[EDITOR’s NOTE: This is an online-only companion article to the September cover story that appeared in the print edition of Counseling Today.]
Professional counselors find their way into the profession in a multitude of ways. Some individuals know it is their calling even in their undergraduate years. Others enter the counseling profession after first having had a career in another field or returning to the workforce after raising children. Still others are inspired to pursue training as counselors at the suggestion of a mentor or after personally encountering the good work of a professional practitioner, either in their own life or in the lives of friends or family members.
Regardless of how they get here, however, they all have one thing in common: a deeply felt calling to help others.
Counseling Today asked American Counseling Association members from across the country to share — in their own words — their personal stories of how and why they entered the profession and the insights they have gained along the way.
The path that lead me to counseling is an interesting one, but I can’t quite see any other way it would have happened for me. I was a psychology major as an undergraduate at New York University when I was hired as a sophomore to work at The Maury Povich Show. I started as the receptionist, but within a year and a half I had been promoted several times and was now a producer, still in my junior year at NYU. I spent the next decade producing Maury, Sally Jesse Raphael and Queen Latifah and was nominated for an Emmy in 1996. Beyond the perceived glitz and glamour of rubbing elbows with celebrities and befriending some of them, was the common thread of dysfunction, pain and grief that all my guests shared.
Having interviewed almost 10,000 people over the course of 10 years, I could hear my calling into the counseling field. These television guests needed help, not just 15 minutes of fame. I often found ways to help the guests by connecting them to therapists in their hometowns, but it never felt like it was enough. Gradually, the episodes I produced became the conduit for my tackling mental health issues in my own way. Granted it was sensationalistic, but I had to try and marry the two fields.
Shortly after retiring from television at age 28, I went back to school to get my graduate degree in social work at NYU. Unfortunately, Sept. 11 happened and I withdrew from classes for personal reasons associated with the attacks. Instead, I decided to become a realtor and open a real estate firm in New York City. Albeit successful, the idea of being a psychotherapist persisted. I eventually closed a lucrative real estate business and pursued [studying] counseling at NYU instead.
Being a professional counselor for me is an extraordinary gift. I have grown personally and professionally in so many ways, and each and every day I continue to learn from both my colleagues and my patients. Originally, my fantasy was to be in private practice working with rich female patients. I had an extreme resistance to working with males in any capacity. My path led me to a social service agency in Brooklyn where I worked with men with severe and persistent mental illness (psychosis) comorbid with substance abuse. I fell in love with all my male clients! It was challenging, but so rewarding. It didn’t take long to figure out the trauma that each of these individuals faced, both in their past and present lives. So I decided to become a trauma specialist.
Today, I run a successful private practice with two colleagues. Together we clinically supervise 10 post-graduate limited-permit counselors, three licensed mental health counselors and four licensed master social workers. Myself, I’m an eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) trauma specialist and work with people to heal trauma-related symptoms. I also utilize cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), neuro-feedback and psychodynamic therapy to help bring about change.
What I have learned, however, is that the best work comes from using my relationship with my patients to identify interpersonal issues and make lasting change. Additionally, I also use my skills as a consultant in group relations work (organizational psych and leadership).
I would advise graduate students to keep their minds open and let the counseling field speak to them. What is it saying to them? Who is it telling them to help? How is it telling them to get there? I think it’s safe to say that we don’t know anything when we graduate, we learn who we are as counselors as we engage with patients and do the work. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into one particular area right out of school, you may just miss out on something spectacular if you do.
- Anthony Freire, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC), EMDR trauma-specialist and clinical supervisor in private practice in the Soho area of Manhattan
I think this profession chose me. It seems that since I was a very young girl, God had this path planned out for me, even though I had no idea. And yet what really brought me to counseling was my own suicide attempt in 2005. Here is what I tell people about why I am a counselor:
“Twelve years ago this August, I attempted suicide. By the grace of God (the hospital staff and modern medicine) I survived. I don’t know what scars you carry, what weighs you down, what trips you up. I don’t know what masks you wear or what dreams you’ve lost, but I do know that the greatest of all gifts is this day.
Choose life. Choose this, your messy life. Your purpose may be unknown, your path may be windy and your heart may be heavy but you have meaning. I am proof that we are more than our scars. Today I am more than my shame — for I know rape, alcoholism, mental illness, cancer, death, child abuse, divorce, abortion, infidelity, bankruptcy, violence, guilt and loss. And I could get bogged down by the very weight of all the scars I carry or I can choose to get up and walk again taking each step and each day as a gift.
If you’re lonely or hurting or struggling to find a way to keep going today, please reach out to someone. You may not see us and you may not know who we are but there are many of us who have been where you are. We’ve felt the pain that you are experiencing that makes death look like the best option – the only option. We’ve learned (I’ve learned) that those thoughts and the situation that you’re in, the doubt, shame, guilt and fear will pass. It will be hard and messy, nevertheless, choose life!
You [can] heal and grow and learn and breathe. I’ve learned to love and I’ve learned to live. Choose life.”
I’m not one for quoting the Bible mostly because my memory isn’t that good and my attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) gets in the way. But recently a friend reminded me of this verse and I think it fits today: Deuteronomy 30:19 “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live …”
I have sat at all sides of the proverbial table, as an adolescent and adult in individual counseling, as a parent (adoptive/foster/biological) in parent-child/family sessions, as an advocate and mental health professional (parent partner and therapeutic foster parent), so being a counselor/therapist seems like a natural fit. Therefore I think I am drawn to this profession because 1) I believe deeply in the impact of good counseling and 2) I want to be a part of change and healing.
I’m a storyteller and a lover of stories. As a little girl I loved books. I read everything I could get my hands on. In my professional life, I listen to people’s stories every day — captivated by their emotions, their history, the personality within their story. I can’t say that I’m a writer or that I’m even good at writing. Yet, as I hear each person’s story, their stories impact me deeply. I hear truth, pain, sorrow and joy in the lives they have led and I feel honored to be a part of their journey.
My advice to others in the profession is to learn about how to run and operate a business and find a mentor or two to help you through the process. Also, do your own work (i.e., engage in your own counseling/therapy with many different therapists). Engage in self-care and don’t let this work take over your own life; protect against compassion fatigue.
- Lily Maino, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice in Windsor, Colorado
I worked as a janitor, repair person, certified welder, office worker and in factory jobs prior to becoming a counselor. I was working in a factory when the boss called me into his office to discuss his concern about coworkers crowding around my work area discussing their issues. At one point he said “I hired you to do shipping and receiving, not be the company shrink.” At that moment it dawned on me that I needed to go to college to become a counselor. I remember saying “You’re right, thank you. Every job that I’ve ever had, the boss talked to me about this. Everyone seems drawn to me to talk about their problems. I quit, I’m going to college.” It dawned on me as I got into my truck that I had no idea how one went to college but I figured it out.
I did seven or so educational programs and have worked in most treatment settings. I’ve been told that I am the “go to” person for the toughest cases but to me, I’m just a guy that was tired of the status quo and decided to design and build his own charity [a nonprofit counseling center]. I like to create things and empower people. I love the toughest situations because when you have conquered those you feel so alive.
What drew me to this profession? People drew me. For some reason they were drawn to me and I had natural gifts for working with people. I decided that they all couldn’t be wrong and that if they were going to come it was my responsibility to get as much training and as broad an experience base as possible. I feel that it is my calling and will do it until I feel I am being called into something else.
The advice I would give to graduate students and new professionals is to never stop learning, never stop expanding your knowledge base, not only professionally but as a person. The broader your knowledge base the more people you can potentially connect with because you will have a better understanding of their frame of reference.
Some folks see weakness in being different. I learned to see [being different as a] strength. Embrace your uniqueness and forget about what society feels someone of your status should be. I have a Ph.D., am certified in two countries [the United States and Canada] as well as a host of other things but I also like to drive farm tractors, frame buildings, do plumbing, restore classic vehicles etc. I can get as dirty as the dirtiest sand hog, clean up and do a doctoral level lecture before delving into something else. Never let anyone dictate what you should do, feel or act. Your power comes from being who you are. Make it matter.
- “Doc Warren” Corson III, a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling of Central Connecticut Inc. and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm.
As a non-traditional student, I had an intense interest in becoming an effective counselor. I appreciated how spending time with folks and listening to what they have to say was beneficial for them, with noticeable relief on their face replacing the distress. I felt rejuvenated after our time together. There came a time that having an undergraduate degree would have been enough for me however, with the changing times employers were notifying staff that a graduate degree was now required to sustain employment. I quickly without hesitation immersed myself. The graduate program was chock-full of information, experience, camaraderie and inspiration.
For me, becoming a therapist was a by-chance chain of events. Coming from a single-parent lifestyle I held several jobs to make ends meet including housekeeping, janitorial, receptionist and health information technician. I was involved in a motor vehicle accident that caused severe injuries which altered my employment opportunities.
During recovery I was led to this profession through re-assessment of life, career and the enjoyment of working with others. Even as a young child, I realized that I loved listening to others, mesmerized at age 3 by the conversations of others, enjoying socialization in adolescence and supporting individuals in adulthood as they struggled with life challenges to liberate themselves from sadness, frustration and fear mounted from their personal experiences. The moment in undergrad we began “fishbowls” (internship and practicum) I knew this was a good fit, offering an opportunity to do what I love as a full-time profession!
CBT is the therapeutic approach I have chosen most often, due to the practicality and positive outcomes I have experienced with clients (and it is an evidenced-based therapy). That’s not to say that I haven’t implemented other modes into my practice. I have learned a few lessons along the way – especially that not one mode will fit all individuals so being flexible and meeting the client where they are and having that conscious awareness [is important]. Understand and be in the moment, be present and mindful of the undercurrent and the unspoken. Have an approachable manner with steadfast boundaries.
Feel comfortable asking questions, reach out to other professionals, pay attention to yourself, carve out time for self- reflection often and develop a strong reserve of self-care techniques to postpone burnout. That being said, I think it is important (and wished I had known what I do now) that you don’t just jump into practice knowing how to do it. You will be learning along the way, things that education does not teach and cannot replace experience, allow yourself to make mistakes for retrospective corrections.
Remain humble because just as you believe you are an expert, along comes a client that will challenge you. Remember: cause no harm is treating within your scope of practice. Refer when you feel it would be the right thing for the client and bring vibrancy and fresh approaches into your practice. Be yourself and enjoy the moment – change what you can to move forward and let go of what you need to in order to grow, and please, do not take anything personally!
- Rhonda J. Cox, LPC, certified addiction counselor and owner/therapist at A New Life Counseling, Inc., Grand Junction, Colorado
What drew me into the counseling profession was much struggle in my own life with depression and anxiety and striving to feel relief from these symptoms. I also always had a desire to help others with their problems. I’ve always been the friend who was the good listener and willing to help others. I also have been in therapy at various times in my life. I could always relate to being the therapist and found everything about the field fascinating. I have also done work with motivational seminars and alternative therapies which have provided much insight and been the perfect complement to traditional therapy. These various modalities have encouraged my continued growth in every area of my life. It’s been a godsend and I’ve never been more happy.
My path has changed recently since I have an interest in family dynamics and how our family history affects us. As a result of learning more about this subject and receiving my mother’s help with our genealogy I was able to get more information about our family and about my ancestor’s stories. Needless to say I was able to see some patterns in family members. Having this insight has allowed me to explore this further and how it relates to my life as well as heal unresolved issues. Understanding this has allowed me to also help clients gain insight as to how family history affects them and how to feel more peace overall with their situation and in their lives.
I specialize in anxiety, depression and addictions as a result of working in various settings with other therapists and psychiatrists, taking courses and workshops as well as personal experiences. My modalities that I use mainly are CBT and psychodynamic. However, I place a strong emphasis on mindfulness, or helping people to slow down and live more in the present.
One big lesson that I have learned is that I’m not going to be the right counselor for everyone. This is difficult when it comes up but some clients do bring up that they don’t feel we have the right chemistry. This makes all the difference in the world when they are sharing their deepest feelings.
If I had to give advice to graduate students I would encourage them to not only look for internships in the field but to read as much as possible on their particular niche and to network with others to learn as much as they can and connect. It’s a great idea to get involved in school and get affiliated with membership organizations helping counselors to expand their knowledge and connecting with others in the field.
Also, students should be sure that this is the work that they will love doing since the field is not known for making too much money, but the rewards far outweigh the salary.
- Jennifer Colton, a LMHC and credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor (CASAC) with locations in Brooklyn and Queens, New York
I was always into counseling, in a manner of speaking, since I began my career in industrial relations. This really involved a lot of counseling in dealing with unions and workmen. Grievance handling, which was an integral part of the role required being both sensitive and open to ideas, content and suggestions. I also realized with time that it took patience and often both of us had own agendas to fulfil. Getting to a mutually acceptable position was always the challenge. Therefore patience was a rewarding enabler. Along the way I also began to develop deeper insights into behavior.
In time, with an improved understanding of my own life position and deeper insights into my own being, drivers, motivations and desires, I began to ask myself how I may add value to those who might need the advantage of my own experience and insights. I consciously moved into learning and experiencing the skills and building the capacity to deal with mental health.
I soon recognized that this space was presently occupied in India only by psychiatrists and there was not much room available nor would they the fraternity allow for influencing such cases. In India counseling for mental health consists more of being a caseworker reporting information to a [medical] doctor. I realized with time that doctor’s orientations were more to do with “healing,” which meant give medication and little emotional support. Therefore I decided that I would like to explore the potential to be able to provide that support rather than being a documentations expert.
I expanded this into getting a professional coaching training and qualification.
I recognized that this was a good input because it helped me to enable my clients to deal with themselves by helping them examine themselves, their strengths and their present constraints. I recognized that empowering the client was the best enabler to help them resolve their own issues.
I have now expanded this role into counseling for adolescents too. I have found that it helps the adolescent recognize that they are not dealing with a parent figure but with a friend and a person open to their own experiences without being judged. This has helped considerably.
My interests still are in mental health. Unfortunately, being a counselor is akin to meeting a “shrink” – something that we Asians do not take to kindly. Even during my training days with genuine patients in a hospital the process was always to not talk about mental health but to say that the patient was “possessed” and therefore this period was to enable that possession to be removed.
The second aspect is costs. Clients want quick fixes. They are not prepared to invest time which they equate to money.
I have never received any career advice anytime. That’s why I believe I would like to help my clients look at themselves their strengths and their capacities and make informed choices.
As to what advice I can give its simple: This is not a profession for crusaders. This is taxing emotionally as you often have to hear events and incidents that can be very disturbing and often conflicting with your own values and morals. As a professional you need to be able to remain objective, unbiased, non-directional and at all times enable the client to make the choices. This is important because then they own the outcomes.
- Nandlal Narayanan, an ACA member in Bangalore, India
I joined the military so that I could go to college to study psychology so I took advantage of the opportunity to pursue it.
Back in high school I studied psychology 101 and fell in love with it. I then wanted to be a mental health therapist to help others. Self-esteem is a key factor in which I have. I enjoy making people feel better about themselves.
I have worked with adults and adolescents, which has changed my path because of different populations and demographics. I specialize in Gestalt therapy, which focuses on the here and now in the present moment. I ended up with this specialty because it has always been the way that I think. I do not believe in dwelling in the past, although it is a great staring point, the past can be a great or not so great memory. This is why it is so important to confront it right now because it really matters the most.
I also work in the security profession and I teach at a police academy and psychology plays a major part in law enforcement.
I have learned that no one client is alike and so you must have the ability to adjust to different ways of therapy. This is accomplished by constantly staying abreast and in tune with what is new in the field and ensuring that my continuing education is relevant to my particular field of study.
Advice I would give to new professionals and graduate students: Remember foremost the [ACA] Code of Ethics, be mindful that there is a large burnout factor in counseling and ensure that you always take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. Always remain objective, consult with your colleagues, don’t channel negativity, and never take anything personal.
A piece of advice that I received along the way is to always keep in mind that the client’s welfare is the number one priority and documenting is a close second. The advice that I wish I received along the way would have been to remember that this field is very demanding and there are some jobs that will have a higher client case load than others, and so I should always be prepared.
- Tillie Brown, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, U.S. Army veteran and security specialist with the federal government
After two years of information technology (IT) consulting after college, I realized that there was no passion in my work. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, I had thoughts of becoming a therapist but got derailed and went in to business. I quit my job in IT and began applying to graduate schools. I looked at Ph.D. programs, however I wasn’t interested in research and wanted to focus solely on face-to-face clinical work.
I wanted to have deeper conversations. I wanted to collaborate with passionate people to help change their lives in the way that they wanted to change. I find it an honor and privilege that individuals and couples ask me to help them in authentic and vulnerable ways.
I enjoy in-the-moment problem solving, deep human connection and a shared experience in which we don’t know all the answers. In being a therapist, boundaries are essential and it is a good fit for me in that I am engrossed in my work while I am at the office, however I can leave it behind at the end of the day.
At the end of graduate school, I had learned about Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), a highly active and specialized type of therapy originally formulated by Dr. Habib Davanloo. I now video record my work and have sought advanced training, which has helped to improve effectiveness.
I specialize in ISTDP; however I have much to learn. Becoming an expert is a life-long journey with much effort, such as supervision with a trusted mentor and deliberate practice, such as watching video tapes of your own work and monitoring patient and therapist response.
I have learned that it is important to learn a method. Research has shown that there is effectiveness across many methods, however having a skill set and a framework to work with allows the therapist to go off wandering with a home to come back to. Learning how to use a compass is essential in getting lost, which is a huge part of being a therapist, whether we like to admit it or not.
Some therapists sit with visions of past mentors, parents and/or heroes on their shoulders. If they are being unkind and/and harsh, they either need to be ignored or the therapist needs to understand that their harshness and attack is his or her own inner saboteur. This work is personal, and we cannot go deeply into our patients without going deeply into ourselves. A patient needs a vulnerable and human partner, not a guru.
- Michelle M. May, LPC in Arlington, Virginia, who specializes in couples therapy and Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy
My career path was one which can be described as traditional. I attended undergraduate [university] right after high school. I then proceeded to graduate school, completing both my master’s and doctoral degree.
I did not know what area of study to engage in until my junior and senior year of college. I became engrossed in the field of psychology. I would have liked to have been exposed to psychology earlier in my studies as an undergraduate. Nevertheless, I proceeded on to graduate school, with an emphasis in human development counseling. Upon graduation, I continued my studies to meet the licensure requirements as a psychologist.
I continued to attend conferences, workshops and seminars to the point of establishing my specialty area in neuropsychology. I now hold board certification in neuropsychology.
One piece of advice to students and early career counselors is [to] never stop learning. Continue attending conferences, seminars and workshops. Expand your knowledge and if [you are] faced with a challenging client/patient, consult with your colleagues. I have been in this field for over 35 years and I still am learning. Never stop acquiring knowledge.
- Jose G. Vega, licensed psychologist, board certified neuropsychologist with added qualifications in forensic neuropsychology in Pueblo, Colorado
I was initially planning on going to law school but an encounter with a LPC created an interest in me that I felt would be a better fit for me, while simultaneously feeling a drawing toward ministry. At the time I felt like my being an LPC could provide an inroad into a community of faith whose members were hesitant about the field of counseling. In the early 1990s counseling was not as accepted in some faith and community circles like it is today. Through perseverance and education many of those walls have been shattered to the betterment of those accessing our services.
The profession is a good fit for me because it allows me the ability to practice independently and be a force for change and empowerment in our community.
I have made deliberate efforts to explore as many areas of counseling as possible and now have experience with counseling in many populations including military, disaster mental health, pastoral counseling and community mental health counseling. Specifically, volunteering with the American Red Cross opened up trauma counseling as a significant part of my practice.
[My advice to others in the profession is] allow yourself the time to explore the many avenues that counselors can. Travel and allow yourself the opportunity to explore the many niches available in our field. I have found that change is absolutely possible and empowerment and hope is real. I have found setting personal boundaries is essential to my own healthiness and helpfulness as a counselor also. I watched a man pass out while handing out bottled water to others after having told them to hydrate and take care of themselves while not taking his own advice. I have found it essential and important to practice what I preach. I have also discovered, over time, that many things I said I would not enjoy or was fearful of became areas of passion and expertise. Learn all you can at every opportunity and get involved as a counselor in every area possible: your job site, your organization, community and state and national levels.
One of my professors said to “push yourself beyond yourself.” Impose boundaries and venture beyond your comfort zone and you may realize there are things you enjoy and are really skilled at that you only discover by trying.
- Donnie Underwood, LPC and licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in private practice in Arcadia, Louisiana; president of the Louisiana Association of Marriage and Family Counselors; an ordained minister; and Louisiana state liaison for the American Red Cross
As a teenager, my friends called my home phone “Lisa’s hotline” because they would call me for advice and guidance. I always loved helping my friends solve their issues and explore ways to have more confidence. It was only normal for me to go into counseling because I loved talking with my friends and family about self-exploration, personal growth and development.
In college, I took as many psychology classes as possible and asked professors for opportunities to perform research and/or work on psychological projects with them. Immediately after college, I went into graduate school to obtain a master’s in clinical psychology. At that time, I specialized in [treating clients who had experienced] domestic violence and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in teenagers. After working at several psychiatric facilities, I took a break to raise my family. As I raised my children, I still wanted to work in the counseling field.
Seven years ago I decided to return to the counseling field, but I made a major change to [specializing in] marital and premarital therapy. That area has been my passion for many years because I had seen so many friends and family members struggling in their marriages and relationships. I thought that retraining in this new area could have an impact on couples. I decided to train at the Gottman Institute with John and Julie Gottman because they have performed 40 years of research on what makes a successful relationship. I had confidence that their method of marital therapy was the most efficient and effective.
The best advice I can give a graduate student is to find a good supervisor. A supervisor should be supportive, knowledgeable and encouraging. My supervisor gave me many tools to become the best therapist possible. She helped me focus on my strengths and gently pointed out the areas I needed to improve.
I work in the counseling field, but as a mother, frequently, I wear the “hat” of a counselor, assisting my children in ways to resolve conflicts, learning how to develop self-esteem and teaching them how to trust themselves. My journey has been a fabulous one because on a daily basis I help my clients live healthier, happier and more peaceful lives. In addition, many of my couples have learned how to have a loving and warm relationship, which also positively impacts the future generation. I believe that on this journey I learned to trust myself and listen to my inner wisdom.
- Lisa Rabinowitz, licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) in private practice in the Baltimore, Maryland area, specializing in premarital and marital therapy
After completing an undergraduate degree in fine art and graphic design from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, I spent 12 years working in the corporate world of advertising and design; first in Houston and then in Princeton, New Jersey. One part of my job entailed sitting around a conference table, meeting with clients and trying to determine what they had in mind. This was a challenge when [they] each had a different point of view regarding a particular campaign. Many of my colleagues avoided the frustration of interacting with clients. They joked that I’d make a good therapist.
When my husband accepted a position in the small town of Easton, Pennsylvania, I worked as a freelance graphic designer for a while, but felt frustrated with my career. I did, however, enjoy talking with clients and getting to know them. That helped me to form friendships and feel connected to my new community.
As an undergraduate, I had taken elective classes in philosophy and psychology, though I never planned to pursue a career in either field. Over time, I embraced a philosophy that synchronistic events and apparent coincidences may lead to one’s true destiny. I was aware that helping others find solutions to problems was a common theme in my life and I felt honored when appointed by friends or family to take on that role.
The day I decided to research counseling programs in my area, I found that Lehigh University, which was 20 minutes from my home, had such a program. They also offered evening classes, which was ideal as we had two small children. The deadline to apply was the very next day! That was another crazy coincidence. I decided to apply, despite having to gather transcripts and letters of recommendation in record time. I was accepted.
I was drawn to this profession in my quest to do something meaningful. As a graphic designer, I loved to create and design, [but] each job was extremely important, there were tight deadlines and the final product had to be perfect. I spent late nights far from home, checking brochures as they rolled off printing presses to ensure quality. Once they were circulated, people would look at them briefly and then throw them into the trash. I wanted to do something with my life that mattered.
Counseling was a good fit for my lifestyle. My children were in elementary school when I started practicing. I worked for a community program that provided one-to-one counseling services to teens in their schools. The hours were ideal. I was able to be home with my children at the end of the school day. Working with high school students was very rewarding, as I could observe change and growth in my clients. I really enjoyed guiding them and helping them overcome whatever difficulties they brought to our sessions.
When my children left for college, I gradually transitioned away from working exclusively in school settings. I opened a small private practice, where I meet with teens, college students, adults and families. After working with teenagers for twelve years, it was refreshing to add older clients to my case load.
I currently work four days per week as a counselor and one day per week as a fine artist. To be happy, I need both the solitude of painting in my studio and the opportunity to interact with people.
My advice is not to be afraid to evolve and make changes to your career. Try working with different age groups, in different settings. Learn new counseling techniques. Challenge yourself to stay fresh. Make time for activities that bring you joy – and pay attention to where your life is leading you.
- Denise Pollack, LPC with a small private practice in Easton, Pennsylvania and artist (specializing in contemporary realistic oil paintings)
I always knew that I wanted to be in the helping profession and I never questioned my counseling route. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in psychology on a Saturday and started my master’s program on Monday, which I went through very quickly. While still attending college (undergraduate), I took a position at our local mental health agency as a grant writer and an administrator of housing grants. This was a natural fit for me and I have always prided myself on my ability to guide and supervise others. Not only is my role to help be a present and attentive person in my client’s lives, I enjoy working with new professionals in the counseling field. I spent about seven years as the executive director of a children’s residential center, which involved being on call 24/7 before I eventually moved into a smaller practice as an independent consultant.
[At first,] I was adamant that I did not want to work with children! I have a very small family and the youngest member in my family is my sister who is 30 years old! When I took a position as the executive director of a children’s residential center for adolescent females, my entire perspective changed. I now see kiddos as young as 5 years old with a specialty focus in trauma.
I was the oldest of three sisters and my mother instilled a strong sense of dedicating your time to others throughout our childhood. From a very early age, I remember making crafts for a mental health group home down the street from us, volunteering time at a food pantry and running children’s programs at our library. She also had a strong belief in giving back to others. When we would receive Christmas presents, for each new thing [gift] that came in, an equal number would be donated.
Counseling is a great fit for my personality! My husband says that I may be the only person in the planet who actually enjoys going to work every day! I love the diversity and challenges that are presented me every day, and I love the fact that my clients also push me to grow outside of my own comfort zone.
[My advice to others in the profession:] Be able to laugh at yourself. Set some limits, but be a flexible and open person to thoroughly enjoy the profession.
Also, find your balance. A big heart and a desire to help others are an essential aspect to this field, but without taking care of yourself and your own mental health, burn out will be inevitable. Know how to laugh.
Most people set off into this profession thinking that they are going to help so many people. But this biggest tip I ever received is that our most important role of a counselor is to help people to help themselves.
- Jessica A. Oates, licensed professional clinical counselorsupervisor (LPCC-S) and clinical director at Comprehensive Behavioral Health Associates in Austintown, Ohio
I think I always knew I wanted to be in a helping profession. As a child I have the distinct memory of wanting my first summer job experience to be at a local crisis center. I ended up pursuing psychology and human resource management for my undergraduate degrees, and my career started out in human resource management, when I worked in the HR department of an electric utility company. I did this for five years. My main responsibilities were recruitment, training and development, and performance management. Even then my favorite parts of my job were helping staff identify their training needs and developing in their own careers.
When I got the opportunity to pursue full-time graduate education I went all in and completed a counseling degree in order to become a licensed professional counselor. I have now been licensed for about two and a half years and have also completed requirements to become an LPC supervisor.
I have never regretted the decision to pursue counseling as a career as it’s the most rewarding and fulfilling work I have ever done. I realized this very early in my counseling career when during my internship with a private therapist I had a particularly long day, from about 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. working with clients. At the end of that day I was surprised that I was not as exhausted as I thought I would be. It made sense to me then [the adage] “If you do what you love you will never work a day in your life.” I was absolutely sure then that I had found the right career fit for me!
I currently work for a community mental health center and have been there for almost five years. Of course there are the usual challenges associated with working for a state agency (bureaucracy, redundant paperwork) however the core work that I do is still absolutely rewarding. I have received specialized training along the way (e.g. EMDR) and I have seen the results in my work with clients.
I would encourage graduate students and new professionals to begin to consider what their passion or specialized area/niche would be and get certified. Most of the clients I see have extensive trauma histories and co-occurring issues and I am still in the process of getting advanced training in those areas to more adequately serve them.
Continued training and self-care never stops in counseling, and this is one of the reasons I love what I do. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share!
- Toya Compton, LPC supervisor (LPC-S) and senior triage specialist at the Jim Taliaferro Community Mental Health Center, Lawton, Oklahoma
My first degree is in nursing. Later I graduated as a psychologist in my country which was a full-time career for seven years. I came to the U.S. to complete my master’s degree and my Ph.D. but could not afford the doctoral degree. So my chances were to become a social worker, mental health or family counselor. I choose to become a counselor.
The need of serving people and my curiosity for understanding human behavior drew me to this profession. This career lets me accomplish what I love the most: [working with] the brain and the human behavior.
Pain management and personality disorders are my specialties. I work for a pain management clinic and personality disorders are very attached to pain perception.
One lesson I have you learned along the way: Our mind is so powerful that we can do whatever we want with it.
- Marly Ayala-Ycaza, LMHC in Bradenton, Florida
I took a long, rather odd route to becoming a counselor. This career was nowhere on my radar when I first graduated from college. I originally went into library work. I love libraries and was happy with the work, but it was a part-time job and after a time, and an attempt to sell handmade crafts in addition to it, it became clear that I needed a larger income.
I enjoyed working with my hands and I had read about a professional trade school in Vermont that taught paperhanging. I enrolled there, attended the program for the requisite 10 weeks and went into business. I enjoyed the work. I enjoyed making my own schedule, and I enjoyed talking to the people in whose homes I worked. Some days I had rather long intimate discussions with the “lady of the house” while I worked. I became a mother and the flexible schedule worked for me. Then, my oldest child was diagnosed with a serious mental illness and life changed drastically. Our home sometimes felt like it was under siege.
In time, I sought the advice of a therapist and an advocate to help find an appropriate school placement [for my child]. The advocate eventually asked me to work with her and help other families through the journey. Twenty-five years after I first began hanging wallpaper I decided to become a counselor and enrolled in graduate school to become an LPC.
I found counseling to be an excellent career choice for an older person. Life experience is invaluable. It makes the work we do as counselors real – not just theoretical.
My advice to those new in the profession is to give up preconceived ideas about what is the right way to live, to think and to be in the world. This is not to say to give up our ethics and morals, but as counselors we must realize that everyone’s experiences are unique and judging has no place in our job. We must start where the client is and allow them to see that perhaps the way they have done things is not working for them and help them find new choices and viewpoints and ways to think of things.
My career path has not been entirely what I expected. I do contract work with courts, working with people who are referred by child protective services, people who have acted out in anger and need to learn to manage their emotions and many other individuals with many other needs.
- Mary Spradling, LPC and limited license psychologist (LLP) in Kalamazoo, Michigan
I found my way into this profession extremely circuitously. I took modern dance in high school because I could not take [gym class] in the hot California sun. The struggle to be who I was drew me to study dance at UCLA. After teaching, choreographing and dancing in high schools and colleges, I felt dance was limiting.
I moved to Washington, D.C. and worked with special children (autistic, developmentally delayed, behaviorally disturbed). I later worked with patients with severe mental illness at St. Elizabeth’s Federal Mental Hospital. I moved to West Virginia and began working at a mental health clinic. I learned traditional counseling on the job in the line of fire, as is said.
Later I expanded my arts background and traveled in America, Jordan and Canada doing creative arts therapies. Later I trained as a hypnotherapist, trauma specialist (EMDR) and also employed the creative arts therapies in a variety of settings. Then I went into private practice as an LPC in 1989. I often employ a mix of the above modalities.
I specialize in trauma and PTSD. My own birth was traumatic and I had many consequences to overcome and learn from, and later to share the knowledge with others. I was born into a PTSD world (Army brat on military bases) which gave me a deep understanding of how to work with people who have experienced life-threating situations, veterans and children of war.
There are many avenues for this work. I traveled and gave workshops. The breadth of my training and experience gave me “wiggle room” to explore working with people with severe mental illness as well as the “worried well.”
The element of creativity has been a strong thread throughout my practice. Creativity and spirituality are closely connected and my practice has become more spiritual in its approaches. Often people with severe trauma also have a plethora of “the big questions” such as: What is life? What am I supposed to be doing? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Lessons I have learned along the way: Be open. I can support myself doing what I love doing and that is helping others. I don’t give advice [but] I might suggest: Be humble, respect differences and listen better. It does help to know yourself and be an open-minded learner.
I have done traditional counseling but have found that one size does not fit all. It is crucial to be broadly trained and experienced in different settings to support flexibility and open mindedness.
- Jo Weisbrod, LPC in private practice in Lewisburg, West Virginia
Dreams come true. I was led to the counseling profession when I was in my 40s and burned out as a stay-at-home mom. I was co-facilitating sexual abuse support groups, and it was the counselor co-facilitating the group with me who said, “Dana you’re gifted at this. You need to get your degree.” Three years later, I became an LPC and opened my practice (Child and Family Counseling Center of Columbus, Ohio) in 2012.
Last January I transitioned my practice into a nonprofit and with that added a chemical addictions counselor, two social workers, three equine professionals, an administrative assistant, two horses (Batman and Ellie May) and our therapy dog, Willow to our team. We specialize in treating minor [youth] and adult survivors of sexual abuse. Clients interact with horses at the barn and our therapy dog at the office. The power of animals in the treatment of humans is significant.
Animals offer clients the opportunity to build a healthy relationship. It may sound fundamental, but we know deficits usually exist in most of our populations. Another benefit of horses is that they are always honest. This purity coupled with their heightened sensitivity to our energy and emotions gives a client immediate feedback. The honesty reflects truths hidden below their subconscious. Another relational aspect is that horses live in herds like our human families. Coming to the barn clients are having an experience. It’s not didactic, but experiential.
Research tells us heart rates decrease [as we] pet our dogs. Doing reunification sessions between a child victim and their perpetrator (often a family member), the victim often wants [our therapy dog] Willow next to them during the session(s), acting as a comfort.
People are often uncomfortable coming into our offices. Animals often provide a distraction from their presenting issues. They act as a bridge at the office and barn for people to disclose root issues leading to their psychological pain.
I can often fail to take care of myself much like many of the clients I treat. Implementing routines and rituals assist in my wellbeing, along with good sleep, nutrition and exercise. Feeling safe to share my challenges relaxes me along with the rhythm of brushing the horses. These animals have taught both my clients and me the importance of listening more deeply, being more honest and the healing that takes place when we are heard and feel understood.
- Dana L. Kasper, LPC, clinical coordinator for Reins of Freedom nonprofit in Ohio, writer, speaker and advocate for survivors of sexual abuse
I was drawn into the counseling profession because of my passion and belief that many of the personal and social needs of our children were not being met in the classroom. I felt that by becoming a community resource, I could better serve the behavioral, mental health and family needs. This would help alleviate many of those issues experienced by both children and staff inside and outside the classroom.
I feel that this has been “good fit” for me because I grew up in the same communities [I now practice in] and am better equipped to understand the needs of clients both young and old.
My path has included working and managing an outpatient facility and later working at an inpatient hospital setting for several years with clients experiencing mental health and substance abuse problems. As a result, I decided to specialize in treating clients with comorbidity behaviors.
The lessons I have learned include the rewarding feeling I get each time a client takes ownership of their lives. They use phrases such as “I know what I should be doing” or “I’ve learned greater acceptance of where I am in my life.” It has been enriching to see my own personal growth as I continuously strive for excellence in the profession and address my personal self-care and desire to live a balanced life.
I would encourage both graduate students and new professionals to pursue their dreams and desires to enter the profession no matter what vehicle or career path they take (business, science and research, education or analytical reasoning). You may be destined to serve in clinical, forensics, community, Christian, marriage, family or rehabilitation counseling. The key involves developing your knowledge, skills and attitude of the profession.
An area that I have had to develop in my work that does not relate to traditional counseling is using counseling skills to manage my business. This includes active listening, rapport building, reframing, redirecting and being supportive, etc. These skills have been instrumental to help promote marketing, schedule appointments and provide flexibility, along with resolving billing issues as I continue to expand in this technological and e-commerce world.
The key advice I was given was the need to get connected to a professional organization. This has helped me maintain my professionalism and gain the knowledge and skills needed to be successful in pursing my professional and personal goals.
The advice I would give is to stay connected to a professional organization and if it is your desire to be a part of the helping profession, I encourage you to follow your passion.
- Srlestine Davis, LPC and substance abuse counselor at Keys to Wellness and Recovery Services in Houston, Texas
I first considered becoming a counselor while on sabbatical in 2008 at a community college where I worked teaching biological sciences. I interviewed several professors at the university where I worked during the sabbatical in both biology and counseling. Being an introspective and observant person, I needed more information to make an informed decision. I knew I didn’t want to compete [for] a university job in biology. I recognized my restlessness and desire for change – and I had a strong desire to help people be successful in a more personal way.
The reason I took sabbatical was the restlessness that had grown over time. I worked the prior 20 years as an administrator and professor at the community college and had returned to the classroom the semester before I requested and was granted the sabbatical. I volunteered at the university biology department in preparation to enter the Ph.D. program in biology education. But as the time approached to complete the application process, I felt I needed to really consider what I wanted to do in the next 10 years. That’s when I knew I didn’t want to teach large classes of undergraduate general biology or graduate seminar classes. I needed something different.
To honor my restlessness, I sought to answer: “What change was calling me?” “What do I see myself doing in ten years?” “What can I do that is personal, individual and reconciling for that person?”
My answer was found in my delight in hearing people’s stories and being able to accompany them on paths to reconcile issues of identity, in relationships and career choices and accomplish goals. I began to see counseling as a viable career choice. I would need the appropriate credentials but I was willing to return to the university as a part-time student. I made preparations to enter the program the following spring semester. That was in 2009 – and I haven’t looked back.
During my internship at the university counseling center I discovered a passion for suicide prevention that afforded opportunities to teach and counsel. My work provides suicide prevention gatekeeper workshops and evidence-based therapies such as Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS), CBT and grief counseling, attachment based-emotionally focused therapies for individuals, families and couples. This is my seventh year as a psychotherapist and I am excited about the opportunities in my new chosen field of study and work.
My career trajectory into counseling began after a full and rich career working in science as a microbiologist, college professor and dean of science and mathematics and continues on a journey of discovery and service of reconciliation that is even more fulfilling and enriching. My career goals include qualifying for a LPC and becoming certified in emotionally focused couples therapy.
- Brenda Manthei, licensed associate counselor (LAC), trainer and psychotherapist funded by a Garret Lee Smith Suicide Prevention grant in Flagstaff, Arizona
Growing up I always knew that I wanted to spend my life helping people. I’m from a small town in central Louisiana. When I graduated high school, I did what most high school graduates do, I left the town. There were really only three options for me: I could go to college, seek a career in the oil industry or join the military, which I actually did. I joined the U.S. Navy and served four and a half years serving during Operation Desert Storm. While I was in boot camp, I chose to get training as a hospital corpsman, similar to the civilian licensed practical nurse (LPN). After completing that training and my first tour of duty at the naval hospital in Orlando, I was scheduled to transfer to another duty station. Instead, I decided to take on a second academic training tour and study to be a psychiatric technician, partially due to interest I was gaining in psychology while I took night classes at an onsite military-based college. After completing the Navy’s psychiatric technician training school, which took about six months, I was stationed at another military hospital and worked in the psychiatric ward for the remainder of my military service time. While serving in the military full time, I increased my college studies from part-time to full time and studied psychology at the University of Central Florida. I was fortunate to graduate from college approximately one month before my separation from the military.
Immediately after my discharge and because I had obtained a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I was able to work for the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCFS) as a child and family counselor. My primary job was to manage families referred to the department because abuse, neglect or abandonment of children. After working there for one year, I decided to pursue my master’s degree in counseling and was able to complete that degree in three years as I continued my work with the state of Florida in the capacity of psychological specialist for Florida’s state prison system. I was fortunate to be a part of the clinical team which opened the state’s first state of the art psychiatric hospital in the prison system.
Two years later, I was licensed and practicing in three states: Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. Since then I have opened and managed behavioral health companies and provided behavioral health services in through very diverse service systems.
The counseling profession is a good fit for me because it allows for so much flexibility, diversity, practice options and opportunities to help people.
During the early part of my counseling career, I focused on therapy. Now I am primarily focused on training and development of counselors and behavioral health service systems. I have also become increasingly involved with mental health policy by defending and advocating for professional counselors and practice.
The greatest lesson I think I’ve learned is that counseling is not a one size fits all profession. A counselor’s success is primarily depended upon how hard that person is willing to work and how creative that person is in order to maximize the opportunities given within the profession.
My advice to others: This profession is saturated and competitive – it’s sink or swim. The financial rewards (pay) are scaled down and the work is overwhelming. Creativity, hard work and inspirational attitudes with excellent clinical knowledge will give you the cutting edge in the profession.
I got a great (private practice) internship that helped to pave the way toward me understanding the business side of the profession, of which I attribute my success in the profession to.
- Leroy Scott, LPC-S (Louisiana), LMHC (Florida) in Zachary, Louisiana
While in the U.S. Marine Corps, I enrolled in some college courses to begin preparing for my future after serving my country. One of the officers I served under was a trained psychologist so I took a few courses in psychology and developed an interest to help others. When I attended college after my time in the Marines I completed a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and decided to pursue a master’s degree in community mental health counseling.
I thought pursuing a counseling degree would be beneficial to help people who struggled with behavioral health challenges who entered the criminal justice system.
I am passionate about delivering quality services to all my clients and consider counseling a part of my mission in life.
I initially worked in a nonprofit agency before transitioning to a community hospital setting, followed by moving into the field of employee assistance programs (EAP). Eventually I returned to a nonprofit agency and worked closely with the Drug Court and Federal Reentry Program before opening my own private practice business. I have close to 30 years of experience working with individuals, couples, families and groups. As an EAP professional I have provided critical incident stress debriefing to local and national events that have impacted employees, families and communities.
Lessons Learned: As a professional, counselors must embrace diversity and accept their clients unconditionally. Also, it is importance to consult and communicate with peers.
Advice to students and others: Be open minded, passionate and nonjudgmental toward your clients and colleagues. Always be eager to learn new skills and remember that you don’t have all the answers. Stay hungry to grow and remain humble. It’s not about you, It’s about your client’s health and wellbeing.
- David Jennings, LPCC, licensed independent chemical dependency counselor (LICDC-CS), certified employee assistance professional (CEAP) and founder of Premier Counseling and Coaching Services, a private practice with offices in Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus, Ohio
I have been in private practice for 33 years. Actually, I always wanted to be a teacher [but] my guidance counselor talked me out of it. “No future jobs,” he said. I got my associates [degree] in business administration. I wanted to be successful but didn’t want to enter corporate America so I got my bachelor’s [degree] in criminal justice, my only other interest. Landed a job counseling ex-offenders. Hardest job I ever had. My next job was counseling high school dropouts, still without [having taken] a counseling course.
We used to administer “interest inventories” and I took one and my career path became crystal clear. Every job, full or part-time, as well as every volunteer position [I had done] was in counseling or teaching.
I went back for my master’s degree, opened my practice, became certified and licensed and have been successful ever since. Thirty-three years in the same beautiful, warm office. A few times a year I develop, market and conduct weekend workshops on various topics employing counseling, teaching [and] every other skill I have. I am very happy to say that I love what I do.
I believe that being a psychotherapist is a good fit for me because, humbly, I am good at it. I possess the necessary qualities. I am a good listener, empathetic, respect confidentiality and truly care about helping others.
To those entering the field I would recommend getting their master’s in counseling as I did or getting master’s in social work. Employment opportunities abound. [Do not chose] psychology unless you want to pursue a doctorate.
Invaluable pieces of advice I received were to get personal counseling and supervision. Also I became active in my professional association, ACA. I attended yearly conferences and while my degree taught me counseling techniques, at the conferences I attended specific workshops on issues my clients presented.
- Ramona Bobe, LMHC in Glen Head, New York
I initially started out as a nursing major [in college]. I took a psychology course as an elective and fell in love with the study of human behavior. I changed my major immediately to psychology after that. After completing my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I begin looking into graduate programs and found counseling to be the best fit for my career goals.
The study of people and seeking a deeper understanding of human behavior drew me to the field and has kept me in the field. Along the way I have learned to trust the process. Also that people are the experts of their experiences and it’s important to keep that in the front of our minds when interacting with people.
The most helpful advice I received was to trust the process and that therapy is a marathon, not a sprint, and it takes time for people to create new processes and experiences.
- Brittany Johnson, LMHC in New Albany, Indiana
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