Features

A counseling leader’s unlikely path

Heather Rudow July 1, 2013

Ielephantt’s a little surprising to find out that someone so passionate about counseling began her professional career as a retail associate at a Jordan Marsh clothing store in Manchester, N.H.

Less surprising perhaps is finding out why Cirecie West-Olatunji, who took office as the 62nd president of the American Counseling Association on July 1, didn’t necessarily excel in retail. “I spent my time talking to customers about their lives and helping them solve their problems,” she says. “I was very well known by the customers, but I wasn’t very good” at being a retail associate.

Although West-Olatunji could tell she had a sense for understanding and connecting with people, it took a few more twists and turns down other career paths before she eventually figured out that counseling was the right profession for her.

“I’ve lived two or three lives already,” jokes West-Olatunji, an associate professor and director of the counseling program at the University of Cincinnati, as well as director of the university’s Center for Traumatic Stress Research. She has a daughter, Ayana, who has a master’s degree in education, and a son, Malcolm, who is working in the Peace Corps after graduating from Morehouse College.

A native of Albany, N.Y., West-Olatunji was the fourth child and first girl in her family. She spent a lot of time with her older brothers growing up and is still very close with them. “I was always trying to keep pace with them,” she says. “This may account for my drive and ambition. I am always trying to keep up.”

During the first five years of her life, West-Olatunji’s parents had extended family come live with them on the second and third floors of their home. “I think this experience served as a foundation for my community mental health and outreach work,” West-Olatunji says. “I am very comfortable with large groups and understand intersystemic dynamics.”

West-Olatunji believes her interest in multiculturalism and social justice also began in childhood. “I was always doing community service, participating in the March of Dimes,” she says. “My mother always thought, ‘What a weird kid’ [on account] of all the community service I loved to do, but I don’t think I had the words to really talk about those things [yet]. I understood people were having difficulty on the outside and I was supposed to help them, but I didn’t have enough knowledge.”

West-Olatunji grew up in a working-class family but says her parents “had a vision for their children and made it a reality. All five of us have been successful in our careers. Two of us are Ivy League graduates, with two other siblings having graduated from Stanford and Southern Illinois University. There are two Ph.D.s among us and one M.F.A. Two of us joined the professoriate, one became an engineer, one a clinical psychologist and one a computer technologist.”

After leaving behind retail life at Jordan Marsh, West-Olatunji’s next “life” entailed working as associate director of admissions at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. “I started at a time when there were not a lot of females or a lot of people of color in that industry, and I wanted to be a part of that,” she says. “I loved what I did.”

West-Olatunji was responsible for creating and directing the school’s minority admissions program as well as its advocacy efforts. Eventually, however, she says she realized “there was something missing, and I didn’t know what that was.”

So, for a brief time, West-Olatunji tried her hand selling mutual funds at a securities firm in New York City. She jokes that her reasoning for pursuing a high-pressure career in a fast-paced city then notorious for its unfriendly people was to force herself to “harden up.”

West-Olatunji found the city’s tough reputation to be at least partly undeserved, however. “I met all these wonderful people who were so sweet,” she says. Even so, she soon figured out that although she was enjoying herself, she was not selling mutual funds fast enough.

Finding a ‘home’ for her skills

West-Olatunji next took a position as the assistant director of special educational programs at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. It was there, she says, “where it happened.” She found her calling to become a licensed professional counselor.

Her main purpose at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a graduate school of Yeshiva University, was to provide support to students and ensure that they had all the tools necessary to be successful. In her role, she noticed the college’s nontraditional students — students who were older or from multicultural backgrounds or foreign countries — had the most trouble flourishing. In searching for reasons why these students were struggling, West-Olatunji participated in the annual roundtable held by the Teachers College of Columbia University, which focused on multicultural counseling.

Subsequently, she tailored the curriculum to meet the needs of the nontraditional students at the medical college and provided them with interventions. It was then that her desire to become a licensed professional counselor was fully realized.

“I thought, ‘This explains a lot. This is my home. This is what I’ve been looking for in the 10 years since I graduated,’” recalls West-Olatunji, who had earned her bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1977 while majoring in drama.

She left her position at the medical college in 1992 to attend graduate school at the University of New Orleans, where she secured a master’s degree in 1994 and a doctorate in 1997, both in counselor education. She then took a position as assistant professor and director of the counselor education program at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Kimberly Frazier was one of West-Olatunji’s first master’s students and research assistants. Her teacher and mentor’s passion for the counseling profession inspired her. “Cirecie was so excited about the counseling profession and being a professional counselor. It was infectious to anyone who came in contact with her,” recalls Frazier, the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development’s (AMCD’s) representative to the ACA Governing Council. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope I give my students half of the excitement and passion, because her energy and passion is literally nonstop.’”

Frazier predicts that West-Olatunji’s “ability to serve as a calming force and mediator for those who may not see or value a viewpoint opposite of the other,” combined with her love of what she does, will make her an excellent ACA president.

As was true with West-Olatunji’s decision to become a counselor, however, her foray into counseling leadership would not occur immediately. In fact, it would require outside encouragement.

Getting involved at a national level

As a member of the Louisiana Counseling Association, West-Olatunji served as editor of the Louisiana AMCD’s newsletter. She also loved being a member of ACA and encouraged her students to join, but at that point, she says, she “didn’t see the need to run for major office. I just enjoyed being a part of the local branch operations.”

It was only after light pressuring from the late Victor Bibbins, a former president of AMCD and a coeditor of Multicultural Competencies: A Guidebook of Practices, that West-Olatunji decided to run for national office. Bibbins eventually became a mentor to West-Olatunji. She believes he saw in her what she describes as “a passion in whatever I do. I try to give everything my all. I have a sense of integrity, and I try to instill that leadership development in my students.”

Edil Torres Rivera, a professor at the University of Florida and a former president of both Counselors for Social Justice and AMCD, witnessed those characteristics firsthand when he and West-Olatunji were colleagues at the University of Florida.

“As a person, she is very charismatic and caring. She cares about her students and profession beyond the call of duty,” Rivera says. “As a professional, she is the ultimate counselor educator. She walks the walk and takes students on a journey [to] the multicultural and social justice roots of the counseling profession as well as the critical lessons of what an effective counselor is and why we need to be the most informed of all professionals.”

Though slightly apprehensive, West-Olatunji followed Bibbins’ advice and was elected vice president of African American affairs for AMCD. “I learned a lot about [AMCD],” she says, “and that really opened my eyes to issues that we face as counselor educators and counselors, and raised the question of, ‘How do we advocate for the profession?’ I discovered that leadership allows us to collaborate on policy that advocates for the profession. What excited me was the idea that I could advance counseling as a profession [at the national level]. I could see the big picture, whereas before I was just thinking at a state level.”

Thrilled by this newfound experience and influence, West-Olatunji was content to remain in her role as vice president. Her mentor had other plans, however.

In the same gentle, persistent manner he had used before, Bibbins suggested West-Olatunji run for president of AMCD. After she was elected president for the 2007-2008 term, Bibbins next proposed she seek office as AMCD’s Governing Council representative for 2009-2010. Not only was West-Olatunji once again elected, but ACA then-President Lynn Linde also selected her to serve on ACA’s Executive Committee.

When Bibbins passed away in 2010, West-Olatunji was incredibly saddened to lose a mentor she cared about and respected. But there was also a slight sense of relief. “He always kept pushing me to do more [at the national level],” she says. “Now I felt [like I could say], ‘I’m truly done. I can move on to other things.’”

But as it turns out, Bibbins wasn’t the only one who had taken notice of West-Olatunji’s potential. Past presidents of ACA began telling her they thought she had the skills and personality to lead the world’s largest association dedicated to representing professional counselors in various practice settings.

“All I kept thinking was, ‘Who is this, the spirit of Victor Bibbins?’” West-Olatunji says with a laugh.

She eventually agreed to be nominated to run for ACA president and then “didn’t think about it anymore,” she says. “I didn’t think I would win. People run several times for this position, so my thought was, ‘I’ll get out of this because it’s so rare people get elected their first time running.’”

When she received a phone call from ACA Executive Director Richard Yep and Past President Marcheta Evans informing her she had won, West-Olatunji was shocked. “I almost fainted,” she says.

Spelling out a vision

That initial shock eventually wore off and, today, West-Olatunji finds herself very much looking forward to her time as ACA president. One area she would like to focus on during her presidency is internationalization of the counseling profession.

“To me, ACA’s involvement in internationalization efforts means that members of our organization collaborate with members of our sister organizations throughout the globe to provide clinical services, conduct research and develop policy that affects us all,” she says. “Additionally, internationalization means that we share knowledge across countries to provide the most effective services and advance the profession. As a result of these activities, I believe that counseling will become more recognized globally, more counseling organizations will be created internationally and we … will see the value of adopting effective practices that emanate from outside of the U.S.”

“As an organization, we’ve been moving toward internationalization in counseling across several presidencies,” West-Olatunji continues. “We’ve dabbled a little, but I want to take one concrete step. It’s important for counselors to know what counseling looks like in other countries. I’ve already been doing a lot of work internationally, and I’m bringing a lot of my resources from the international arena into my presidency. “

West-Olatunji has conducted multiple international outreach trips and provided consultations in South Africa, Romania, Botswana, Malaysia, Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, India, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Americas to help advance the counseling profession. She has also provided disaster mental health counseling services or training in the Pacific Rim, Botswana, South Africa and Haiti.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be in a lot of places working with a lot of practitioners who are looking at the advancement of counseling,” she says. “Now we are at the point where we are asking where we need to go [with the] internationalization of counseling, what can ACA do to help, and how can we do it in a way that benefits us?”

West-Olatunji also would like to focus on leadership development. “In my time as Governing Council representative and as ACA president-elect, I received leadership training from the American Society of Association Executives [ASAE],” she says. “One of the things that became very clear to me is that our Governing Council is not operating optimally, and [doing so] would help us a lot.”

She thinks having ACA Governing Council members learn best practices for being a board member would make the organization stronger. “One of the pitfalls for us is that many of us are counselor educators. We are very good at the things that we do, but we may not know a lot about boards and nonprofits and how they operate,” West-Olatunji explains.

In addition, West-Olatunji would like to promote increased social action on the part of ACA members. “Even with all the discussion of advocacy and social justice within counseling,” she says, “on a grass-roots level, students and counselors are still asking, ‘What does that look like? What are the skills I’m supposed to have that should reflect social justice?’”

West-Olatunji would like to do more to teach the characteristics of social justice and social action by adding practitioner voices in blog posts and reinstating multicultural training for members.

Rachael Goodman can attest that West-Olatunji is the perfect person to head such efforts. Goodman says her awareness and knowledge of cultural and social justice issues increased greatly while she was a master’s student in the counseling program at the University of Florida under West-Olatunji.

“[West-Olatunji] shared her own experiences with injustice and inspired me to be more reflective about my own cultural background and experiences of privilege and marginalization,” Goodman says. “She instilled in her students a commitment to multiculturalism and social justice, which is critical to ethical and effective counseling. As ACA president, I anticipate that she will bring this important framework to the entire profession to move ACA forward.”

In class, West-Olatunji often self-discloses and shares her experiences as an African American female in a race-based society. “Even though my life reflects some successes, I have experienced many of the same microaggressions that other culturally and socially marginalized women face in the U.S. Both institutional and individual racism have had their effect on me,” she says. “Fortunately, I have had some very knowledgeable and resourceful mentors  — male and female, African American and non-African American — who have helped me to stay focused.”

Right where she belongs

West-Olatunji knows her path to becoming ACA president is not the typical one. “I was not the person who knew exactly what to do after graduating college,” she says. “It took me awhile to find myself, what matched my personality, my passions and my beliefs.”

But now that she is here, West-Olatunji looks forward to using her year as president to make a difference in as many ways as she can.

“I’ve found that I am very passionate about service and giving service to organizations,” she says. “That is what counseling has done for me. It has contextualized that not only can I give what I have to offer, but others can receive it in a positive way.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

3 Comments

  1. not alone

    “Even though my life reflects some successes, I have experienced many of the same microaggressions that other culturally and socially marginalized women face in the U.S. Both institutional and individual racism have had their effect on me,” she says. “Fortunately, I have had some very knowledgeable and resourceful mentors — male and female, African American and non-African American — who have helped me to stay focused.”

    Thanks
    A great article about West-Olatunji and her journey
    people inspire me to step outside myself again
    It is my view that these micro aggressions are fear based and not the exclusive of the US

    Reply
  2. Hildah Mokgolodi

    It is indeed a great article about how West -Olatunji came to be today. I think what we take for granted is that little push we get from others what we otherwise would not on our own. Mentoring has proved to be great value, West-Olatunji was a mentor and a mentee. I see it coming at different levels. As developing countries, we can benefit a lot from mentoring by developed ones when it comes to counselling, so we can professionalise it. Counselling is still a less recognised or understood profession in developing countries, hence political will to support its initiatives is still marginal. However, we shall not stop at nothing to hang in there so that eventually these developing counties make counselling a priority.

    Reply

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