Counseling Today, Features

A heart for helping people

By Bethany Bray June 24, 2014

As Stephen Southern was boarding a plane this past spring to make his third professional outreach trip to China, he thought about his longtime mentor, Robert Smith. Southern, a professor and chair of the Mississippi College Department of Psychology and Counseling, was leading 18 of his students on a study tour to meet with faculty and students at three Chinese universities.

“I’m an introvert. I wouldn’t normally do something like that, but [international outreach] is something that Dr. Smith has taught me,” Southern says of his former professor and counseling colleague. “Every time I embark on one of these efforts, I think, ‘How would Dr. Smith do this? What would he say?’ And if I need his advice, I can call him. … Dr. Smith will always be my mentor. I will always look up to him and learn from him.”

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Robert Smith with his wife Susan, whom he refers to as his “greatest support system.”

Smith, a longtime counselor educator, starts serving his term as the 63rd president of the American Counseling Association on July 1, succeeding Cirecie West-Olatunji. Those who know him well through his work as a professor and leader in the counseling profession predict that Smith’s combination of experience, vision and dedication will lead to a very active and forward-thinking presidency.

“His leadership style is one in which he seeks harmony. But on the other hand, if there are issues that need to be addressed, he will not shy away from making difficult decisions,” says Loretta Bradley, a past president of ACA and the outgoing president (as of July 1) of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), an ACA division that Smith helped to found in the late 1980s.

“I describe [Smith] as a visionary,” Bradley says. “He looks toward the future as far as where an organization is now and where it should go. … He will not only take on a task, but follow it to completion. I describe him as a person who is honest, dedicated, exhibits perseverance and has a good leadership ethic.”

Since 2000, Smith has been at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, where he is a professor, department chair and doctoral program coordinator in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology. He previously headed counseling departments at the University of Colorado Denver and Texas A&M University-Commerce.

In addition to professor, counselor and mentor, numerous other titles aptly describe Smith: researcher, teacher, author, program builder, association leader (he has served as president of both IAMFC and the National Career Development Association) and champion for the profession, not only in the United States but also internationally through numerous trips to engage in outreach and teach.

A couple of other titles describe Smith as well: husband to Susan, whom Smith calls his “greatest support system,” and caretaker to the couple’s rescue animals — two dogs and four cats. He is the father of three grown children, one of whom passed away last year, and he also has a 12-year-old grandson.

Robert and Susan live on North Padre Island, Texas, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, not far from the Mexican border. Smith is a native of northern Michigan, an area close to Lake Superior. Now he lives 2.5 miles from the beach in sunny Texas.

“I believe growing up in that region, I decided I wasn’t going to stay in a cold climate,” he says with a chuckle. “Corpus Christi is about as far [south in the United States] as you can get. We love the warm weather. I feel very fortunate to live and work here.”

When he’s not at the university, Smith enjoys walking his dogs, jogging, swimming and kayaking. But he admits that he is perhaps atypical in that he finds conducting research and engaging in academic writing to be very relaxing as well. He is currently writing and editing a book about techniques for working with substance and process addictions.

Smith’s current book project will be added to the dozens of textbooks, book chapters and journal articles he has authored throughout his career on topics ranging from drug abuse to family therapy with Latino populations.

An active listener

During his year as ACA president-elect, Smith says he went on a listening tour throughout the association, attending as many division, region and branch conferences as possible so he could talk with members and listen to their concerns. Smith says his watchword as ACA president will be collaboration — both within the association and with outside entities, including professional associations such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the American Psychological Association.

Both external and internal collaborations, such as joint projects between ACA regions or divisions, will make ACA stronger, Smith says. “Our level of collaboration can be increased as we all work toward providing services to our clients in many different settings,” he says.

Asked to describe his style, Smith says he is solution focused, an active listener and communicator, and a hard worker who “expects the best from people.”

“I’m very open. If I see something that’s not working, I’ll draw attention to it — not in a negative way, but certainly not hide from it,” Smith says. “I never ask anyone to do something they’re not equipped to do or capable of doing. I never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t want to do myself.”

Having worked closely with Smith over the past year, West-Olatunji describes him as “an active listener who does not summarily reject new ideas. … This may come as a surprise to some and will be a benefit during ACA Governing Council meetings, where we often have diverse opinions.”

West-Olatunji has also been impressed with how invested Smith is in counseling students and new professionals. “I have observed that quite a few of his graduates still communicate with him and are collaborating on projects. Current students have also articulated how much support Robert provides to them,” she says. “His attention to students will allow the association to continue our focus on service provision to students and early career professionals.”

Smith says he operates from a “systemic perspective,” focusing on the big picture. “The way I like to work is that every idea is a pretty good idea and has some potential. If you institute one idea, [you have to think about] how does it affect the other parts of what we’re trying to do — the other parts of ACA, the other parts of the profession.”

Going above and beyond

“I think he’s going to be one of the most active presidents we’ve had in recent years,” Southern says of Smith. However, Southern adds, “He’s not a bulldozer. He’s really compassionate about the feelings of others. He’s able to integrate and resolve opposite points of view.”

Smith and Southern met in 1975 when Smith was Southern’s professor and chaired his doctoral dissertation at what was then named East Texas State University, now Texas A&M-Commerce. The two have co-authored numerous journal articles and worked together for a time at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

Hundreds of Smith’s former counseling students are scattered across the globe in private practice and university settings. Southern counts himself among the many who still consider Smith a mentor years after having graduated.

“He makes time to talk to anyone who calls him,” says Shaince Armstrong, a student of Smith’s in the doctoral program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “He really goes above and beyond, especially considering all that he does.”

The first time Armstrong applied to Smith’s program, she decided she wasn’t ready to make the move to Texas. Smith kept in touch with her, encouraged her to reapply and answered all her questions personally. Smith’s efforts struck her as going far beyond those of the average professor.

Armstrong did reapply and, two years later, is finishing her second semester in the doctoral program. “[Smith’s availability] really made me know it would be a home here,” Armstrong says. “Dr. Smith has really helped me understand what it is to be a counselor educator. … He’s committed to being there for the people that he serves.”

Smith says playing a part in students’ lives is the most important and rewarding thing that he does. Although he is appreciative of earning professional accolades and serving on leadership boards, Smith says he is most proud of the many students he has guided through the years who are now working in the counseling profession.

“I really appreciate being in a position to be able to help students,” he says. “I’m glad to play a small part in helping them be successful, be able to reach their dreams.”

Smith estimates that he has chaired more than 100 doctoral dissertations throughout his career. At Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the majority of Smith’s Ph.D. graduates in counselor education and supervision have been Hispanic students. “I’m very proud of that,” he says.

Smith says his greatest sense of accomplishment comes from helping students who enter his program with low levels of confidence. “To watch them thrive and shine during the time they’re here and then to help them in getting a position, often as a faculty member across the country, when they would have never thought of or seen themselves [succeeding] … I see life-changing things happen, not just for them, but for their families, their children and for generations to come. I have a real sensitivity toward that.”

Turkish student Mehmet Akif Karaman said it was Smith’s focus on student development and multiculturalism that drew him to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s doctoral counseling program. “[Smith] is a guru of counseling, a wise man and a perfect mentor and professor,” Karaman says. “His door is always open, and he is so incredibly helpful.”

Comfortable in the classroom

Smith began his career as a public school classroom teacher after graduating with an undergraduate degree in English and social studies from Western Michigan University (WMU). He says that when he returned to WMU for a master’s degree, the counselors in the university’s counseling center and the professors in the counseling program encouraged him to explore the counseling profession.

The switch from classroom teacher to counseling professor was “a natural evolution,” Smith says, because teachers often fill a counseling role in the classroom. As he started working on a master’s degree, he says, “I became convinced that this [counseling] is what I feel good about doing. … What greater gift can we have than to be in a position to help, support or empower another individual or group of individuals? There are very few professions that provide that opportunity.”

Smith earned his master’s degree in school and community counseling from WMU and worked in the university’s counseling office in the late 1960s. A doctorate in counseling from the University of Michigan came next, followed by positions as a professor at several universities.

Smith says teaching counseling courses — as well as fielding questions and learning from the next generation of counselors — has made him a better counselor. “I learn from questions asked by students every day,” he says.

“As a counselor educator, you have so much access to new theories, new techniques, new concepts, new ideas, different methods and strategies of working with people,” he says. “You have all these resources available to you to apply and share in the classroom.”

His students have also taught him patience, Smith says. “It’s a process for all of us — students as well as professors — that takes place from a student entering [the program] to completion,” he says. “What I’ve learned is to enjoy being part of the process. … Every student needs to feel that we support them, that their professors are there for them, wanting them to succeed.”

Although he has spent many years as a counselor educator, Smith’s background is wide ranging. He worked as a counselor in private practice for many years and also served as a counselor in both public school and university settings. In addition to school counseling, he has experience with addictions counseling and marriage and family counseling. He has conducted counseling research and served as the executive director of IAMFC. Smith was also one of the founders of IAMFC, along with ACA members Thomas Sweeney and Martin Ritchie.

While he got his start in career counseling, Smith said family counseling grabbed his interest when he began to see the relationship between the two spheres. Career, finances, communication style, family relationships and many other client issues are interrelated and affect one another, he says.

“Family is the basis of who we are and one of the single most influential entities concerning our lives,” Smith says. “Most of the issues presented by clients relate to relationship issues, and most of that relates to a relationship with someone in the family or with the entire family.”

Looking ahead

Smith believes his varied experience, as well as the time he has spent on the ACA Governing Council and other boards across the profession, will come in handy during his time as ACA president. “That doesn’t mean I know everything, but it does mean I respect the work that counselors do,” he says. “There are some commonalities across what we do. There are some differences, but I think there are more commonalities.”

Looking ahead, Smith says he is in favor of expanding the number of divisions, organizational affiliates and other specialty-focused groups within ACA. “My mindset is to be as inclusive as possible, to help all of those entities play a greater part in ACA,” he says. “The challenge that I face, and that I think ACA leadership faces, is how you do that. I want to make sure everybody has a place at the table and still run the organization efficiently. That’s a big challenge, but what I’d like people to know is that I want to figure this out. I want everyone to have a place at the table. That’s the only way we’ll continue to grow.”

Those who have worked with Smith say he is a motivator and an ideas guy, but more than that, he sees his ideas through to completion. “He’ll start from ground zero and build a skyscraper,” says Southern, citing Smith’s role in building the doctoral program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

“He can see the future and bring the future into reality,” Southern continues. “He’s phenomenal in his ability to accomplish things. He has a strong personality — he’s quite bold — but he’s also sensitive. He has a heart for helping people.”

Southern believes Smith is the right leader at the right time for ACA. “I think we’re poised to really grow substantially, to really take professional counseling all over the world and also use technology to accomplish these goals and provide services,” Southern says. “We need a strong ACA to represent all professional counseling, and I know that’s the reason Dr. Smith ran for the presidency and was elected.”

 

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Robert Smith at a glance

  • Ph.D., University of Michigan, Counseling (Dissertation: Achievement Motivation Training)
  • Ed.S., Western Michigan University, School and Community Counseling (Group Dynamics)
  • B.S., Western Michigan University, Secondary Education, English, History, Social Sciences
  • National Certified Counselor; National Certified Career Counselor; founding member of the Texas Licensed Professional Counselor board; Certified Family Therapist; Psychologist, Texas; approved supervisor and clinical member, American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org.

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