Monthly Archives: December 2017

Counseling students with DACA/undocumented immigration status

By Elizabeth Holbrook December 28, 2017

I was 15 years into my career as a professional school counselor when I met a young man who opened my eyes to the life of navigating the education system as a student with undocumented citizenship status. I was working in an upper-middle-class suburban high school in South Texas. This college student, who had recently graduated from our high school, spoke to our counseling staff about his experiences as a high school student with undocumented status and how Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) changed his life.

Ranked in the top 15 percent of his graduating class, with strong SAT scores and extracurricular involvement, he was a strong admissions candidate who also had scholarship potential. Yet, he thought his immigration status made pursuing a college degree impossible.

He kept his immigration status a secret from educators, including his counselor, until his senior year of high school, when he “came out” (his words) to a teacher he trusted. He feared exposure for himself and his family, social stigma with peers and even possible deportation. He sought DACA soon after it became available in 2012. He got a Social Security number, a work permit and a driver’s license. Most importantly, he experienced some relief from the burden of carrying a secret that had eaten at him since his mother brought him and his sister to the United States when fleeing an abusive marriage.

His former counselor asked him to come speak to our counseling staff because she felt she had failed him due to her lack of information and our counseling staff’s lack of communicating the safety zone of the counseling office. After he spoke, I came to realize that a hidden, underserved student population existed in many schools. His story inspired my pursuit of this topic both for my dissertation and for professional growth as a counselor.

As I explored this topic, it became apparent that many educators did not know how best to serve students with undocumented or DACA immigration status. Additionally, I learned that broaching the topic produced reactions ranging from knowledgeable support to embarrassed ignorance to xenophobic revelations. I chose to put this research interest into practice to gain better insight.

I have interviewed students with DACA/undocumented immigration status for my dissertation, volunteered with advocacy organizations, led counseling groups for high school students and presented about this topic in conferences throughout the United States (including at the 2017 American Counseling Association Conference in San Francisco). It is from this perspective that I offer these suggestions to my fellow counselors in high school and college settings.

  • Reflect on your legal and ethical obligations as a counselor. Be aware that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe (1982) ruled that students in K-12 public education settings cannot be denied access to free schooling based on immigration status. This does not extend into postsecondary education access. Those working at any level of education or in nonprofit organizations should know that Title IX (1964) prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin for organizations that receive federal funds. To not assist students with DACA/undocumented status could be defined as discrimination based on national origin, but this is not clearly defined.

Counselors have ethical obligations not to condone discrimination due to immigration status (see the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, Standard C.5.). As judicial, legislative and executive actions continue to change, counselors might need to prepare for how their ethical obligations could collide with new laws. Consider how handling records, explaining/maintaining confidentiality and protecting clients may need to change.

  • Learn the unique steps and pitfalls involved in these students’ paths to college and career access. Counselors need to know that getting In-State Residential Tuition (ISRT) is a state-by-state decision. At this time, many students with DACA/undocumented status can get the same tuition rates as their citizen peers based on residency, not citizenship. Students with DACA/undocumented status do not get access to federal student financial aid via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Sometimes, however, students with DACA status mistakenly file for FAFSA because they have been issued a Social Security number.

Also keep in mind that most DACA recipients are college age or in the workforce. At every presentation I have conducted, I have been approached by counselors or teachers with DACA status. That means that you might have co-workers affected by the DACA decision. Most high school students did not qualify for DACA due to their entry date to the United States. With DACA ending, the number of students with undocumented status appears to be increasing.

  • Understand the emotional struggles associated with DACA/undocumented status. These students are part of the first generation of their families to go to college, which can be overwhelming in itself. But in addition, they can also harbor reasonable fears associated with their immigration status. Most come from mixed-status families and fear deportation for themselves or their family members. Parents may have instilled in their children the need to keep the family secret.

Those with DACA status may regret having exposed their identity to the government, and they now live with certain deadlines regarding their protection from deportation. Those who did not seek DACA status may regret not joining a group that may get some answers to this predicament. Facilitate empowerment by connecting these students with postsecondary mentors and support organizations that foster their agency.

  • Be aware of how current public policies affect these students personally. According to Harvard professor Roberto Gonzales, these policies create a state of liminality (betweenness) for these students. Not having citizenship status and not having a path to citizenship in their home country puts them between countries in a manner unique to their situation. The lack of certainty is a constant; long-term plans can seem useless. Supreme Court decisions can be overturned as part of a multitiered process, executive actions can be issued swiftly, and bills going through Congress can stall. Counselors can help students understand these processes.

If you work on a college campus, you have probably seen petitions, rallies and information sessions. Many of these students are seeking support, but they may get discouraged as they see the spotlight move to other current issues. They are practicing acts that citizens employ regularly, but they do not have the protection of citizenship. Going public is risky and can create emotional responses. In addition, citizenship can be taken for granted by those who have it. For those who do not have it, perceived apathy on the part of citizens can be offensive and further trigger emotional responses.

When I began my learning journey about students with DACA/undocumented status, I had no idea it would become a highly charged political issue. In light of recent events, I felt an obligation to share with the counseling community what I have learned. I also want to thank the students, educators and community service members who enlightened me about this hidden student population.



Elizabeth Holbrook has more than 20 years of experience counseling in K-12 public schools. She is currently a professional school counselor in Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. She is also an adjunct professor at Our Lady of the Lake University, where she teaches graduate-level students in the school counseling program. Her dissertation, “Exploring the experiences of students of Mexican descent with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status,” can be found at Contact her at




Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives:  “Mental health implications of undocumented immigrant status




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.

The people whisperers

By Laurie Meyers December 26, 2017

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Hallie Sheade can’t remember a time when she didn’t love horses. She has been told that her equine passion started when she was 2 and begged to be allowed to ride a carnival pony without her mother holding her hand. Sheade, an American Counseling Association member, has taken riding lessons since she was 5, but it was at age 9 that she first encountered the path that would eventually lead her to specialize in animal-assisted therapy.

One day, a horse named Cowman who had been labeled difficult and stubborn showed up at the barn where Sheade took lessons. True to his reputation, Cowman didn’t get along with the other horses — or with people. But Sheade believed that Cowman was just misunderstood. She could relate. After all, she was feeling misunderstood by her own parents. Sheade began spending hours with Cowman, often grooming the horse as she poured out her troubles to him. A bond formed between them, and Sheade became the only person with whom Cowman would cooperate.

Then something interesting occurred. After months of spending time with Sheade, Cowman started to get along with other horses and to take direction from other people. And Sheade? Her relationship with her parents began to improve. “I felt calmer and more at peace after spending time with Cowman,” Sheade says. “I think it goes back to the fact that horses naturally embody [Carl] Rogers’ core conditions — empathic, nonjudgmental and able to offer unconditional positive regard. Therefore, just being with them can help us to feel more connected and understood, making it easier to tolerate life’s stresses.” She recalls that being the person Cowman chose to respond to also made her feel confident, capable and special.

Sheade’s memory of what she and Cowman shared would grow into a fascination for the human-animal bond and a desire to use that connection to help others who are hurting. Although her story illustrates the potential power of that bond, it does not stand as an example of actual animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Simply bringing your dog to work so that clients can pet it is not the equivalent of AAT, say the specialists interviewed for this article. Counselors — and the animals with which they work — need the proper training for true therapeutic benefits to be realized.

Instinctive helpers

Therapy animals need the right temperament and training to work with people who are experiencing stress and distress, says Cynthia Chandler, director of the Consortium for Animal Assisted Therapy at the University of North Texas. In other words, a skittish and difficult-to-control pet dog is not a therapy animal, no matter how beloved it may be.

Well-trained therapy animals can help counselors establish therapeutic bonds with their clients more quickly and can also alert counselors to emotions that clients may not have expressed yet verbally. However, counselors must be properly trained to read these signals and work effectively with therapy animals, says Chandler, a member of ACA.

“Using AAT requires understanding how animals interact as social beings and what that interaction can contribute to the psychodynamics of a counseling session,” says Chandler, whose book Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling is in its third edition. Counselors using AAT must have an understanding of species-specific behaviors — for example, how particular types of animals signal distress or give support — and an in-depth awareness of their own animals’ personalities.

Possible therapy animals include pocket pets (such as hamsters), rabbits, reptiles, llamas, dolphins and cats, but the most common are dogs and horses. Chandler, co-leader of ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network, believes that dogs and horses make the best therapy animals because they come from family systems and have lived with humans for such a long time. Their natural instinct is to include the counselor and client in their herd or pack, she explains.

Like humans, dogs and horses also seek positive nurturing interactions. “[The desire for nurture] has a physiological basis,” Chandler says. “When we’re engaging in a nurturing touch, it releases oxytocin and endorphins.” When clients reach out to touch a therapy animal, they feel more socially connected, and their stress hormones go down, she explains. “[This] allows clients to feel safer to engage and discuss difficult issues,” says Chandler, who has another book, Animal-Assisted Interventions for Emotional and Mental Health: Conversations With Pioneers of the Field, currently in press.

Horses and dogs are also excellent distress detectors, Chandler says. Both species are extremely good at sensing stress, through smell and body language, and then reflecting that stress is present in an environment, she explains. They communicate this through their body language, such as moving toward an anxious client to soothe the person or moving away when the situation feels overwhelming to them. They also give off other signals to alert counselors to important information, she says. For instance, a horse might prick up its ears or a dog might bark or repeatedly look back and forth between the client and counselor.

Chandler jokes that horses and dogs are existentialists. They don’t like angst, uncertainty or resistance, and their natural inclination is to resolve issues, she explains. Chandler’s former therapy dog, Rusty, a red and white cocker spaniel, was known to walk over to clients who were resistant, put his head on their knees and just stare at them. Typically, Chandler says, tears would start forming in these clients’ eyes within about 30 seconds, and they would then begin to open up. Rusty would indicate his approval — and support — by jumping up into their laps.

Through her personal practice, research and interviewing other animal therapy experts, Chandler has studied the human-animal bond and how it works in therapeutic settings. In the process, she has developed what she calls human-animal relational theory. When humans and social animals come together within the therapeutic setting, she says, a whole series of relational happenings occur, even if a dog is across the room or a horse is across a pasture. “How an animal engages or doesn’t engage will bring out something big in the client,” Chandler says.

Being able to recognize the significance of the therapy animal’s behavior is the job of the counselor, Chandler says. “Hey, Jesse [Chandler’s current therapy dog, also a cocker spaniel] just woke up and jumped up in your lap. Why do you think she did that?” Chandler might ask a client. For Chandler, Jesse’s reaction might hint at resistance on the part of the client. Jesse, like Rusty, doesn’t like it when she senses that clients are holding back and will often jump into their laps and nuzzle them until they talk about what is bothering them. However, the client might assign a different meaning to Jesse’s action. Either way, Chandler marks the moment, and then she and the client process it together.

Risk reduction

Leslie Stewart, whose research focuses on AAT, emphasizes that it is important for counselors to recognize that AAT is a specialized form of counseling — just like play therapy or art therapy — that requires specific knowledge. Because animal behavior is never 100 percent predictable, AAT also carries an increased risk of harm, she acknowledges. But Stewart, who helped write the Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies endorsed by the ACA Governing Council in 2016, believes that in the hands of competent providers, the potential benefits of AAT far outweigh the risks.

Risk reduction begins with informed consent. Counselors should always talk to clients about what they can expect if they decide to use animals in their counseling sessions and caution them about any potential risks, Stewart says. For instance, clients with previously unknown allergies could be at risk of anaphylaxis. Many animals shed, so clients should be prepared to find fur and hair on their clothing. Something as simple as a game of catch could cause accidental injury if a client takes a wrong step and pulls a muscle or breaks a bone.

Then there are the larger risks. “Horses are big and move quickly. When they are scared, they react quickly, and we can’t always stop them,” Stewart cautions. “They also can’t see their feet, so they can’t see our feet.”

And even trained therapy dogs will bite under certain circumstances, Stewart notes. “In cases when animals’ needs aren’t perceived and met, they feel they need to react in ways humans see as aggressive,” she says. Becoming competent in AAT requires counselors to learn to recognize the early signs that an animal needs some space or has had enough and needs to take a break.

Client assessment is also crucial, she says. Stewart, who has counseled survivors of sexual assault and juvenile offenders, doesn’t bring any of her therapy animals with her when assessing clients. Some clients are afraid of or simply don’t want to work with animals, she explains, whereas certain clients — such as those with a history of violent, impulsive behavior — perhaps shouldn’t engage in AAT.

Stewart teaches AAT at Idaho State University, where she is an assistant professor of counseling. She works with three therapy animals: Killer the rabbit, a border collie named Star Sapphire and a German shepherd named Sophie. She emphasizes that knowing an individual animal’s personality is just as important as knowing species behavior.

“Sophie is a big gentle dog, typical of her breed, sort of no-nonsense, friendly and enjoys getting human attention,” Stewart says. “She’s not a lap dog and is not going to be all over you, whereas Star Sapphire is going to be all over you.” The dogs show affection differently, and Stewart highlights the contrast to help students recognize that clients also express needs differently.

Students learn what it means to be affectionate with Sophie. When she curls up four feet away, she’s showing affection. Stewart also asks them to figure out how to communicate affection to Star, even when they might prefer that Star not be all over them. Stewart also has the students use positive reinforcment-based obedience techniques to teach Star something new, such as sitting in a chair in class. By teaching Star, students are learning how to better communicate and deal with frustration when working with clients, she says.

Stewart also provides education about how certain species view the world and what does and does not make a particular type of animal comfortable. “For example, a lot of humans want to hug dogs, but most dogs don’t like being hugged. It stresses them out,” she says. Students are tasked with redirecting a client’s need to show affection into an action that will not cause the therapy animal stress. For instance, Sophie likes to put her head on someone’s knee and get her ears scratched.

Stewart also brings Killer to class. Rabbits’ actions are more subtle and require close attention — which also happens to be a necessary skill for counselors when working with human clients.

Talking horses

As part of her path to specializing in AAT, Sheade studied with Chandler while getting her doctorate at the University of North Texas. She developed two models of equine-assisted therapy: equine-assisted play therapy and equine relational therapy. She now runs Equine Connection Counseling, a private practice that specializes in equine therapy.

Sheade uses equine therapy with both children and adults. Equine Connection Counseling’s partner, Wings of Hope Equitherapy — an accredited therapeutic horseback riding facility — provides the space and horses. The therapy takes place primarily on the ground through interaction with the horses rather than on horseback.

With children ages 3 to 9, Sheade uses equine-assisted play therapy, which incorporates horses into child-centered play therapy. Sessions are one-on-one in a play area that contains various toys and multiple miniature horses, which are slightly bigger than a very large dog. Sheade lets the child choose how (or whether) to interact with the horses. Many children want to immediately engage with the horses, while other children prefer to start with toy horses, she says. The children are allowed to groom the horses with brushes that Sheade provides or they can integrate the horses into play using various toys. For example, children might use the medical kit to give the horses a “checkup” or dress the horses up by putting a lei or boa around their necks or balancing a hat on their heads.

Some children don’t interact with the miniature horses at all, choosing merely to play with the toys on their own. However, Sheade says the parents of those children often report that the horses are all their children talk about afterward.

The horses serve as potent change agents, Sheade says. “They [clients] want the horse to want to be around them,” she says. Horses do not like chaos, however. It isn’t uncommon for children to run up and greet the horses, but if a child is emotionally dysregulated — for example, displaying behaviors such as defiance and opposition, uncontrolled energy or excitement — the horses will react in ways that do not communicate to the child “let’s play,” Sheade says. One horse might run off to the other side of the arena, whereas others might stand in place but show no interest in interacting, she explains. This is the horses’ way of giving feedback, but it is less threatening to a child coming from an animal than it is coming from a grown person, Sheade says.

For example, one of Sheade’s clients was a young girl who was oppositional and defiant. She would approach the horses and get very frustrated when she couldn’t get them to do what she wanted them to do. Sheade helped her become aware that her actions, such as rushing up to the horses in a demanding and impatient manner, were actually driving the horses away.

Children with social difficulties sometimes find that the horses don’t want to interact with them. When this happens, Sheade has them examine how they approached the horses. Was it in a physically threatening way? Did they speak in an angry tone of voice? As the children learn how to interact with the horses, they can take what they are learning and apply it to other relationships in their lives, Sheade says.

The horses also offer emotional support. For instance, if a child is playing alone in the sandbox because he or she is sad or upset, one or more of the horses tends to gravitate toward the child to give comfort through their presence, Sheade says.

Sheade also works with adults, particularly military veterans and others with posttraumatic stress disorder or other trauma. These sessions, using the equine relational therapy model, are also one-on-one and take place mainly on the ground with a herd of horses. Clients choose which horse they want to work with and usually stay with that horse throughout the therapeutic relationship. By inviting clients to pick a horse and have it be “theirs,” Sheade says she is encouraging a bond based on the therapeutic relationship.

Although the primary bond is between the client and the chosen horse, the herd still participates, Sheade says. When clients are distressed, it isn’t only “their” horse that typically reacts. Often, the whole herd will gather.

The sessions are usually a mix of activities and talking, Sheade explains. As clients speak, Sheade is watching the horses’ reactions. This can tell her more about how clients are feeling and often gives her an avenue to broach uncomfortable topics. For example, sometimes when veterans are talking about trauma, their horse might signal the herd to leave. Sheade then asks clients what they think prompted the retreat. Usually, the answer is that the clients’ anxiety was building because they were struggling with a topic they didn’t want to talk about but knew they needed to address.

With equine-assisted counseling, clients don’t necessarily have to talk specifically about what is troubling them, because interpersonal challenges are revealed in the way the horse and client interact, Sheade says. For instance, someone who is a survivor of sexual violence might not know how to assert themselves and say “no” to a horse. Or new clients might think that when the horses walk away from them, it is automatically an indication that they dislike the person.

“What we’re targeting … is [the clients’] thoughts and feelings in the moment — what they believe about themselves or the horses,” Sheade says.

Working with trauma

LPC Shawna Corley’s therapy dog, Rylie, a Great Pyrenees-golden retriever mix, plays a vital role in establishing a sense of safety and trust with Corley’s clients, most of whom are trauma survivors. Children, in particular, find it easier to “talk” to Rylie, Corley says.

One client, a 7-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted by a relative, kept insisting that she was fine, even though she had been experiencing flashbacks. Corley, who doesn’t include Rylie in her intakes, gradually began bringing her into sessions with the girl. Once the client established a bond with Rylie, the girl could tell her anything she wanted, just like she was talking to a friend. Corley, who presented a session on incorporating therapy animals into counseling at the 2016 ACA Conference & Expo in Montréal, would sit apart from the client and Rylie, but close enough to hear.

The child would audibly whisper into Rylie’s ear that she felt bad or sad. Corley, a private practitioner in San Antonio, would then ask the girl for permission to speak to Rylie. After “listening” to Rylie, Corley would say something like, “Rylie tells me that you have been feeling sad. Can you tell me about that?” Relaying the conversation through Rylie helped the girl begin to talk to Corley about her trauma.

Rylie has other ways of telling Corley about what a client is feeling. If Rylie perceives a lot of sadness and stress, she will lie on Corley’s feet. To communicate the presence of anger or frustration, she sits on Corley’s feet. Rylie’s physical signals — natural behaviors that Corley reinforced through training — can be especially helpful for adult trauma survivors who have difficulty recognizing and labeling their own emotions. When clients are talking about their trauma, Rylie can let Corley know that clients are becoming upset before their distress triggers a traumatic reaction.

Rylie also sometimes gently urges clients to talk. If clients sit in session for an extended period of time without talking, Rylie often will go over and push their knees with her paw. She will keep doing this until they say something, Corley says.

Because Corley sees clients who are experiencing physical abuse or engaging in self-harm, Rylie is trained to spot injuries such as superficial cuts and bruises underneath clothing. Rylie will then alert Corley, using her nose to pinpoint an area with injuries. Rylie will keep coming back to the area until Corley acknowledges the signal. Rylie’s information provides Corley an opportunity — either immediately or in the future — to initiate a conversation about the injuries.

Rylie also strives to provide a sense of safety, according to Corley. If clients are feeling vulnerable, Rylie will move toward them to physically surround them in a protective manner. She will also protect them by accompanying them to the door when it is time to go.

Safety and training

It is crucial for counselors who are interested in AAT to understand how proper training protects both their clients and the therapy animals themselves, Chandler says. She and Stewart emphasize the importance of recognizing signs of stress in a therapy animal and realizing when an animal doesn’t want or isn’t able to work.

“An animal with the right temperament and attitude can handle counseling quite well,” Chandler says. However, absorbing all the stress and pain that is part of the therapeutic process wears them out, she says. “Jesse only sees a few clients a day [and] not every day,” she says. “Sometimes therapists have more than one dog or horse so they can rotate.”

Although programs that grant certificates for AAT — such as the one at Idaho State — are becoming more common, it can still be difficult to find training, Stewart acknowledges. Courses are available online, but she says that those alone are not sufficient; counselors must do formal coursework. She recommends that counselors who are having trouble finding appropriate coursework contact ACA’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network (see “Additional resources” sidebar, below).




Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Competencies (

  • Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies

ACA Interest Networks (

  • ACA Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network

Practice briefs (

  •  “Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling” by Leslie Stewart & Catherine Y. Chang

Counseling Today (

Journal articles (

  • “Therapy Dogs on Campus: A Counseling Outreach Activity for College Students Preparing for Final Exams” by Sandra B. Barker, Randolph T. Barker & Christine M. Schubert, Journal of College Counseling, October 2017




Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Letters to the



The Counseling Connoisseur: Cultivating “awesomeness” (lessons from a snowflake)

By Cheryl Fisher December 21, 2017

“Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.” ― Emily Dickinson


I recently had a visit from my daughter, son-in-law and (almost) five-year-old grandson, Nicolas. They reside in Florida and in an attempt to make up for an absent Thanksgiving, we combined the holidays in one fun-filled long weekend. I wanted each day to be magical. I thoughtfully made my list of activities crafted to not only engage my active grandson, but to create memorable moments. We would go ice skating, bring home-baked gingerbread to our local police and fire stations, watch the boat parade of lights, go to church together and open our home to family and friends for holiday cheer.

In the week prior, Nicolas had submitted his one and only request. “Can we have snow, Yaya (his name for me)?” He longed for snow, having watched the Disney movie Frozen half a dozen times. I informed him that this was not my department, but I would certainly consider it. His prayers were answered, and on that Saturday morning flakes began to drift from the sky. We bundled up, grabbed Max, my golden doodle, and ventured out into this new phenomenon of snow. Nicolas tilted his head back and stuck out his tongue, then squealed, “I caught one, Yaya! It is yummy!” I laughed at my rosy-cheeked grandson whose eyes, wide as saucers, were gazing at the sky tracking the snow until it got close enough to lap up with his extended tongue. He chuckled with delight and clapped his mitten-clad hands with each conquest.

“I’m gonna make a snowball …and we are going to have a battle!” Nicolas declared as he scooped up a fistful of the white powder and threw it. Then he scooped another. He lapped and scooped our entire walk and challenged the remaining family, toasty warm and waiting at the house, to a game of snow football. We made snow angels, snow castles and snow cones. There was pure joy that emanated from my grandson on this early December snowfall. Some saw a cold, dreary, icky day, but Nicolas saw magic!

The Science of Awe and Wonder

According to neuropsychologist Paul Pearson, awe is our eleventh emotion. It is “an overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of consciousness.” Awe is transformative. It opens us to a world greater than ourselves. Research indicates that the experience of awe and wonder is accompanied by a sense of overall wellness. This is believed to be related to the decreasing levels of cytokines (proteins that stress the immune system). Conversely, elevated cytokines are associated with depression. Therefore, there is a direct impact on emotional and psychological wellbeing when exposed to awe-inspiring situations.

Not only is the experience of awe and wonder life-enhancing, the experience of awesomeness in life increases life satisfaction, generosity and empathy. One study found that when people attended to beautiful images of nature and plants (such as a sunset or a canyon) they became more generous and empathetic. Therefore, finding awe and wonder in daily life may promote not only one’s own experience of wellness, but perpetuate altruistic behavior, in general.

Ways to Wonder

In the busy, hustle and bustle of modern day living, the call to pause and take in the moment is evidenced by the plethora of literature beckoning us to mindful living. I recently overheard a mother in a grocery store lament to her disgruntled young son, “Life is hard…get used to it.” Well, life can be hard…but it can also be magical. In her book How to Live an Awesome Life, Polly Campbell writes: “There are awesome moments — the kind that cause our jaws to drop, tears to well up, and love and gratitude to pulse through our beings — right there in the middle of the congested, icky ones.”


Here are a few simple strategies to cultivate awe and wonder in your life.

  1. Unplug

The distraction of the digital world keeps us from noticing what it right in front of our noses. A few years ago, I was walking on the beach at dawn. This is one of my favorite times of the day: It is a fresh start, filled with possibility. I took a moment and sat on the cool sandy beach to watch as the new day peeked just beyond the horizon. Against the crashing waves, I saw the small fins of the dolphins taking their morning swim along the coast line. It was breathtaking!

I looked around to see if there might be someone who was also witnessing this enchanting scene. However, the scattering of passersby had their heads down, eyes glued to their phones.


  1. Practice mindful awareness

Practice becoming fully aware of your surrounding in any situation. Standing in line waiting for coffee? Practice. Stopped at a stop light? Practice. This involves slowing down and engaging all your senses. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell? Taste? How does your body feel? The focus shifts from doing to being — and being fully engaged in the moment.


  1. Be a creator, not a complainer

Things happen! Icky things happen! Creators look for the bigger picture and try to construct meaning around the situation. This promotes perspective and can diffuse malcontent (a joy-stealer).


  1. Show up!

Inspirational people — those who accomplish amazing things in their lives — note that the number one thing they did to change their lives was to simply show up. How often do we dream our dreams, only to dismiss them as impossibilities for any host of reasons? We fear failure — or worse, embarrassment.

My Floridian grandson donned his first pair of ice skates and giggled as he, his mother and his Yaya slipped along the edge of the rink clinging to the rails for safety. We gazed longingly at the people who glided gracefully across the sheet of ice as we scooted and scraped along the outer path. Nonetheless, our efforts were rewarded with my “special” hot cocoa topped with marshmallows, whipped cream and sprinkles. We will never know the wonder of achievement if we don’t take that first step — or slide, as it were.


  1. Store up the awesomeness

Create a journal or scrapbook of memories that created a sense of wonder and awe. As a counselor and lifelong storyteller, I enjoy capturing these moments in short essays accompanied by drawings or pictures. I don’t ever want to forget the experience of my daughters’ birth stories, or my daughter taking her wedding vows through tears and laughter, or the moment I stood in front of thousands of people and offered the graduation benediction realizing I was now a doctor, or touched my grandson through the basinet during the unnerving days he stayed in the NICU, or the scent of my beloved dog, Lily, while she took her final breaths.

An awesome life is made up of awesome moments, some joyful while others are filled with sadness. Store them and savor often.


  1. Share the wonder

Just as I had the uncanny desire to share that morning at the beach, many awesome moments are meant to be shared. Nicolas seized the snow-filled day and took his family with him as we re-kindled our childhood memories of snow play and crafted more to add to my never-ending collection of essays.



During this holiday season take the time to experience awe and wonder. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

We have to look for the wonder, seek the astounding and be open to the beauty, so that we may, like Nicolas, find magic in a simple snowflake.



Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is Affiliate Faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; Nature-informed therapy: and Geek Therapy. She may be contacted at







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.

CEO’s Message: Here’s to a hope-full year

Richard Yep

Richard Yep, ACA CEO

Here we are at the beginning of a new year. I look forward to it with a renewed hope that what we will face in the coming 12 months will be better than what we have encountered during the past dozen. Something about opening up that new calendar (printed or digital) and realizing that it is a brand-new year allows me to be a tad more optimistic about what can be accomplished. 

As a society, we went through quite a bit this past year. We mourned the loss of innocent lives to so many human-made and natural disasters. We began a much more earnest dialogue about sexual harassment as more women found their voice to call perpetrators out. And in the United States, I’d say that our president’s name was referenced more times, by more people, than any of his predecessors were during their first 12 months in office.

The counseling profession continued to gain ground over the past year in terms of its recognition by public policymakers, the media and its sister professions. This is no time to rest on our laurels. Rather, we must continue to spread the good word about the work that all of you do each and every day.

This is a column about hope. Rather than giving up on issues that seem insurmountable, let’s continue to instill hope in others — colleagues, clients, students and communities. Professional counselors help others see that a better day is ahead. I know the work you do can result in great fatigue. Sometimes, you may even wonder if it is worth the effort. Trust me, it is, especially at this time in our history. As our society asks questions of itself, professional counselors are here to help sort through the various facets of those questions. You are problem-solvers and facilitators. You provide clarity and, as already noted, hope.

Your professional association has also asked many questions of itself and how it will serve its members. Your Governing Council, led by President Gerard Lawson, will be considering a new strategic plan in April. This road map, whose construction began during the presidency of Thelma Duffey and continued with Catherine Roland, will be what helps to move the American Counseling Association into the middle of the 21st century. When I hear your representatives discuss the elements of the strategic plan, it gives me great hope for the ongoing and future success of ACA.

We will emerge from the strategic planning process with … even more process! You see, the strategic plan is not supposed to be some document that sits on a bookshelf. Rather, it equates to (here I go again) a plan of hope — something the association will refer to as it develops its efforts in advocacy, resource development, research and how best to meet your needs. To be successful, the strategic plan must be a living, breathing, “hope-filled” document.

My hope for all of you? The best way to answer that focuses on what we, as a professional society, can do to make your job better, more meaningful and perhaps just a bit easier. We will continue to advocate for licensure portability, to work toward better reimbursement and to ensure parity for the counseling profession. However, we also want to help you directly in your roles as professional counselors, counselor educators and graduate students. I always list my phone number and email address at the end of my column. I am inviting you to let me know what we can do to improve your job, provide a resource that you need or, yes, give you hope about the importance of the work you do.

Happy Hope-filled New Year.

As always, I look forward to receiving your comments, questions and thoughts. Feel free to contact me by phone at 800-347-6647 ext. 231 or via email at You can also follow me on Twitter: @Richyep.

Be well. 



From the president: Resolutions

Gerard Lawson

Gerard Lawson, ACA’s 66th president

For many people, the beginning of the new year is a time for resolutions. If you would indulge me for a moment, there are a couple of “professional resolutions” that I think are worth consideration.

Many of us came into the counseling profession imagining ourselves sitting across from a client who needed our support or in front of a group of students who needed some guidance. That direct work is a significant part of what we do, and counselors are exceptionally skilled at assisting clients. Another aspect of the work we do relates to advocacy and social change. We sometimes conceptualize advocacy as the work we do for a client who needs assistance accessing resources or overcoming barriers. Social change often occurs when we notice barriers impeding access to counseling services or other resources for groups of people and we take steps to advocate on behalf of all those who are affected.

We are in a time in the counseling profession’s history when we also need to recommit ourselves to advocating on behalf of the profession. Counselors who came before us blazed trails to ensure that counselors were included in schools, and others started and concluded the process of securing professional licensure in all 50 states. But we cannot rest on our laurels. Consider some of the current issues facing our profession.

The ratio of students to counselors continues to creep upward, and cuts to education budgets require school counselors to take on more (and often inappropriate) work. Some states have been proposing unified licensure boards, combining counseling, social work, marriage and family therapy, and psychology all under one board, which would dilute the professional identity of each profession. Board members who are not licensed counselors could have great influence over counseling practice in those states. In addition, ACA has been actively working to address the challenges of portability for licensed counselors across the country. We have great staff who work on legislative advocacy and government affairs year-round, and they will tell you that we need more voices speaking out on behalf of counselors. (For more on the work of our ACA Government Affairs team, visit

Advocacy on behalf of the profession may seem daunting. But in reality, the skills that counselors use every day, such as building relationships and helping people understand complex problems, are the same skills that are important in advocacy. Whether we are talking about a local school board member, a state policymaker or a U.S. senator, advocacy begins by forming relationships before you need those relationships. We start by trying to educate stakeholders on the importance of the work that counselors do every day. Then, when a specific issue needs our voice, they already know who we are and the value of the work we do.

The other thing that sometimes intimidates people about advocacy is believing that they need to be policy experts on everything. In reality, it is helpful to know the broad strokes of what is involved in your issue, but what really compels people are the stories they hear about the work you do and how it affects the clients or students with whom you work. It’s sometimes uncomfortable for counselors to talk about themselves, and it may feel immodest to say that your work is important, but you are in the best position possible to tell the story of how counseling changes lives.

These are challenging times for the counseling profession and for many of the people we serve. Would you consider making a resolution for the year ahead to make one new relationship with a stakeholder or to make calls once a month on behalf of the work you do and the clients you serve? Your voice speaking on behalf of the profession cannot be replaced.

Happy New Year!