Heather Trepal, when asked to describe her close friend, mentor and colleague Thelma Duffey, paints a picture of passion and action. “She is not someone who shies away from things,” says Trepal, an associate professor in the department of counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). “When she does something, she does it 100 percent. … She is a visionary leader. She leads with purpose. She doesn’t just want to talk about ideas, [she wants to] make them happen.”
Duffey, a professor and chair of UTSA’s department of counseling, becomes the American Counseling Association’s 64th president on July 1, succeeding Robert Smith. Her term will run through June 30, 2016.
A counselor educator for more than two decades, Duffey also runs a private practice in San Antonio. She founded an ACA division, the Association for Creativity in Counseling (ACC), in 2004 and
remains editor of the division’s journal, the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.
“She’s 24/7. Her passion exists all the time,” Trepal says. “She’s always excited about new things. She invests deeply in the profession and in the things she cares about.”
Duffey’s friends and colleagues describe her as a big thinker and hard worker who is at the same time collaborative, relational and inclusive. Perhaps that boils down to another characteristic that Trepal uses to describe her — genuineness. Duffey is the same person with her students and fellow faculty members as she is with her friends and family, Trepal says.
Above all, Duffey is a devoted mother, daughter and friend, says Marcheta Evans, a past president of ACA and the vice president of academic affairs and dean at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.
“She’s like the yin to my yang,” Evans says with a chuckle. “She helps me see the other sides [of issues and situations] that maybe I need to see. She’s one of the most giving people I know. I know that no matter what’s happening in my life, I can call her. In the good times and the bad times, I can always count on her to be there.”
“You could not ask for anyone better to serve as the ACA president,” Evans continues. “She’s been a blessing to my family and in my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for her. She will be a blessing to the association too.”
From classroom to counseling
Duffey began her professional career as a public school teacher in South Texas, first as a classroom and reading teacher to migrant children at a junior high school and later as a high school language teacher of Spanish and French.
In the early 1980s, Duffey took a break from teaching to stay at home with her young children. One day, while out shopping, she ran into one of her former teacher supervisors. The two chatted for a while, and about an hour later, Duffey’s phone rang with a call that would ultimately change her career trajectory.
Remembering their past work together and how Duffey had thrived on the relational aspect of teaching, Duffey’s former boss offered her a position as a teacher for homebound students in the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio. “It was a wonderful opportunity, and I continue to always be grateful for that experience,” Duffey says.
Duffey says the job, which involved working with homebound students who had chronic or terminal illnesses such as brain tumors, expanded the definition of “teacher,” allowing her to serve in more of a nontraditional, nonacademic support role for the youth and their families. Many of the students in the program, which ran from kindergarten through high school, were part of military families who came for specialized care at hospitals in San Antonio.
As part of the program, Duffey worked with students in their homes and got to know their families. When students were hospitalized, she met with them there. Sometimes she would take students for a drive, to a favorite restaurant or to a park and “just talk,” Duffey says. “In fact, it was in getting to know these children, and through my work with them, that I realized I wanted to be a counselor.”
Soon thereafter, she began working toward her master’s degree in mental health counseling and substance abuse. Her career shift from teacher to counselor was a smooth one, Duffey says, in part because she was able to do her counseling practicum internship in the homebound student program where she had taught previously. Working with terminally and chronically ill students in the homebound program also set her up to specialize in issues of grief and loss as a counselor. This carried over into her work as a private practitioner and, eventually, as a college professor.
Duffey’s time with the homebound students also helped her connect to the “challenges that families face and how relationships are what’s truly important in life,” she says.
Duffey acknowledges that the relational aspect of counseling draws her to the profession and makes it a good fit with her values. “One of the things I’m most proud of with respect to our profession is that it’s a mental health profession grounded in relationships,” she says. “Relationships are at the core of our definition of counseling. We’re a profession that doesn’t seek to pathologize people but rather to connect with them and to work with them from a strength-based approach to meet their goals. … People go through so many difficult challenges. If we don’t look at [context] when working with people, and instead simply look at their behaviors and symptoms, we’re not going to accurately see what they’re experiencing, and we may not guide them in a helpful direction.”
As ACC’s founder, Duffey is widely known for the creativity that she brings to the profession. But she explains that it’s not always her own creativity that fosters growth in clients.
“Historically, if I were to have come up with five adjectives to describe myself, I don’t think creative would have been on the list,” she says. “Some people have the mistaken belief, as did I, that creativity involves having a particular artistic or exceptional talent [to use in counseling]. I now see creativity as an innate human quality that can be shared in counseling. We use our creativity when we problem-solve, brainstorm, become inspired, connect with one another and envision new possibilities for the future.”
“Growth can happen when we are able to shift perspectives, thoughts and feelings, and our creativity fuels these shifts,” she adds.
Counselors can use a client’s favorite hobby, pastime, movie, musical artist or TV show to foster the therapeutic alliance and work toward growth, she says. For example, song lyrics or a character or plot point from a movie or book might offer a creative avenue to help explain an issue or feeling.
Duffey recounts working with one young client who struggled with communication. The client had seen numerous counselors but hadn’t experienced much success. Duffey learned that the young woman was passionate about music, so she asked the client if she would like to create a musical scrapbook — a “soundtrack” of things that she’d like to say using some of her favorite songs. The exercise helped the young woman become more expressive. Over time, and while sharing her music, she began to make eye contact when speaking.
“I wanted her to talk to me in any way she could,” Duffey recalls. “Music was a medium, a way for her to communicate and tell her story. It gave me information and helped us connect. Music can be powerful and connecting.”
A music lover herself, Duffey has a personal library of more than 8,000 songs from a variety of genres that she shares with interested clients. She developed an intervention she calls “A Musical Chronology and the Emerging Life Song” to use with clients who show an interest in bringing music into their sessions. The intervention is intended to help people tell and revisit their stories, identify a baseline representing the point when they entered counseling, establish goals for the future and, in some cases, reconsider their stories in light of their processing, she says.
Duffey asks clients working with this intervention to select a song for the present that represents where they are in life and a song for the future that represents where they hope to go. “In situations where we use the Musical Chronology, the music [lyrics] serve as a metaphor for what their counseling goals will be,” she says.
Duffey offers another real-life example of using creativity in counseling. One of her clients was grieving after her son was killed in a car accident. The client wasn’t comfortable going to support groups or talking with people about her son’s death. She did, however, attend counseling and put energy into working on projects at home, including painting her front door a bright color, creating and maintaining a backyard garden, making a shadow box scrapbook featuring memories of her son and collecting heart-shaped rocks.
Although speaking about her son was difficult, even in counseling sessions, the client could easily talk about what she had been doing at home that week, Duffey says. “She’d begin the sessions by filling me in on her projects and then transition into her thoughts and feelings about her loss,” Duffey explains. “She was amazingly resourceful, and I believe that for a while there, her creative projects are what kept her going.”
“Had she not brought stories about her creativity and day-to-day life into our work, we would have been leaving out a very important part of her experience,” Duffey continues. “If we focus on our agenda, instead of on what the client brings [into counseling], like their creativity and resourcefulness, we can miss the mark.”
The birth of ACC
It was Duffey’s use of creativity in her own counseling practice that led her to start organizing conferences on creativity for mental health practitioners in Texas. The conferences were a way to share ideas and resources, says Duffey, and an opportunity for local counseling students to participate in affordable and accessible events in their own backyards.
The popularity of the Texas conferences prompted Duffey to take the idea nationwide and launch an organization focused on creativity in counseling. Duffey was the driving force behind ACC’s beginnings — identifying potential leaders, designating tasks that needed to be accomplished and establishing its journal. She laughs as she remembers one particular Christmas holiday when she spent time writing invitations for professionals to join ACC as her father, who was visiting from out of town, sat on one side of her and her children sat on the other.
ACC became an official division of ACA in 2004 after being approved by the ACA Governing Council.
“While Thelma always emphasizes the ‘we’ in creativity, she was really inspiring and passionate in her desire to have a home in the American Counseling Association for all of us ‘creative types,’” says Stella Kerl-McClain, a past president of ACC and an associate professor and co-director of the professional mental health counseling program at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. “She really pulled us in to work together to get ACC going.”
In addition to her passion and drive, Duffey is able to deftly manage the inevitable challenges that come with leadership, says Kerl-McClain, who worked with Duffey at Texas State University in the late 1990s and was involved in the launch of ACC. Duffey’s mettle was tested — and proved — when a tragedy occurred shortly before an ACC conference in the association’s early years.
“Something always happens at conferences — someone doesn’t show up, something goes off plan, etc. — and Thelma Duffey will solve it,” Kerl-McClain says. “At one of the early conferences for ACC, we had everything planned and ready to go, [and] then one of our dear colleagues at Texas State University, Lesley Jones, died in a car accident. She was killed by a drunk driver while coming home from work late at night.”
Jones had been a beloved friend and colleague, and the loss was profound. “We didn’t know what to do about the conference,” Kerl-McClain says. “It felt wrong to continue, and yet there were so many plans, people attending, etc. Thelma, in collaboration with the rest of us, decided to postpone the conference by three months. She was able to find a new place to hold it, got a new caterer, refocused the conference, and we even renamed the conference that year after Lesley: the Lesley Jones Creativity in Counseling Conference. It was a beautiful tribute to Lesley and a spectacular conference.”
Ensuring all voices are heard
A hallmark of Duffey’s leadership and professional style is making sure that everyone is included. Evans says she has witnessed this countless times, in everything from faculty meetings to Duffey’s work with ACC and the ACA Governing Council.
“She will do her utmost to make sure all voices are heard,” Evans says. “As a counselor educator and in private practice, she’s very engaged to make sure everyone has a seat and a voice and is not a silent partner.” Duffey has the ability to connect with, relate to and talk to anyone, whether it’s the university president or the office janitor, adds Evans.
“When she’s in the room, you know she’s there,” Trepal says. “She’s an impact player. She has a presence. She’s warm and funny and engaging. She makes people feel comfortable and listened to.
She’s involved in the conversation. She’ll reach out to everyone at the table to make a connection.”
For one of Duffey’s doctoral students, Ben Tae Ligon, that connection came in the form of support and empathy when his brother died unexpectedly in 2010. Ligon took two years off from UTSA after his brother’s death. When he returned, Duffey made sure that he was given the accommodations he needed to pick up where he had left off. For example, Ligon says, it sometimes took him three times as long to complete an assignment as it had before his brother’s death. “She was able to give me the courage to be who I was at that time and move forward with confidence,” he says. “She really heard my voice and connected. I saw authentic empathy.”
Duffey goes out of her way to provide a high level of care for all her students, Ligon says. “She tries to be accessible and available, even if it’s just 30 minutes to talk through an issue,” he says. “She really looks out for her students and for her team.”
Duffey is Ligon’s dissertation chair, and they stay in regular contact. He checks in to let her know that he’s making progress on an assignment; in turn, she touches base to make sure he’s doing OK.
Ligon says Duffey’s support goes above and beyond that of the average teacher or mentor. Duffey even attended Ligon’s wedding on her own birthday.
“When my world was turned upside down, and I was going through a really tough time, she was there for me,” he says. “I can only hope to be like her as a counselor and future counselor educator myself.”
Duffey is particularly attuned to issues surrounding grief and loss, Trepal says. “Not everyone can do that type of work, [but she] can hold other people’s pain. It’s a gift,” Trepal says. “She’s someone who really understands that deeply.”
In addition to her expertise in working with grief and loss, Duffey excels at delivering honest feedback to others, Trepal says.
Duffey and her colleague Shane Haberstroh have created a model that provides a framework for the feedback process, which is an essential skill for counselors and counselor educators to master, Duffey says. This is a new research interest for Duffey and the subject of an upcoming publication.
Duffey has a way of delivering honest feedback so the recipient can truly hear the message without being hurt by it, Trepal says. “She does it in such a masterful way. [Constructive feedback] can be difficult, but she’s so good at it. … She has a way of being able to say it in such a way that the person will be willing to hear it.”
In that same vein, Duffey meets challenges head-on. “In her honest style, she would rather deal with things as they come up, name it and call it like it is,” Trepal says.
Outside of the office
Despite living in the Washington, D.C., area for two different periods of her life, Duffey is a Texan through and through. She grew up in Brownsville — a Gulf Coast city on the Texas/Mexico border — and has worked almost her entire professional life in South Texas and San Antonio.
As the native of a coastal city, going to the beach is still one of Duffey’s favorite pastimes, along with listening to live music, getting together with family and friends, spending time outdoors and working in her yard.
Family plays a central role in Duffey’s life. She is the mother of two grown children, Madelyn and Rob. “I have the most wonderful children ever,” she says. “Their dad, Mike, and I are so proud of them, and we love it when we can all get together.”
Rob lives with his wife, Rachel, and their 2-year-old son, Max, in Brooklyn. “It’s a wonderful thing to see my son being such a terrific dad now. Max is quite the little guy,” Duffey says. Her daughter, Madelyn, just finished graduate school and lives in San Antonio. “Madelyn and I have a very close
relationship, much like my mother and I do. It’s always a treat to spend time with her. It makes my day every time we do.”
Duffey also maintains very strong relationships with her father, Richard, and her mother, Mary, who are both in their 80s and still very active. “I am lucky to be able to see mom most weekends. My dad lives on the coast [of Texas], and we always have a great time when I visit,” Duffey says.
She credits her value of servant leadership to her parents, whom she calls her greatest role models. They were always active and involved in the community throughout Duffey’s childhood and still are today, she says.
Duffey’s father, a retired bank president, has served on many boards throughout the years and has spent eight years on his local city council. Her mother, who also lives in South Texas, has participated in numerous community projects, and for the past 20 years has been actively involved in many ministries through her church. Duffey also remembers accompanying her mother as a child when she would volunteer for the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society and other causes.
Making things happen
Duffey’s friends and colleagues agree that her family’s example; her experiences as a professor, researcher, writer, mentor and counselor in private practice; and her vibrant personality and work ethic will lead to an active, forward-thinking presidency.
“She is a listener! She will listen and listen and listen, and then she’ll think outside the box and figure out something that nobody has thought about to solve a problem,” Kerl-McClain says. “[As ACA president], I think she will really listen to what needs to be done and will figure out a way to get it done. She will have a vision of what is possible and, guess what? She’ll be right! She has a way of engaging people to make it happen.”
Thelma Duffey at a glance
- Licensed professional counselor
- Licensed marriage and family therapist
- Professor of counseling and counseling department chair, College of Education and Human Development, University of Texas at San Antonio
- Doctor of Philosophy in counseling, St. Mary’s University in San Antonio
- Master of Arts in mental health counseling and substance abuse, St. Mary’s University
- Master of Education, Trinity University, San Antonio
- Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, French minor, Trinity University
- Founder and past president of the Association for Creativity in Counseling
- Editor, Journal of Creativity in Mental Health
- Author, Creative Interventions in Grief and Loss Therapy: When the Music Stops,
a Dream Dies (2005)
- Co-author, with Matt Englar-Carlson and Marcheta Evans, A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men (2014)
- Special talents: Fluent in Spanish and, according to her friends and colleagues, has a flair for fashion. Both Evans and Trepal said they call Duffey for fashion advice and inspiration.
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
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