When Heather Trepal was an undergraduate at Ohio State University, she took a job working overnight at a shelter for teenagers. The facility was a haven for those who had run away from home, many of them fleeing abuse or other untenable living situations. Staffers would feed and clothe the teens and help them access resources such as medical and legal assistance and transportation.
One night, a young man came in that Trepal says she’ll never forget. “He had run away from an abusive home. He was hungry … so I made him some spaghetti,” Trepal recalls. “We sat up all night talking, and in the morning, he said, ‘Thanks for listening to me.’”
Trepal realized then that something significant had occurred: She had helped the young man just by being there and listening. That experience made her want to do more. To gain additional knowledge about interacting with homeless teens and providing help to them, Trepal took an optional training the shelter offered to its employees.
Looking back now, Trepal knows that interaction planted a seed that eventually germinated and grew into a passion for counseling. And that ongoing passion for counseling has led to Trepal becoming the 68th president of the American Counseling Association.
The evolution of a counselor
Trepal was an English major who intended to go to law school and become an advocate for crime victims. However, her decision to take the job at the shelter for teens was driven more by practical reasons than by a spirit of activism.
“Honestly, I was a poor college student who needed the money, and they offered overnight shifts at the shelter. That’s probably not the most glamorous answer, but it’s true,” she says. “I have always been drawn to helping people, but that was the first job I had, outside of bartending or waitressing, where I actually worked with people in a helping role. It really opened my eyes to the needs of the teens and also the career possibilities.”
Although Trepal’s time working at the shelter left its mark on her in a positive way, when she graduated from Ohio State with a Bachelor of Arts in English, she still intended to go to law school. Then life intervened. Her grandmother was terminally ill, and Trepal became one of her caregivers. Stepping away from her planned professional path allowed Trepal to think about what she really wanted, and she realized it wasn’t law school.
After her grandmother died, and with law school no longer in her plans, Trepal knew that she needed to find a job. Inspired by her experiences at the teen shelter, she took a position at a day shelter for women and children who were homeless.
“It was there that I met more counselors and some social workers,” Trepal says. “They encouraged me to get my master’s at night. I worked in the shelter program during the day while I went to school. I really liked working with the families at the shelter. It is hard to be homeless and especially difficult as a woman with kids in the winter in Cleveland. They faced so many concerns — health care, school for the kids, addictions, everything.”
Mentoring the next generation
While completing her master’s program at Cleveland State University, Trepal also worked in a rape crisis center, and she continues to focus today on helping those who have experienced sexual assault. It was while working at the crisis center that Trepal discovered what she calls the “passion of her life” — helping other people develop into counselors.
Trepal was the only counselor at the crisis center and desperately needed help, so she began recruiting interns. She soon realized that she loved training the people she recruited, although she admits she had little idea of what she was doing. So, Trepal went to a workshop about supervision, and the professor teaching it encouraged her to pursue a doctorate in counselor education.
Today, Trepal is a professor and the coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), and she is committed to helping shape the next generation of counselors.
“Heather is an amazing mentor to students and helps them in any way she can,” says Thelma Duffey, a past president of ACA who was hired to coordinate the UTSA counseling program the same year that Trepal began teaching there. “She truly cares about them and their successes and tries to connect them with opportunities they may not know about. In some ways, she’s kind of like a matchmaker.”
Nancy Castellon, a doctoral counseling student at UTSA, has taken numerous courses with Trepal and can testify to those matchmaking abilities. Trepal also serves as Castellon’s dissertation chair. “Dr. Trepal has created numerous opportunities in research, supervision, clinical [settings] and teaching for me,” Castellon says. “I think many counselor educators forget and lose touch with the difficulties that a doctoral program can have on students, but with Dr. Trepal, I know she seeks to ensure and promote my growth as a future counselor educator, and she has shown this to me time and time again with her actions. She treats me as a future colleague instead of as just another student.”
For example, Trepal invited Castellon to collaborate on projects involving supervision of Spanish-speaking counseling students. This was particularly important to Castellon, a Latina student who says she has struggled to find cultural connections in the doctoral counseling program. Trepal, the project director of the Program for the Integrated Training of Counselors in Behavioral Healthcare, a partnership between UTSA and UT Health, also has given supervisory positions to Castellon and other doctoral-level candidates rather than automatically seeking supervisors from the community. The opportunity came at a particularly beneficial time for Castellon, who had mentioned to Trepal that she was struggling to continue to fund her studies.
“When Dr. Trepal obtains information on scholarships and fellowships, she automatically sends me the information so I can apply,” Castellon adds. “She also writes strong letters of recommendation for me.” This helped Castellon obtain a scholarship from the Texas Association for Counselor Education and Supervision.
Castellon says Trepal has also taught her the importance of relationship building to personal growth, adding that she “truly leads by creating memorable and impactful relationships with everyone she meets.”
Because there are so few Latinx professors and students in counselor education programs, Castellon says she has often felt culturally isolated as a doctoral student. She would like to see more students of color become ACA members and more representation of other cultures in counseling research — changes she believes Trepal can help usher in.
“Her research, passion and actions always speak toward creating equity for all,” Castellon says. “I am already involved with Dr. Trepal in research, and I can see she truly cares about the inclusivity of various cultures in the research realm.”
For the love of counseling
Those who know Trepal well attest to her desire to see the counseling profession grow and believe that she possesses the enthusiasm, creativity, vision and drive to create change.
“Heather has a fierce loyalty to our profession,” says Duffey, who worked closely with Trepal as part of the Association for Creativity in Counseling, a division of ACA that Duffey founded and that Trepal served as president from 2010-2012. “She always takes advantage of any opportunity to advocate for counselors, and she inspires others around her to advocate as well. She is also a very positive person, full of energy and enthusiasm, and a team builder. I think she will do her best to bring people together and to create the kind of collaborations that can help the profession of counseling increase its visibility within the public eye and legislatively. Heather’s ‘We’re all a team here’ attitude and her long-standing relationships across our discipline will no doubt help us accomplish great things and achieve a very productive year.”
ACA member Victoria Kress says she has long suspected that Trepal would one day become ACA president. The two have known each other for 20 years, ever since Trepal was completing her internship at the college counseling center where Kress worked.
“Heather immediately impressed me as a dynamo. She had — and has — boundless energy and enthusiasm and a true desire to get things done and grow our profession,” says Kress, who is the community counseling clinic director, the clinical mental health counseling program coordinator and the addiction counseling program coordinator at Youngstown State University in Ohio. “Her head is always clicking, brimming with new ideas. Heather is the kind of person who you meet and think, ‘That one, she is going to do some pretty amazing things.’”
Kress says Trepal has a firm grasp of the big picture and an understanding of what the counseling profession needs right now — better and more involved advocacy, particularly on the legislative front.
“To be an effective leader, you have to motivate people to get behind your causes,” says Kress, president-elect of the Association for Humanistic Counseling, a division of ACA. “She is an incredible mentor, and she believes in the best in others. Heather has the kind of personality that makes people want to get behind her.”
Duffey adds that Trepal has an extraordinary talent for connecting with others. “She is incredibly thoughtful and has an uncanny ability to make everyone she meets feel special. In fact, we often tease that she can strike up a conversation with just about anyone, and they will walk away feeling like they are her new best friend.”
Kelly Wester, a professor of counseling and human development at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, frequently collaborates with Trepal on research. They have known each other since they were doctoral students at Kent State University in Ohio.
“I think what leads to her [Trepal] asking the research questions she asks is what she will bring to her presidency,” Wester says. “She definitely is a big picture thinker — someone who can drill down to what changes can be made at various parts within a system that might help influence change of the larger system. At heart — within research and, I will assume, what she will bring to her presidency — she is an advocate for counselors in all settings, for students, for educators and supervisors, and for voices that are not always represented at the table. That is what her research has focused on — kids’ perspective of bullying behavior, mothers within a doctoral program and among faculty, clients who self-injure and whose behavior is typically misunderstood — and what I have seen her honestly bring to her work as an educator, supervisor and leader in other positions.”
Wester adds that for Trepal, the role of ACA president won’t be about just her and her vision, but rather about all counselors. “She has a desire to see the profession move forward, to become more equitable with other mental health professions,” Wester says. “She also listens well. Of course, we think all counselors should do that, but in reality, she really does. She can pause and listen to what others have to say and incorporate … those perspectives into her actions and decisions moving forward. But she can also relate to others well, relay her vision so others can hear and see it themselves, which can, in turn, motivate others to action.”
Marsha Wiggins, the executive director of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), a division of ACA, has worked with Trepal for about five years, including during Trepal’s 2016-2017 tenure as ACES president. She describes Trepal as collaborative, inclusive, respectful of differences of opinion, and genuinely interested in hearing multiple perspectives on issues. At the same time, she possesses the ability to come up with solutions when faced with conflicting viewpoints.
Another positive? “She gets an idea and sees it through,” Wiggins says. For example, Trepal felt it was vital for ACES to have a strategic plan developed by a professional consultant, and that plan is currently being implemented. Trepal also wanted ACES to be able to offer more services, such as webinars, to its members, so she hired a part-time web and media professional and consulted test and focus groups. As a result, ACES was able to produce a variety of offerings spanning issues of interest to its members. The webinars were not completed during Trepal’s presidency, Wiggins says, but she got the essentials in place so the project could move forward after her term was up.
But Trepal isn’t all business, Wiggins says. She’s also a lot of fun. Wiggins recalls that during an annual business meeting, her favorite basketball team, the Miami Heat, and Trepal’s favorite basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs, were playing each other in the finals of the NBA playoffs. “So, we spent every night … glued to the [hotel] bar television, rooting for our teams,” Wiggins says. Wiggins’ team won, but there were no hard feelings on Trepal’s part. Soon after the meeting, she sent Wiggins a matching T-shirt featuring both of their teams. According to Wiggins, the two continue to send each other taunting — yet good-natured — texts about their teams throughout each season.
Trepal plans to focus on multiple initiatives and issues as ACA president. She is particularly passionate about advancing the counseling profession and has established a task force focused on advocacy training for ACA members, including learning how to go to state capitals to work with legislators.
“We need to become better advocates for the profession,” Trepal says. Counselors often feel a personal calling to do what they do “because of an issue,” she says, “but what’s your mission for the profession?”
Improving the state of counseling research is another priority — one that goes hand in glove with advocacy, Trepal says. “When we think about advocacy, where’s the data?” she asks. “Where are we strong in scholarship? How do we get that out to legislators?”
Trepal also wants to build practice-based support for those who have experienced sexual assault. “I have personal and professional interests in those who have experienced sexual assault,” she says. “I would tell counselors not to label their clients as ‘victims’ or ‘survivors,’ but to allow the person to define this for themselves. Labels can be [both] positive and limiting. Even more than discussing consent, I think we need to work on changing the culture of violence that contributes to sexual assault. Traditional gender roles and expectations, objectification and harassment all contribute to this culture. There are also rape myths that counselors can continue to challenge, such as the myth that rape is about sex or that someone ‘deserved’ to get raped because they wore a certain outfit or were drinking. There is a huge need for advocacy.”
Trepal would also like to explore what more ACA can do for new counseling professionals. She notes that counselors typically come out of their graduate programs burdened with debt and facing the need to acquire many additional hours of post-degree supervision, with little chance of getting paid.
When Trepal isn’t busy teaching, doing research or participating in various ACA leadership activities, she does make time for a personal life, which is mostly devoted to her three children — sons Aidan, 16, and Mason, 15, and daughter Emerson, 12 — all of whom are heavily involved in sports. Trepal’s husband, Todd, passed away from cancer five years ago, so she is a single mom and a one-woman cheering section. “Most weekends, you can find me in a gym or traveling with them,” she says.
Both boys play basketball, and Aidan is on a team that travels frequently and has an intensive summer training program. Meanwhile, Emerson stays busy by participating in two sports, swimming and volleyball.
Trepal does take some time for herself. She is dating fellow counselor educator and ACA member Shawn Spurgeon and says they love to travel, particularly to the beach, and to take in all the local sights and culture.
As befits a former English major, Trepal is also an avid reader. “I read all day for my job, and I am a huge nerd — I try to stay abreast of the current academic literature. However, given the series ending, I am currently rereading the Game of Thrones novels. I also love to watch Spanish telenovelas when I have the time, and I’m always looking for recommendations. I just got back from the Philippine Guidance and Counseling Association conference and got a few new recommendations for my summer TV watching.”
Trepal wants ACA members to know that she is excited and humbled to have been elected to serve as president. She hopes to inspire others to serve ACA and the profession as a whole.
“We are a mission-based profession, and we all became counselors because there was someone whom we were interested in working on behalf of and for and with,” she says. “I would challenge us to also make advocating for the profession our lifelong mission.”
Read Trepal’s first Counseling Today column as ACA president, titled “What is your mission?“: ct.counseling.org/2019/07/from-the-president-what-is-your-mission/
Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
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