As a counselor master’s student approaching graduation in December, a few lessons have become ingrained in my mind: “Always advocate on behalf of your clients”; “engaging in self-care is essential”; and “practice in accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics.” At times, when I am lying in bed after a long day, I find myself reflecting on these tasks and whether I did my best to adhere to them.
Although these lessons are crucial for counselors-in-training, I wish one other lesson had been emphasized earlier in my graduate studies: the importance, essentiality and ultimate difference of putting yourself out there in the counseling world and making a name for yourself.
According to CACREP, there are more than 800 accredited counseling programs across the United States, which means that thousands of counselors will be graduating at the same time and applying for many of the same positions. As a novice counselor, I was naïve to this concept. When I entered my graduate program, I quickly began mirroring my peer’s habits. I focused on earning top grades, copying down important concepts in class, establishing my counseling skills through role-plays and researching internship sites. It was not until I attended the New Jersey Counseling Association conference at the end of my first year of graduate school that I realized just how important a young counselor’s identity is. From that moment on, my graduate mindset changed.
I started to go above and beyond to create my own unique “brand.” I found myself researching current trends in the counseling field, editing and re-editing my resume and cover letter, reading the most up-to-date articles and journals, and consulting with my professors about counseling-related opportunities that I could participate in outside of the classroom. I constantly asked myself, “What can I do to separate myself from every other counseling master’s student graduating from an accredited university? What makes my resume special? What makes me different?”
This pursuit to create my own personal brand eventually led me to the American Counseling Association (ACA) 2018 Conference & Exposition in Atlanta this past April. One of my professors at Kean University in New Jersey spoke to my multicultural counseling class about the ACA graduate student essay contest. She passed around a handout encouraging my class to submit a proposal. Immediately, I knew that this was the perfect opportunity to define my identity and get my name out into the counseling world. After writing and rewriting my proposal, I finally submitted my essay in December. Because the winners would receive complementary registration to the ACA Conference, I could hardly wait for the winning essays to be announced. Finally, on Feb. 28, I received an email asking for my attendance at the ACA National Awards Ceremony; my essay had been chosen as one of the top entries. I was one step closer to becoming a known face in the counseling world.
Upon arriving at the ACA Conference, I prepared myself to get the most out of my experience. I printed out my resume, picked out my best business attire, scheduled an appointment with the ACA Career Center and promised myself that I would speak to as many people as I could. I was a novice counselor who planned to leave the conference educated on the licensure process, the benefits of a doctorate in counselor education, employment trends, who to contact post-graduation regarding approved supervisors and any other helpful information I could soak up.
Having this goal-oriented mindset opened my eyes to the true kindness and genuineness of the counseling community. Within minutes of entering the conference center in Atlanta, my wildest dreams were exceeded. I was engaging in impromptu, inspirational meetings with fellow master’s students, doctoral candidates, counselor educators and authors. I soon learned that the counseling community is a tightknit group of exceptionally talented and personable individuals. During my four days in Atlanta, the connections I made completely changed my personal and professional life.
There are so many people that made my experience worthwhile, but for the sake of time and space, I will mention just a few. Dedicated representatives from Magnolia Ranch, a rehab facility in Tennessee, engaged in personal conversation with me on multiple occasions. I must have stopped by their expo table at least twice per day, and each time they were just as eager to ask about my professional journey, share their insights on the counseling profession, talk about their contributions to mental health and, of course, answer all my questions about their therapy horses. (I, as a horse owner, could talk about equine-therapy for days.)
Gerald Corey, Michelle Muratori, Jude Austin and Julius Austin, co-authors of the book Counselor Self-Care (published by ACA), each connected with me on a personal level. After attending their presentation on self-care, I was determined to purchase a copy of their new book and get it signed. However, with more than 100 people in attendance at their presentation, I overestimated my chances of purchasing a book. It had quickly sold out. As a Type-A individual, self-care was something I had consistently failed at, and I knew this book would assist me in my quest to accomplish a better self-care plan. Thus, I made it my mission to find a copy of their book.
After stopping by the ACA Bookstore at the conference on multiple occasions, speaking with the authors directly and bargaining with the conference staff to sell me the copy in the display window, I started to feel defeated. It was in that moment that I decided to approach the authors one last time and express my appreciation and gratitude for their work (book or not, the information I had gained from their presentation was priceless). Surprisingly, they thanked me for my kind words, interest in their self-care book, and perseverance and commitment as a counselor-in-training. Then Michelle Muratori dug into her purse and handed me her own personal copy of Counselor Self-Care while all the authors smiled.
I spent the next few minutes chatting with her. We discussed her career as a counselor educator and clinician at Johns Hopkins University. She provided me with such valuable insight, motivation and hope for my future as a professional counselor. Additionally, prior to the book signing, I had the privilege of speaking with Julius Austin. We connected on our similar experiences of being Division I college soccer players and the transition into the counseling profession. He empathized with and understood the many emotions I went through as I left the collegiate world behind.
Finally, during one of the keynote speaker presentations, I sat next to Ed Jacobs. I introduced myself and expressed interest in his role as a program director (at the moment, I didn’t know he was a renowned author and educator in the field of counseling and that he had written the group counseling book used in my graduate program). Our conversation flowed as we talked about his position at West Virginia University, my current clinical work with children and my hopes and dreams for the future. Before we parted ways, he encouraged me to attend his group counseling session, where he would be presenting on group counseling techniques to use with children and adolescents. I made it a point to attend his workshop, and I am so happy that I did.
After the session, I went up to him to thank him for taking the time to speak with me earlier in the day. He smiled and said, “You came.” Then he reached into his bag and pulled out a copy of the book he wrote on individual counseling techniques. He handed it to me and said, “I’m really happy you came and hope we stay in touch.” I was so humbled and touched by his kindness and generosity. I, too, hope our paths will cross again.
When I returned home to New Jersey, I was filled with gratitude, warmth and excitement for my future profession. The conference was more than I could have ever imagined. However, I know that my pursuit to establish a unique identity is an evolving journey. I need to build on the connections I have made. I have reached out to Drs. Muratori, Austin and Jacobs and have been overwhelmed with the thoughtful and efficient responses I have received.
For example, Dr. Jacobs stated that one of his greatest joys is mentoring students and that he would be more than willing to guide me in my journey as a novice counselor. Within days, he had connected me with a counselor educator here in New Jersey; my name was quickly spreading throughout the counseling world. My resume was being reviewed by many professionals, my email inbox was filling up with new messages, and my identity as a counselor-in-training was far greater than that of a master’s student graduating from a CACREP-accredited program. There was a face to my name.
Although this idea of networking may seem like common sense, I cannot tell you how many master’s students leave their graduate programs unsure of what to do next. It is not that they failed to study hard, earn good grades and succeed in their clinical settings, but rather that their identity as novice counselors mirrors that of every other newly graduated student.
So, to all my fellow counseling graduate students, if there is one thing I hope you take away from this article, it is this: Go the extra mile; get involved in as many activities and events as you can; submit journal proposals; do not be afraid to introduce yourself and network with as many professionals as you can; and, lastly, create your own unique brand. Be bold. Be brave.
Understanding this concept early on will only help you in the long run. With the complex social challenges faced by the nation and the world, becoming the best counselor one can be is imperative. By celebrating our uniqueness and crafting our professional brand, we will be best positioned to solve the mental health problems and other social ills that we all face.
Sarah Fichtner is a former Division 1 women’s soccer player for the University of Maryland. She is completing her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Kean University in New Jersey and currently works at Hackensack Meridian Behavioral Health as a counselor intern, where she practices from a strengths-based model. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- American Counseling Association members: Advance your career with the resources you need in ACA’s Career Central, where you can find hundreds of job listings, complimentary career consultations and other helpful career information and services created specifically for counselors.
- Find out more about ACA’s 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans at counseling.org/conference
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