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The economic crisis of 2008 is still with us. Jobs for mental health and school counselors have been – and continue to be – cut. We hear about the possibility of more terminations to come in the media. Among the rumors of downsizing are some that indicate the trend will soon reverse, but graduating students need jobs now. It is indeed a scary time for professional counselors to be looking for work in their chosen profession. There is hope, however. It is the perfect time for students, counseling professionals, and counselor educators to be working together to strengthen our professional community and create opportunities to do what we do best – provide a forum or our students and clients to heal their pain and suffering.
I have a particular lens through which I enter this conversation. I am a doctoral student in Counseling and Counselor Education who also has the privilege of working with counseling students as a career advisor and coach. In my work, I am confronted with students’ fear every day. Their fear and anxiety are pervasive. Students are afraid there won’t be jobs. They are anxious about competing with their friends and colleagues for the few positions that do exist. They fear they don’t have enough experience. They worry they won’t do well in an interview. If they live in New York, they fear that they will not be able to get a job in which they will be able to earn licensure, or even worse, that they will not be able to find work at all. Some have responded by giving into their fears, and inertia has set in. The fear and anxiety, coupled with the rigor of the last semester of studies, also keeps students from seeking services that will help them find post-graduate counseling positions. Often, the situation feels hopeless.
I contend the situation is not hopeless, but it does necessitate a communal response within the counseling profession. Fostering hope and realization of vocational opportunities requires a clear vision, a willingness to confront our own fears and anxieties, and an unwavering commitment to work together as students, counselors, and counselor educators to promote the wellness of our profession – and ultimately of our students and clients. After all, we have defined our work as, “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals” (American Counseling Association, 2010). Further, as counselors, we are often tasked with being the holders of hope when our students and clients cannot find hope in their own lives. So, let us commit to the task at hand.
As a counseling student, you are being initiated into a vocation that includes great responsibilities, difficult challenges, awe-inspiring transformations, and the privilege of walking with others through their struggles and successes. Continually, I am inspired by the compassion, caring, and determination of counseling students in my program. Many come to this profession with a natural desire to help others experience growth, success, meaning, and healing in their lives. I do not think our program is unique in this regard. We spend a lot of time learning to help others move through their struggles and, many times, connect with and feel their pain and suffering. The obstacles our clients face are many, including violence, neglect, and personal and systemic discrimination. Our task is to promote wellness as we invite them to face their concerns, doubts, and insecurities. Regardless of our theoretical perspectives, most of us do this by some combination of (1) promoting insight, (2) eliciting alterations in thoughts, behaviors, and/or emotions, (3) providing access to resources, (4) nurturing connections to supportive communities, and (5) advocating for our students/clients. As counselors in development, we must do what we ask of our clients/students.
In seeking a professional position, we are in essence asking an agency, school, or organization to pay us for the privilege of helping students and clients face their fears and overcome the obstacles life has placed before them. If we are to be bold and courageous enough to walk this walk with students and clients, we must also be courageous enough to do so ourselves. That means, we need to become aware of our own fears and the way they are impacting our lives; challenge and move through the thoughts and emotions that keep us stuck in inertia; seek out the resources available to us through our departments, colleges, universities and communities; nurture supportive connections to the local, regional and/or national counseling communities as well as our personal communities of support; and engage in advocacy on behalf of ourselves and our profession.
Most counselors I have been privileged enough to meet enjoy the opportunity to connect with students and promote mentoring relationships. In the past, building such relationships may have felt like a meaningful activity; however, the current economy has rendered mentorship absolutely necessary to the success of students and new professionals, and to the continued vibrancy of the counseling vocation. As professional elders, we have a responsibility take the initiative to cultivate relationships with those who are new to the field and help them navigate their own developing occupational identity, skills, and endeavors.
Mentorship can occur in a variety of venues. We can connect with students through our participation in local, regional, or national counseling organizations. It is often suggested that students attend organizational meetings to connect with counselors. Some students excel at meeting and interacting with others in social and professional settings; however, some students can feel intimidated or anxious about doing so. Therefore, when students do attend organizational meetings it is incumbent upon us to take the initiative to reach out to them, inquire about their interests, foster a professional relationship, and introduce them to other professionals with similar interests. We are often quick to recommend that students take on leadership positions and it is a wonderful treat when they do. Yet, it is important to cultivate relationships with students even when they don’t take on such positions. We have a plethora of professional gifts to offer students, so let us share enthusiastically and unabashedly.
We can also assist students by actively creating job opportunities for them. That is quite a bold statement to make in our current economic state of affairs, isn’t it? Yet it is possible, particularly for those of us who are mental health counselors in private/group practice. Let me explain. I’ll begin by recognizing that private practice is not the best setting for some graduating students. Therefore, it will be important for students to consult with their faculty, supervisors, and site hosts to determine the best setting for their own development. However, private practice is a very viable option for some graduating students provided that there is appropriate support for them as they develop their counseling skills. This is where we come in. I encourage those of us in private practice settings to provide invitations and opportunities for new graduates to join the practice and then offer the appropriate supervision and clinical support for their work to continue to flourish. In some states, that means that we need to earn a supervision credential. In other states, it means that we have to incorporate our practice as an LLC with the central mission and activity of providing mental health counseling. It can be helpful to engage in conversations with private practice counselors across state lines to determine the most effective ways to support the growth of new counselors in private practice while simultaneously supporting the wellness of their clients.
Again and always, mentorship and advocacy are the primary tasks. Just as counselors are being called to mentor students through attendance and participation in professional organizations, so must we. Counselor educators can require that students attend meetings of local counseling organizations. We can then teach students how to connect with other professionals by attending the meetings ourselves and introducing them to members who have similar interests. It is also essential to teach students about the importance of nurturing community connections within the counseling profession during their first semester of academic training. That will give master’s students the most time to meet other counselors in the field, learn about the mental health needs and services in their communities, and gain a better grasp of the professional requirements of their work. In the end of this process, graduating students will be better informed about the needs of their students and clients and more knowledgeable about the upcoming clinical, administrative, and systemic demands of their work.
We must continue to engage in both legislative and educational advocacy initiatives that result in the creation of more jobs for graduating students. We can do this by engaging in organized efforts to meet with our legislators and by selecting research topics that provide implications for policy development. For example, we might design a research project that investigates the impact of employing fewer school counselors in our K-12 schools. Participation in the development and nurturance of collaborative relationships among students, counselors, and counselor educators can constitute a ripe topic for research. We can only help students and strengthen our professional community by gaining a better understanding of the ways in which collaboration and mentorship impact occupational wellness and competence. We can investigate, articulate, and integrate into training the best practices or competencies for keeping our own occupational fears at bay so that we can indeed be the holders of hope for our clients.
We all – students, counselors, and counselor educators alike – need to get out of our comfort zones, walk with or through our fears, connect with one another, and promote wellness in our profession. A commitment to doing so can serve to transform fear into a strong community of learning, practice, research, and advocacy. So let us take a collective deep, centering breath and move forward together in hope and courage.
The wise words of poet Audre Lorde can guide us during this critical time in our professional growth. She wrote the poem in the singular and I have changed her words to the plural, but the message remains the same:
When we dare to be powerful,
To use our strength in service of our vision,
Then it becomes less and less important whether we are afraid.
Elaine Casquarelli is a counselor specializing in career development, LGB concerns and spiritual issues in counseling. She is currently a doctoral student in Counseling and Counselor Education at the Warner School of Eduction, University of Rochester, and works as a career advisor for graduate students enrolled in counseling and education programs at her institution. She can be contacted at Elaine.Casquarelli@Warner.Rochester.edu.
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