, when Lawson waded into heated conversations that counselors were having surrounding the profession’s shift toward eventually requiring graduation from a counseling program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) as a pathway to future counselor licensure.
Counselors were debating the issue on the Counselor Education and Supervision Network (CESNET) listserv, and Lawson chose to actively participate in the discussions and share his opinions, even though he was a candidate for ACA president and there was a risk that people would disagree with his views.
“He was very vocal but respectful and laid out his argument clearly,” says Sackett, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Lawson also listened to other posters’ perspectives and tried to see all sides of the issue, she adds.
During the same period, Lawson urged the ACES Executive Board to take a stand on the issue rather than dancing around the controversy, according to Hill. “I saw him really push us forward in a political context,” she says of the board discussions. “He didn’t want to marginalize people or disenfranchise programs, but he was able to look at the big picture and bring people together. I saw him be able to listen and hear other points of view but also set a threshold. He didn’t want to just talk about it on the board. [He said], ‘Let’s come out and say something — put down a vision.’ He was able to take a stand and say, ‘this is what we expect,’ and stand behind it.”
In addition to his leadership ability, Lawson has a gift for connecting with students, says Laura Welfare, an associate professor and program leader of counselor education at Virginia Tech. She has worked with Lawson for 10 years.
“Gerard frequently teaches our practicum and internship courses, and our master’s students are always eager to work with him,” says Welfare, a counselor supervisor and licensed professional counselor. “His calm, collected demeanor in the presence of anxious new counselors, and his knowledgeable responses to their varied concerns, gives them the confidence to embrace new challenges. He is an astute supervisor and helps students trust the counselor development process, during our program and beyond.
“One of Gerard’s gifts as a counselor and counselor educator is his ability to bring out the best in others. He understands individual and systemic issues and connects with others to empower them as they work toward their own goals. He has used his gifts as a counselor, supervisor, educator, consultant and researcher and will be able to bring those strengths to the multifaceted role of ACA president.”
Lawson served as Sackett’s supervisor and doctoral dissertation adviser at Virginia Tech. Counselors who encounter Lawson as a mentor, teacher and leader know that he truly cares about them and their growth, Sackett says.
“I have learned by his example. He has modeled so much for me without even trying to. It took me awhile to find my feet … as a teacher, but I always remembered how I felt cared for by him as a teacher, and that just goes so far,” says Sackett, who is going into her fifth year as a professor at Clemson. “As a student [at Virginia Tech], he and I could say things that would make things better in the long run, but they were hard to say. [He gave] feedback that I didn’t always want to hear, but it was important for my growth. I knew I could say things to him too that could make things better in the long run but were harder [to say] upfront. That’s an important quality in a leader, I think: honesty.”
The year ahead
Lawson says he is excited about the year ahead and envisions a presidency marked by advocacy. He has two areas on which he’d like to focus and create presidential task forces to address: 1) counselors performing outreach in their local communities and 2) trauma and disaster mental health counseling and response.
Lawson says the first task force is in response to the discord that has grabbed headlines in recent months, from political divisions to friction between law enforcement and the public. Counselors are skilled in fostering conversations and serving as mediators, but they often don’t think of becoming involved (or don’t know how to become involved) in such a capacity in their local communities, he says. Lawson wants to form a task force to create resources for counselors to become bridge builders and reduce misunderstandings on the local level.
“People are feeling disconnected from their neighbors [and] their communities, which results in misunderstandings and isolation,” Lawson says. “If the community wants to have a meeting, counselors are so well-positioned to [facilitate] that but maybe just don’t have the skills or comfort level for that. I’d like to create a task force and toolkit to support counselors throughout that process.”
For the second task force, Lawson will draw from his experience as a trauma responder at Virginia Tech and more than 10 years of volunteering in disaster mental health. ACA already has a solid partnership with the American Red Cross, facilitating training and counselor disaster response across the U.S. But Lawson thinks an opportunity exists for ACA to “fill in the gaps” beyond that partnership whenever traumatic incidents take place that aren’t natural disasters, such as violence or shootings.
“I’d like to position ACA so that we are one of the first things people think of [in trauma situations] and they know we’re a resource,” Lawson says. “We want counselors to be better trained and better prepared. We are all doing trauma work now. It used to be a specialty. Now it’s [everything from] bullying in the schools to interpersonal violence. We need to be prepared to help those folks, regardless of where they’re coming from.”
Above all, Hill says she believes Lawson’s time at the helm of ACA will be marked by openness.
“I would encourage our members to reach out, share your perspectives and communicate if there’s an issue you want to address,” she says. “[Lawson] is the kind of leader who is very caring, and I think he’s the kind of leader that would want to hear from you. Reach out and engage.”
Meet Gerard Lawson
Certifications and licenses: Licensed professional counselor, certified substance abuse counselor, national certified counselor, approved clinical supervisor, certified trauma professional
Degrees: Ph.D., counselor education and supervision, College of William & Mary; master’s degree in education, community and college counseling, Longwood College; bachelor’s in family and child development (family studies), Virginia Tech
Past leadership positions: Has served as the president of the Virginia Counselors Association, the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, the Southern Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, and the Virginia Association for Counselor Education and Supervision; co-founder of ACA’s Wellness Interest Network
What you may not know: He loves to kayak and spend time outdoors with his dog, Jeff. He is a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Detroit Tigers. His wife of 23 years, Jennifer, is a professional flutist with the Richmond Symphony.
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.