When I heard this month’s cover story would focus on the topic of underserved populations, I started pondering possible reasons that some populations remain underserved. Is it due to a lack of funding? Is it because they are not aware of the services available to them? Is it possible that we, as counselors, tend to overlook them for some reason and fail to focus attention on them as we should? I am not sure what the ultimate reason is for this predicament.
In deciding to become counselors, most of us understood that this profession centers around the concept of service. Our jobs are about enabling our students and our clients to develop good problem-solving skills and empowering them to solve their own problems. Basically, we work ourselves out of a job. So how could we be missing (or underserving) certain populations or groups?
Then a light went off in my head, and I thought about how I became a counselor in the first place. You see, I was supposed to be a “real” doctor. You know, the one with an M.D. instead of a Ph.D. I graduated from high school when I was 16 and was ready to enter college as a freshman majoring in biology and chemistry. The problem was I had not been advised to take the courses I needed to take in high school to be successful as a science major. My high school counselors thought that because I could “speak so well,” I needed to be in an honors program for humanities, not a science-based program. Well, fast forward and, needless to say, organic chemistry was my personal undoing in college.
I was not used to failing. I was the smart one, the cute one and, yes, I could usually talk my way out of any problem or issue. This was not the case with my organic chemistry instructor, however, especially since I could not understand half of what he was saying because of his international accent. By the time I started to grasp some of his words, it was too late. When the quarter was over, I received the dreaded D! How would I explain this to my family, who took up a community collection so I could go off to school in the first place?
Well, I marched over to speak with the academic adviser to see what help I might receive to get out of my predicament — and walked away even more confused. The word on the street was that if you wanted to graduate on time, you needed to stay away from the counselor’s (academic adviser’s) office. They would mess you up. But how could that be? Wasn’t it their job to provide you with the best service? Were they overworked? Were they unhappy in their jobs? Was the university not paying enough to get the most qualified people to perform the job? Again, more questions with unsatisfactory answers.
I came to a crossroads. Should I continue to struggle in my chemistry classes or graduate on time with a degree in psychology and history? I just happened to have enough courses to pursue that route, and I could still make my family proud that I had a degree! Well, as they say, the rest is history. I took the so-called “easy” road (due to a lot of reasons that I can share with you later, if interested), but it led me to where I am today, with an overwhelming desire to make a difference and to change the way we serve certain groups of people.
I recently saw a very provocative documentary called Waiting for Superman. Whether or not you agree with the premise of the documentary, you walk away thinking about the state of our educational system and what it might really take to make a change. The members of my family are either educators or health professionals. I have children who are educators. I was a teacher myself. I know personally how hard they work to educate our youth, but as a whole, we still seem to be losing this educational battle. Is this another example of students being underserved? What is our role as counselors in the educational system?
I don’t like the idea that we are underserving those we have committed to serve. What can we do to make sure we meet their needs? There are no easy answers, but I know you are committed to being the best possible counselor you can be. I’m asking you to survey your work setting to see if you can identify groups that might be underserved. We sometimes get so caught up in doing our jobs that we lose sight of why we started on this career path in the first place. I know you are only one person, but remember the impact you have on the future of all those you serve. You are the most important tool you take into the counseling session. You are that change agent. You are the one who can make the difference, just as you have already done so many times in the past.