Counseling Today, Special Features

Painter and Nawojchik take top honors in graduate student essay competitions

June 30, 2014

Everett Painter of the University of Tennessee and Claire Nawojchik of the University of Virginia were chosen as the grand prize winners in respective graduate student essay competitions.

Painter submitted the top essay in the ACA Foundation’s Graduate Student Essay Competition supported by Gerald and Marianne Corey and Allen and Mary Bradford Ivey. The competition was open to any counseling student taking one or more graduate courses at an accredited college or university.

Nawojchik penned the top-ranked essay for the Ross Trust Graduate Student Essay Competition for Future School Counselors. The competition was open to counseling graduate students working toward a career in school counseling at the elementary, middle or high school level.

As the grand prize winners, Painter and Nawojchik each received a $1,000 scholarship grant, free registration to the ACA 2014 Conference & Expo and a $250 ACA eGift certificate.

Each competition also identified the top runners-up essays. Those essays can be read here, below Painter and Nawojchik’s essays, and on the Student Awards page on the ACA website at counseling.org/about-us/awards/student-awards.

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Everett Painter, University of Tennessee

Grand prize winner, ACA Foundation’s Graduate Student Essay Competition

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

The role of the counselor as an agent of personal and social change, the compulsory need for continued self-awareness and lifelong learning, and the privilege of assisting others in managing the challenges of life are all aspects I welcome regarding our work. But perhaps the most important is a steadfast sense of curiosity. The cultivation of this quality in pursuit of addressing human needs propelled me into the world of counseling.

The need for curiosity permeates our experience. As clinicians, we are faced with a multitude of ill-defined concerns. Curiosity promotes the therapeutic condition of viewing our clients without judgment as we invite them to tell us their stories and empathically place ourselves in their shoes. It helps us soften our approach while we build rapport and establish collaborative relationships. As we work to navigate issues without clear-cut solutions, it is this quality that allows for constant revision of our understanding regarding change and appropriate avenues of practice. Resting just outside our keen skills and knowledge of theories and systems, it is curiosity that helps us maintain genuine vitality. It ensures we never stop striving to do our best work.

As counselor educators, curiosity allows us to take a step back and challenge our students to express their own ideas, opinions and gifts. Such a position removes the “expert and receiver of information” quality from the classroom while establishing a true community of learning where we gain as much from our students as they do from us. Curiosity encourages inquiry and reflection. From a practical standpoint, it helps to keep our approaches fresh by seeking creative methods. Finally, in line with our values of cultural awareness and advocacy, it is incumbent on us to inspire and motivate a sense of curiosity in the students we teach. For it is with this sense we come to develop an appreciation of multiple perspectives.

As counseling researchers, curiosity drives us to continually ask “what if” questions while we develop and test hypotheses. Finding and addressing gaps in our knowledge base is increased. In the course of conducting research, curiosity helps us step beyond our own personal beliefs, biases and assumptions, thereby allowing for new ideas and possibilities to emerge. Likewise, it helps us persist as we seek insights to challenging questions.

While curiosity may be seen as an intrinsic personal quality, I would argue this dimension is an inherently embedded and necessary part of our profession. It allows us to continually address and update our assumptions regarding human behavior. Personal growth is afforded because we never stop learning about others and ourselves. Ultimately, it enhances the level of empowerment we may offer. The quality of intellectual curiosity also acts as an umbrella, arching over so many of the aforementioned aspects of our work, shielding them and allowing us to weather the turbulence of uncertainty we so often encounter.

 

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Claire Nawojchik, University of Virginia

Grand prize winner, Ross Trust Graduate Student Essay for Future School Counselors

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

9:30 a.m. I am a 6-year-old boy whose mother abandoned me. I have been humiliated, injured and ignored. I don’t talk much.

10:00 a.m. I am a 10-year-old girl with few friends. I am ashamed of my weight, and sometimes I hate myself. I act tough at school and push people around so that they are too afraid to make fun of me.

11:00 a.m. I am a mother of three girls who are new to the school. I don’t trust a lot of people, and I feel like everyone is judging me and my children. But I need help. I had my first child when I was 14. I work two jobs. My children need school supplies, coats and gloves. I pretend it doesn’t embarrass me to ask.

 

The longer I work as a school counseling intern, and the closer I get to my goal of becoming a professional school counselor, the more I am moved by the transformative power of empathy. Over the course of one day on the job, I am able to interact with many different people, immerse myself in their realities and feel what they are feeling. I was attracted to the school counseling profession in part because I am drawn to other people’s stories. I want to know what experiences shaped who they are now, how they grew up, who cares for them, what they dream about and what they want to become. I want to know people well enough that I can help them realize potential they never knew they had.

I have learned that the only way to empower someone to change is to first meet them where they are, listen to them and genuinely care about them. I appreciate that the counseling profession challenges me to find out who I am, be authentic and confront my own biases and weaknesses, all while immersing myself into the alternate realities of others’ lives. I need to be empathetic enough to see the world through other individuals’ eyes; to understand their motivations, fears and perceptions of the world; to accept them wholly, unconditionally and nonjudgmentally. But I also need to never lose sight of my own identity. I know that if I lost myself in the fear, apathy, sadness and pessimism of every student that I talk to, then I too would be stuck, and I would lose the ability to empower them.

I pursued the school counseling profession because I want to help people succeed. School counseling allows me to interact with students face-to-face and provide them with the resources, emotional support and motivation they need to continue to improve, adapt and grow without me. Counseling is powerful enough that the students I meet with will always carry what they gained from our therapeutic relationship within themselves. That power — to empower others through empathy — is the reason I came to the counseling profession and the reason that I will stay a school counselor for as long as I am able.

 

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Runner Up

Brad Carmichael, Old Dominion University

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

Throughout my journey to become a counselor I have been inspired by three characteristics of the profession. The first characteristic is the emphasis on taking a strengths-based approach with clients. This approach limits the power differential between counselor and client and focuses on what the client is bringing to the therapeutic relationship rather than what they may be lacking. Remaining attentive to strengths rather than deficits allows clients to naturally progress towards their goals of achieving more mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual fulfillment. In my studies I have learned that focusing on wellness rather than pathology lays the foundation for helping clients with what they want to become rather than what an outsider’s clinical judgment says they should become.

 

The second characteristic of counseling is the focus on development through the lifespan. Every client is at a different point in his or her life. Accordingly, clients carry with them all of the insights from the past and questions for the future. They are always learning and reflecting; as such they are naturally encountering difficult thoughts and emotions. Given this, one would be hard pressed not to conceptualize clients as at various points in development. The human condition is not a static existence; it is constantly moving and changing. This understanding has been essential to my journey, because it has allowed me to see clients as taking me along for the ride as opposed to stopping by a therapeutic repair shop to be fine-tuned. Focusing on client growth throughout a lifespan will continue to be an important characteristic of the profession as I too continue in my development.

 

The third characteristic of counseling that has shaped my journey is a sense of multicultural awareness. Maintaining multicultural sensitivity allows counselors to see a client for his or her strengths as they are identified within his or her respective culture(s) and not what he or she is lacking based on the standards of a different culture. When clients come to counseling they are coming in with richly diverse beliefs, traditions, and experiences that have shaped the lens through which they see the world. These factors can help promote resiliency and wellness throughout the counseling process. As a developing counselor, I have come to learn that ignoring or minimizing these factors of a client’s identity would be equivalent to robbing them of the very means by which they cope with everyday stressors.

 

Maintaining a strengths-based approach, conceptualizing clients developmentally, and fostering multicultural awareness have had a profound impact on my professional and personal development. As I move forward in my academic training I will embrace these characteristics that have inspired me to pursue a career as a professional counselor.

 

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Runner Up

Erin Wenzel, Antioch University Seattle

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

The counseling profession creates a space unlike any other in our society. This space is inherently understood and honored by counselors, yet is nearly intangible in its fragile and amorphous nature. But for the counselor’s compassion and skill, the space would evaporate like a thin mist in the sun. It is the space to bear witness. Counseling creates a moment in time when social illusions need not apply; when facades and shields may be temporarily set aside; when a client may speak their own truth and share a reality that would wilt without an unguarded, accepting witness.

 

Our clients hold realities that are often unacceptable in a culture that expects politeness, smiles and niceties in the face of suffering, and a suppression of undesirable truths. Who will bear witness to the stories of incest survivors, if not counselors? Who will sit and honor shame and regret? Who will bear witness to the actualities of abuse, cruelty, poverty, oppression and pain, if not counselors? This profession creates a space for truth that need not be covered over, prettied up, dulled down, or remade. Counseling replaces social mores with curiosity, excitement, forgiveness and an unlimited number of opportunities for expanding into one’s potential, bursting through the need to play nice. This work gives room for the existence of dangerous, ugly, profound, and enlivening truths that would never see daylight without the heart of a witness.

 

The opportunity that counseling creates for raw humanity is the characteristic that drew me to this work. I am honored to sit with clients who allow me to be the first witness to their story. I watch as healing takes place not from hearing answers, but from feeling seen. Clients bring a vulnerability to this work that amazes me each and every time. Sharing their worlds with us requires a trust and strength that we are privileged to sit beside, and they take this risk for the mere chance that perhaps we will be the witness that they have not yet found. They hope that just maybe, we are compassionate enough, open enough, and expansive enough to hold their world in our mind, even for a brief moment.

 

As I transition into the counseling profession, I am invigorated by the opportunity to be an observer to the parts of our world that we can so easily pretend are not there. I am moved by the opportunity to see people—real, mammalian, angelic, earth and sweat and soul people. For one hour, I get to sit with a genuine human being who is offering their truth to this little space that we have made together. When I close the door at the end of the day, heading back into the realm of my own facades and social roles, I close a door on a sacred world, allowed possible only through the devoted work of the many witnesses who have lovingly built this profession, this hallowed space.

 

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Runner Up

Julia Olson, Regis University

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

As both a visual artist and aspiring counselor, I enjoy integrating creativity with my desire to help other people. My journey down this path came into being roughly ten years ago. I was a young student at a liberal arts school in Chicago when I began to experience a new kind of shocking reality. I had an outspoken British art professor who cursed a lot and introduced me to the radical works of several performance artists. Among many of these inspirational creators was my favorite feminist artist, Cuban-born Ana Mendieta, who used her body to imprint her silhouette out in the natural world. I fell into a deep love of performance art and its beautifully enigmatic and ephemeral qualities, but also its creative ability to question unhelpful social constructions and transcend perception. In short, this type of art opened my eyes to a richer understanding of the world, which I believe had therapeutic parallels to my own sense of wellbeing.

 

Creativity holds a special place in my heart, and therefore several creative characteristics of the counseling profession have profoundly shaped my quest to become a counselor. For me, these creative characteristics involve important counseling practices, including the need to remain open-minded and flexible within our counseling relationships. For example, creative thinking often involves acknowledging that there are multiple ways of being in this world and that there is rarely a one-size-fits-all answer in a field that embraces cultural sensitivity, vast areas of “gray,” and the dynamic and often ambiguous qualities of experience.

 

Moreover, because creative thinking honors experience as elusive and ever changing, it fosters a collaborative and curious orientation with clients. It reminds us that we are in fact not the experts on the content of our clients’ lives, but merely skilled in guiding them through the therapeutic process. On the same note, creative thinking imagines multiple avenues for exploration and is therefore what gives us our ability to work with our “third eye” to help our clients discover solutions that are meaningful to them.

Above all, creativity in counseling is expansive. It has the power to expand the borders of the counseling room by inviting clients to engage with the larger world. This happens when counselors use their imaginations to dream up new ways of helping clients to connect not just with counseling, but also with other aspects of life and with other people. Reflecting on my time in college, I realize that it was not necessarily my isolated relationship with the arts that moved me towards a more meaningful path. Rather, it was that relationship’s ability to inspire and facilitate my new experiences in the world.

 

I believe the counselor’s role is similar to the role artwork has played in my life: to help deepen and make meaningful one’s journey in the world. For this reason, it is the creative aspects of counseling – flexibility, openness to cultural differences, collaborative curiosity, and expansive concern with meaning-making –that have most animated my quest to become a counselor.

 

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Runner Up

Tanya Willson, Barry University

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

Sitting at the kitchen table, a tear rolls down a young woman’s nose and onto her lined notebook paper. I encourage her to write down something she has control over. She chokes up and tells me “nothing.” As a direct care worker at a rural residential treatment center for teens, I know I am beyond my pay scale and professional scope. I yearn to help her see her situation differently, but I know I do not have the knowledge or skills, having only completed a bachelor’s degree. This moment solidifies for me my desire to become a therapist.

 

My search for a graduate degree program that fit my goals proved to be more daunting than I had anticipated. I knew I wanted to counsel and facilitate change for people who were suffering, but as I looked into programs for social work and psychology, the courses did not seem to have anything to do with understanding a person as an individual and assisting with change. While learning about social trends and participating in research to uncover cognitive patterns sounded interesting, I could not see how those courses of study would help me become an effective psychotherapist.

 

Eventually, through searching all the graduate programs within a university’s education department, I clicked onto a counseling program webpage. The course titles intrigued me: counseling skills, group counseling, and multicultural issues. I felt a resonance as I read the course descriptions – the knowledge I would gain in this program would help me learn the skills and become the type of person who could help others improve their lives. Before I started my master’s degree, I saw that the focus of counseling was dedicated to the growth of individuals and families, rather than simply studying people.

 

As I have studied counseling, practiced as a counselor, and now study to become a counselor educator, I have felt that resonance grow with my professional identity. Counseling uniquely encourages practitioners to stand by the side of their clients, rather than convey expert guidance. While at times this characteristic of the profession has been difficult for me to fully adopt within myself, my pursuit of it has generated rich personal and professional growth.

 

Today if I could sit at that kitchen table again, I would know what to say to that young woman as she cried. As a counselor, I would be with her in that moment. I would not need to diagnose her, tell her how her feelings relate to her family of origin, society’s expectations of her, or tell her how to change her feelings, although I have the knowledge to do those things. Being a counselor means using that knowledge to foster a relationship where she has the ability to achieve her own wellness.

 

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Runner Up

Sara Pomerantz, University of Vermont

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

I came into existence at about the same time the American Mental Health Counselors Association began its grassroots movement toward becoming a professionally recognized organization, and in many ways our identities overlap. The principles that underpin the counseling profession that have most inspired my pursuit of this work include: the wellness and strengths-based focus; the conceptualization of the individual from the ecological perspective; and the strong propensity toward advocacy and social justice. These characteristics both draw me in, and inspire me to continue on this journey towards my own personal and professional congruency.

 

Raised in a small town nestled in the green mountains of Vermont, my life has always been oriented toward wellness and the integration of body, mind and spirit. I developed mindfulness at an early age as my senses became attuned with the natural world–the sound of the brook rushing over rocks, the wind whistling over the mountain and stirring the treetops, the stillness of a silent mid-winter’s snow. I learned to find equanimity not only by falling into rhythm with the natural world, but also through the solidarity I experienced as a member of my local community.

 

One need not look further than the natural world to appreciate the interconnectedness of all living things—how the roots, trunk, limbs and leaves of the tree work together to sustain its life, and yet how impacted the tree is by external factors, such as wind, whether, exposure and erosion. Similarly, individuals live among spheres of influence. Therefor, in order to holistically address the multifaceted human experience, a counselor must be able to work at multiple levels. This requires that we adjust our individually focused micro lens to encompass the larger socio-cultural landscape.

 

The third characteristic that motivates me toward this profession involves the counselor’s ability to promote social justice and advocacy. Born into unearned privilege in a rural community marked by disparate socio-economic discrepancy, this is perhaps the most salient reason why I chose to become a counselor. As a member of the board of directors for Hannah’s House, our local, non-profit counseling center, named in honor of my friend who lost her life to mental illness, I am able to begin to challenge some of the systemic factors that impact access to care.

 

The area I live in is unique because while counselors from outside our community often choose not to commute to our area, counselors living within the community struggle with the ethical challenges inherent to working and living in a small town. Taking these contextual considerations into account, I am grateful for the training I am receiving from the University of Vermont’s counseling program, and I am eager for the day I open my door for practice. Like water flowing over a path carved by time, I like to think that I am not only influenced by each of the aforementioned factors, but that I am also a reciprocal agent of change, able to carve and shape the future of this profession.

 

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Runner Up

Danielle A Sheppard, Argosy University

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

Advocacy is a major characteristic that shaped my quest to become a counselor. Experiencing many life challenges, allowed me to understand how important advocacy can be in today’s society. Having a bachelors in Political Science and pursuing a master’s in mental health counseling, allows me the opportunity to work in versatile areas such as advocacy and mental health.

 

Advocacy pertains to three levels in the counseling profession: advocating for the clients, ourselves, and advocating for the profession. As a student, I continued to learn the importance of advocating for clients. While pursuing my master’s degree, I was homeless for 16 months. During my time of being homeless, I experienced the lack of support, lack of education of where to go for help, and the lack of skilled helping professionals; the same that other people experienced, rather homeless or not. I experienced these same challenges after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The mental and emotional abuse I endured from other mental health professionals, case managers, and other helping professionals was very painful and embarrassing all at the same time. Many individuals who I was homeless with expressed his/her concerns to me and mentioned that these are the reasons they do not seek professional help. I found it very difficult to advocate for my clients at times because I was experiencing the same treatment as they were experiencing.

 

Advocacy on the clients level can allow counselors to bring forth some of these issues that many counselors are not aware of in this profession. Advocacy can address other issues that pertain to clients, such as un- representation of certain populations, lack of skills and knowledge of how to work with clients from different backgrounds, and clients lack of knowledge of his/her rights when seeking help from counseling professionals.

 

Advocating for ourselves is probably one of the hardest things any counseling professional has to do. As a student, there are several areas of concerns that I would like to address, but do not know how to bring them to the right person’s attention. As a neophyte to counseling, students need adequate training and skills to help them become better counselors. During this time of our professional growth, we are learning how to juggle school, work, internship, home life, and other things that fit into this category. Burnout can happen very easily and quickly in this profession if we do not take care of ourselves. The need for observant and supportive clinical supervisors are critical in assisting us in addressing self-care and any other issues that we may have that can affect our training and learning experience.

 

Advocating for the counseling profession allows counseling professionals the opportunity to make aware areas that may not get any representation, such as a lack of organized agencies and facilities for counseling professionals and student interns. Advocating brings awareness to limited help, treatment, and care because of federal funding, misrepresentation of federal money, and the lack thereof; and making known the importance of the counseling profession in today’s society.

 

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Runner Up

Laura Preston, Campbell University

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

Presence. The act of being present with someone. Listening with your with whole self.

 

It’s like oxygen….giving a life breathe to the one who is sharing their story.

 

It was early March 1958 in the very northern part of New York State. The temperature was frigid. The family farm was located many miles outside a very small rural farm town. The fire started in the middle of the night. One child awoke and tried to wake the others. Taking a younger brother (the only one she could awaken) with her, she walked more than a mile in the frigid winter ice, snow and wind to alert the firemen. The fire ravaged the home and the family (13 children, 2 parents). Both parents perished in the fire along with a 19 year son, a 12 year old daughter, a 10 year old daughter, a 9 year old son and a six year old daughter. The others would start a journey mired with grief. Only one would survive physically, emotionally and spiritually. The other physical survivors fought the memories and demons of that night alone, without counseling, finally succumbing to the tragedy through suicide and/or addiction. The physical and emotional survivor was resilient due in part to the lifeline offered by a compassionate listener.

 

Tragedy continues to impact families every day. Tragedy comes in many forms, often accompanied by the co-contributor called loss. Together tragedy and loss can cause damage that will impact families for generations. The counselor who can be present with an individual offers a life breathe not only to the potential survivor of the tragedy and loss situation, but offers a life breathe to future generations.

 

This is the particular characteristic of the counseling profession that most shaped my quest to become a counselor. It is personal. The family farm that perished in March 1958 was my grandparents homestead. The counselors who have impacted the generations that followed the fire tragedy were present and compassionate professionals who understood that the ability to listen, be empathetic and present were the lifeline that reached through a generation to produce the healthy individual that I am.

 

Be present. Offer that essential lifeline to the generations.

 

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Runner Up

Mary Feamster, Appalachian State University

 

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?

As a child, I adored school. It wasn’t just that I loved to learn, but that I had a place where I felt safe and supported. My home life was unstable and painful, but I found solace with a few key adults who served as my foundation, ‘counseling’ me until I could support myself and find my own way. Those individuals inspired me to pursue a life of service to others; in hopes of returning the kindnesses and guidance that I had been given. I now realize that they embodied the same characteristics that draw me to the school counseling profession: unwavering support, compassion, and creative problem-solving.

 

Counselors are unique from many other professionals in that we seek to support clients in their darkest hours. We are not trained as EMTs or surgeons, yet we have the ability to change or even save lives by giving our clients unwavering support in times of crisis. Because I have struggled and turned to others for support in my own life, I find that I feel especially compassionate toward others facing difficult life circumstances or decisions. This shaped my quest to help others, and ultimately helped me decide to pursue school counseling. I am drawn to the opportunities within the school counseling profession to support students in their times of need.

 

Another trait that draws me to this profession is the emphasis on emotional openness and generosity. Compassion is not often billed as a professional necessity, but for counselors, it is. We listen and reflect the most raw, powerful, and painful emotions, sometimes exhausting ourselves in the process. We must bring our authentic, genuine selves to each relationship; whether with a distraught child or a hardened teenager. The compassion of other caring, helping people has made a huge impact on my life, and I take pride in the emphasis the school counseling profession places on compassion and authenticity.

 

As a lifelong learner with a restless mind, I delight in the creative problem solving required of counselors on a daily basis. Counselors cannot be repetitive or shell out the same advice to client after client. We respect that each individual is unique, and we must participate in continuing education and development to constantly update the toolbox of strategies we have for collaboration and creative problem solving with clients. This need for constant learning and improving ensures a high quality of care for clients and means that the profession is always evolving, expanding, and changing for the better

 

I am comforted knowing that I am choosing to enter a profession, however difficult it may be at times, that includes the rewards of providing unwavering support, compassion, and creative problem-solving to clients. I am inspired by the counselors, counselor educators, and fellow students around me who already embody these traits on a daily basis. Finally, I look forward to joining this profession and practicing support, compassion, and problem-solving in my own work.

 

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Runner Up

MaryBeth Yeaman, Purdue University

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?
Implementing positive movement and change within a school culture, as well as in the surrounding community is a characteristic of school counseling that has always stimulated my interest.
School counseling is a multidimensional career that touches the lives of students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members on a daily basis. Interacting with such a diverse population as those connected to a school culture allows the school counselor to model behaviors and actions that motivate constructive change in what may be problematic situations. Forging a connection with the student themselves is rewarding for both the counselor and the student.
The school counselor’s consistent and direct interaction with the students allows them to be known by someone interested in their unique story. As simple as it sounds, the mere fact that the school counselor takes the time to make the students feel welcomed and connected in their school may be the difference between a good day and a bad day for the student. It is beneficial as well, for a school counselor to facilitate connections with community members that may act as guides for students, as well as offering opportunities outside the educational walls for the benefit of students needing assistance or motivation on their educational journey.
Well-trained school counselors can be supports for teachers overwhelmed by the struggles of trying to meet the needs of all their students, while staying mindful of the ever-changing regulations of curriculum standards. Building a trusting relationship with teachers, as well as administrators, allows for greater impact regarding any programs or initiatives that the school counselor may implement. School counselors continually work to maintain relationships that augment the stability and respect shared among the adults within a school culture, thus allowing for greater receptiveness and accessibility regarding the implementation of the school counselors’ assessed needs initiatives.
Supporting and educating parents is another role that a school counselor must actively provide. A student’s home environment either creates a resiliency within the student to keep them moving forward or an obstacle that blocks their progress. Assisting parents in the acquisition of knowledge pertaining to increasing their student’s academic success, as well as helping them understand the unmet educational requirements for continued success is an important aspect of the school counselor’s responsibilities. Informed parents displaying an invested attitude can better prepare and assist their children on their educational journey.
This brings me to the reason I am pursuing a degree in school counseling and the most important part of a school counselor’s job, advocating for their students’ best interest. Forging and maintaining connections with all the various adults that, directly or indirectly, affect the environment that a student exists in, is a necessity to create positive movement and change for the student. School counselors help to build a better present and future for the students through these connections.

 

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Runner Up

Danielle Sheppard, Northeastern Illinois University

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?
One of the students at my internship site told me that every morning on the bus ride to school there is an elderly White woman who clutches her purse when she sees him and sucks in her breath “as if she believes I’m going to steal her breath or something.” The student believes the woman reacts to him this way because he is Black. I am sad, angry and appalled that this is his experience every morning. His story serves as a jolting reminder that folks everywhere are experiencing all kinds of instances where people judge them without knowing a thing about them. And it hurts.

 

I told the young man that I was sorry he went through that. He shrugged his shoulders and said that “it’s alright.” I could tell it really wasn’t though. And it’s not. We as a society are enduring a volatile era of change that centers on new discussions about the impact of racism, sexism, homophobia, able-ism, immigration, etc. on our society as a whole and within local communities, families and among individuals. And these larger societal forces are inevitably spilling into classrooms, the work place, and people’s homes — making safe, non judgmental environments like counseling can provide, all the more critical.

 

It is the characteristic of being non-judgmental, of checking my personal biases so that I can truly listen, and truly “seeing” another person that drew me to the counseling field. Growing up in extreme poverty as a small child and being surrounded by people who often dealt with the stress of poverty in unhealthy and unsafe ways started me off on a path that might have lead to continued harmful cycles if it were not for the intervention of supportive social services like counseling. Being in counseling allowed me to finally understand what it felt like to be seen for who I am and not be judged. My life’s mission is to ensure this same environment for others. The characteristic of non-judgment got me where I am; it will be what keeps me in the field for rest of my career.

 

Being non-judgmental is the foundation of the counseling field. It is our “true North,” should we lose our direction at any time. Though it is not always possible to be completely free of judgment—we counselors are human after all— the fact that it is what we strive for, that it is our intention so that we may truly help people, makes the counseling field miraculous and something I’m honored to be a part of.

 

There is enough pressure, hate, and hurtful messages like the one my student described from the outside world. Sometimes even friends and family members are not able to “see” their loved one without an agenda—even if it is a well-meaning one.

 

So folks come to us counselors for support, for solace and because they know that the only true agenda we have is to ask “How are you doing?” And from there, we listen.

 

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Runner Up

Miranda Pool, Vanderbilt University

 

Which particular characteristics of the counseling profession shaped your quest to become a counselor?
Squeeze. Smoosh. Inhale. Exhale. The purple Play-Doh ball leaves tiny crumbs on the dark smooth surface of the table as the girl’s small hands work its form into a lumpy person. An outside observer may see a nine-year-old child and a supervising adult playing casually in a classroom on a Monday afternoon, but I know better. A cursory glance doesn’t reveal what I see and feel: the increasingly calm breaths from the little girl across from me as her hands mold the dough, the way the purple shapes help her tell the stories she can’t articulate with words, the weight that is lifted from her tiny shoulders as flashes of a smile – complete with pink-banded braces – creep across her often serious face. To me, this silent communication – a connection without the need for explicit or formulaic tactics – is counseling in its purest form.

 

The adaptability and space to shape counseling around what individual clients need is what speaks to me most about this profession. To be an excellent counselor, my responsibilities are to establish safe and supportive relationships with my clients through listening to their stories and accepting them as they are, to understand the ways in which they will most effectively communicate and connect, and to collaboratively use these identified modalities to help them work toward growth and healing.

 

Where this becomes inexpressibly, urgently, and exuberantly inspiring for me is in my work as a school counselor for children with special needs. Before entering this field I, like many, envisioned counseling as two people sitting in comfortable chairs discussing feelings: a largely verbal experience. While this may work for some, how do you adapt when your client is a six-year-old with ADHD and high sensory input needs who has trouble sitting still, a middle-school student who has language processing deficits that make spoken language challenging to understand and express, or a non-verbal eighteen-year-old who uses a wheelchair and has limited manual mobility? The emotional needs of all these individuals are just as important as those of a “typical” client; they need just as much support regarding a parents’ divorce, a loss, or anxiety. The task – and the expression of love that shaped my quest to become a counselor – is how to support these clients when the sit-and-talk approach simply does not fit.

 

I was drawn to the counseling profession because it allows me to focus on my clients as individuals and adapt my techniques accordingly. If drawing pictures of her worries helps a little girl who is unable to communicate her feelings effectively, we spend our session surrounded by crayons. If simply stretching on a yoga mat helps a child with ADHD and anxiety finds calm during her mother’s cancer diagnosis, we create a tranquil atmosphere that allows her to breathe. And if sculpting clay helps an anxious student with a learning disability, we sit together on quiet Monday afternoons and create lumpy worlds out of purple Play-Doh.

 

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