Tag Archives: Career & Employment Counseling

Career & Employment Counseling

Vocational counseling in HIV/AIDS communities

By Michael B. Drew July 6, 2017

Following a career-ending injury as a firefighter captain, I embarked on a new adventure as a doctoral student, attending the University of Georgia’s counselor education and student personnel services program. In a leap of faith, my wife and our three small children moved from Rochester, New York, to Suwanee, Georgia, where we quite literally knew no one. I remember thinking at the time that trying to make a career change like this made running into a burning building look easy. Fortunately, I was assigned to a rural HIV/AIDS clinic. The people I was about to meet there would welcome me and ultimately change my life.

As I stepped nervously through the clinic door and my eyes adjusted to the small, dimly lit room, I was greeted by a friendly man seated behind a makeshift desk. During the months that followed, I came to know him — and the important role that work played in his life while living with HIV/AIDS — well. For him, I think that returning to work by answering phones and greeting new visitors to the clinic represented a way to contribute to his community. His bright smile and warm sense of humor made him perfect for the job.

As we shook hands, he jokingly pointed to a piece of tape that stretched across the back of an office chair. On the piece of tape, his name was proudly displayed in handwritten marker. “This is my chair. … They let me work here!” he exclaimed.

Reflecting on that first day, I’ve come to realize that this was more than just an office chair — it symbolized his success in reclaiming a professional identity. What I learned from this inspiring man has since helped me reclaim my own sense of professional identity as I shifted from being a firefighter to a mental health counselor. This article is dedicated to his memory.


Professional identity

Each of us possesses many intersecting identities. Some of these identities are obvious, and others not so much. For example, if I didn’t share with someone my disabled status, it is unlikely that they would be able to tell because my injuries are internal, and I go about my day doing everything possible to keep it this way. But when I do share my story, people usually thank me for my service because for many, firefighters are like heroes.

I think everyone should enjoy this type of validation because we are all living courageously with different challenges. Some of these challenges include health problems or sudden loss of employment. In managing the complexities of HIV/AIDS, both of these factors are compounded, and the very real threat of social stigma can discourage a return to work, compromising personal and professional identity.

In all honesty, I can tell you that I’m still affected by a passing fire engine because firefighting is such a deeply internalized identity for me. Similarly, during initial intake and screening, vocational counselors may explore the meaning of work in the lives of their clients with HIV/AIDS, paying special attention to differences before and after infection, and any existential questioning in the wake of serious illness.

For some of these clients, HIV/AIDS was the impetus for them leaving work in the first place, resulting in changes to personal and professional identity. This means that counselors should help these clients explore feelings of loss in social and financial capital associated with their former work environments, as well as strategies for establishing new supports. Other important concerns include management of strict medication routines, side effects resulting from medications, fatigue, exposure to work-related stressors and the risk of contracting outside infections occurring in the workplace. By carefully exploring a range of vocational challenges with these clients, and the role of work in their lives, counselors can facilitate the process of forming new professional identities.


Situating vocational needs

Re-entering the workforce is increasingly possible for clients with HIV/AIDS, thanks in large part to continued advances in highly active antiretroviral therapy. These medications are used in combination to reduce the progression of HIV by preventing the virus from making copies of itself.

Thanks in part to such promising medical advances, vocational counselors can begin work with these clients by exploring myriad career opportunities and matching them with each client’s unique skills, interests and health needs. I should note that although returning to work may reflect a significant victory for people living with HIV/AIDS, counselors still need to understand the potential challenges facing these clients related to workplace discrimination, insurance denial and managing health care while working and caring for loved ones. Overlooking these realities risks setting up your clients for possible failure and, even worse, interruptions in health-sustaining insurance coverage.

A vocational model for the HIV/AIDS community (graphic designed by Michael B. Drew)


Meeting basic needs

President Obama’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy (2010) explicitly called for increasing career development for people living with HIV/AIDS and using innovative employment strategies to expand potential career options. However, most AIDS service organizations and their clients depend on federal funding provided under the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, including for life-sustaining medications. This leaves many clients feeling threatened under the current Trump administration and the possibility of budget cuts.

A possible consequence of this fear of lost benefits is that many people living with HIV/AIDS may feel pressure to find work that provides private health coverage. At present, federal funding is allocated for housing, medication and legal assistance, leaving very few clinics with the resources or vocational expertise to address the challenges associated with returning to work. For outside agencies that do offer career or vocational counseling services, most are not familiar or equipped to serve the unique needs of the HIV/AIDS community. This leaves many clients afraid to access these services when having to negotiate work accommodations, maintaining a strict medication schedule and coping with episodic symptoms that require frequent and unexpected leaves of absence.

For these reasons, vocational counseling in the HIV/AIDS setting is inherently complicated. This reflects the need to include such specialized services in the familiar and trusted space of AIDS service organizations, where professional networks and community partnerships are already in place.


The role of legal services

In addition to these formidable challenges, HIV criminalization laws currently exist in roughly half of the 50 U.S. states, leaving clients at risk for further marginalization in the workplace following intimate partner complaints and subsequent arrests and convictions. In some cases, these arrests have even resulted in prison sentences and mandated sex offender status, making a return to work exceedingly difficult.

This unfortunate reality is even more problematic for women, who are often diagnosed with HIV/AIDS before a male partner due in large part to having regular gynecological exams. This means that women are at additional risk for legal prosecution for “knowingly infecting their partners” despite the possibility that the virus originated from an accuser. This perpetuates a veil of secrecy, adding to the complexity of HIV/AIDS treatment options, particularly among infected mothers who may face persecution for passing the virus on to their children. Not surprisingly, such discriminatory practices become disincentives for HIV screening and follow-up care. Furthermore, surveillance reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014) reflect that African American women represent a disproportionate number of newly infected cases.

Given that more women than men are responsible for the care of children and elderly family members, vocational counselors should explore flexible work opportunities that align with individual needs. This should include legal counsel from the local community that is available for clients who wish to make informed decisions about returning to work.


Exploring career interests and abilities

In the wake of my firefighting injury, and facing a lifelong disability, I can attest to the significance of vocational counseling as an integral part of the healing process. This is a familiar narrative among people living with HIV/AIDS, who sometimes struggle to explain why they have not returned to work given their outward appearance of health. Counselors can help these clients respond to any concerns involving gaps in employment history, the need to update work skills, résumé writing, professional attire and preparation for job interviews.

This need for personalized vocational counseling remains largely unmet, however. The counseling profession can respond to this increasing demand for career-related services by attending HIV/AIDS conferences and workshops to learn more about living and working with the virus. Community-based partnerships are also invaluable. Many AIDS service organizations provide internship opportunities in which counseling students can gain field experience and insights into the process of cultivating new personal and professional identities.


Flexible career opportunities

Many individuals must manage episodic symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS. In response, vocational counselors can expand these clients’ career opportunities by helping them connect with employers that offer flexible scheduling or the possibility of working from home.

In dealing with HIV/AIDS, episodic symptoms may remain dormant for years, only to reappear and become disruptive to work scheduling and the person’s ability to perform routine tasks. Many clients are fearful that under such circumstances, employers will expect them to share personal information when they are absent from work. Managing personal privacy surrounding any chronic illness is challenging, and in the case of HIV/AIDS, an added threat of stigma remains.

It is important for counselors to share information with their clients concerning extended Medicare and Trial Work Period programs, which are designed with flexibility for people who have disabilities. This may help to alleviate concerns about losing Social Security disability benefits, which is a common theme among people living with HIV/AIDS when contemplating a return to work.





Michael B. Drew is a retired firefighter captain from upstate New York. Following a career-ending injury, he completed a bachelor’s degree in advanced fire administration and a master’s degree in mental health counseling and is currently a doctoral candidate in counselor education and student personnel services at the University of Georgia. Contact him at mbd01283@uga.edu.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Career counselors: On the front lines of battling student stress

By Neil O’Donnell March 27, 2017

It won’t be news to most readers that undergraduate students everywhere encounter an incredible amount of stress throughout their college years. Colleges and universities offer a considerable range of services and programming to address a variety of stressors, including test anxiety, financial hurdles and personal struggles.

Even with all that focus on helping students to mediate stress and anxiety, I think one source of stress often gets overlooked: career stress. After nearly 15 years serving as a career and academic counselor for undergraduates, I am disheartened that such an oversight remains prevalent, both nationally and internationally, among administrators in higher education.

In a recent survey of 131 undergraduate students, I found that only 12 percent remained undecided regarding what major they wanted to pursue. To assume that only 12 percent of these students remain stressed is misguided, however, especially when learning that 56 percent of respondents to the survey were still uncertain concerning the career path they wanted to pursue. From firsthand experience, I know that this uncertainty causes considerable stress and anxiety for undergraduates.

As for the survey? Of the students who participated, 49 percent indicated that they endured stress over deciding on a major or career path.

Why are so many students battling this stress? We certainly have incredible assets in place to provide undergraduates with career guidance. Most four-year colleges and universities have

career centers staffed with career counselors to help students research majors and career paths. In addition, career centers often offer enrolled students access to free career assessments, including the Strong Interest Inventory, FOCUS, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or an array of other assessments based on the Holland Career Codes. But even with all these resources available, students rarely utilize career centers for much beyond getting help writing a résumé or cover letter during their senior years (admittedly, I was guilty of this too). Therein lies the problem.

Fellow career counselors and coaches know the following advice all too well, but for other counselors who are working with undergraduate students, I’d like to offer some insight into helping them navigate their career research and mitigate the stress that all too often accompanies that search.


1) Get students to visit their campus career center during their first semester at college. I understand students have a lot to contend with as they enter their first semester of college. Between getting comfortable with the layout of the campus, the location of their classes, college-level course work and the campus food, the first two weeks of the semester are not an easy time for students who are seeking to begin their exploration into majors and career paths. By the third week, however, I find that students are ready to invest time into career research, and a visit to the career center is a good first step. Before sending my students to the career center on campus, I provide them with an overview of the center’s resources and the services the staff provides to undergraduates. Additionally, I discuss career assessments with my students and the information they can glean from assessment results.

Counselors familiar with the career assessment used by a student’s campus career center can provide students with background on the assessment, including information on the assessment’s format and how to access the assessment online if that is an option. Additionally, it is a good idea to stress the importance of seeking a full interpretation of the assessment results by one of the career specialists at the campus career center. In some instances, students can receive assessment results without having to speak with a career counselor or career coach whose expertise includes interpreting these assessments. As I tell my students, they will undoubtedly be able to gain insight from the assessment themselves, but I also stress that there are a multitude of intricacies they will likely overlook. These are bits of information that a career specialist would be able to identify and interpret for the student — information that could be crucial in helping a student identify an appropriate major or career path to pursue.

To avoid a lot of the hesitation and accompanying stress that students have with visiting a career office, I find it helpful to provide students with a few questions to ask the career center staff. In particular, I advise students to ask about the center’s career assessment and how to set up an appointment to go over the results. For those students with majors already in mind, advise them to ask if a particular career center counselor has experience helping students in that major.

A final step is to make certain students know where to find the career center. Yes, it is relatively easy in most cases for students to determine where on campus the career center is located. However, I find that providing the contact information to the students increases the likelihood that they will follow through and visit the career center. Take the extra minute or two to show students the career center’s website, and then email students the center’s contact information, including room location, email and phone number.

2) Seek a follow-up with the student. Before I end my initial meeting with students, I ask them to meet me after their meeting(s) with career center staff. I find that doing so encourages students to follow through on the guidance and their career research. These follow-up meetings offer the opportunity to mediate any stress that arises from visiting the career center. Specifically, students are often stressed that one visit to the career center did not help them immediately decide on or discover the best major and career path for them.

During these follow-up meetings, I help students develop (or adjust) their career research plans. Those counselors who are certified and proficient in the career assessments their students have taken can use these meetings to address student misunderstandings about their assessment results and expand on any feedback the students received from career center staff.

3) Seek additional follow-up after the student completes the assessment. In the event the student took an assessment but did not review the results with a career specialist at the college career center, advise the student to return for a review from the career center staff. It is critically important that students receive that feedback from those who are trained to interpret the results. I have found that the majority of students who meet with career center staff for guidance report that these meetings help reduce their stress and anxiety related to career concerns. In my current survey, 78 percent of respondents indicated that their meetings with a career counselor helped them decide on a major or career path. Furthermore, 69 percent of respondents indicated that meetings with a career counselor helped reduce their stress surrounding career and educational planning.

4) Advise students to communicate with professors on campus whose specializations match the students’ career interests. Even the most experienced career counselor has limited knowledge of the diverse job opportunities afforded by every major and degree. For example, from my personal experience, none of the career counselors on my college campus knew the array of specialties within anthropology, a field that leads to careers beyond professorships, museum curators and forensic specialists.

This is where campus professors are so vital to a student’s career research. The professors in each department likely possess a wealth of knowledge regarding job opportunities and career specializations that a given major affords students. Unfortunately, students often fail to seek career guidance from department professors earlier on (i.e., freshman or sophomore year).

As career counselors, it is incumbent upon us to direct our students to department professionals. Again, drawing from my own experience, speaking with department professors helped me to identify and focus on short-term and long-term careers, which ultimately reduced my stress (especially when many individuals asked me what in the world I was going to do with an anthropology degree).

5) Advise students to communicate with professionals in the communities surrounding the college campus. Connecting with campus professors/professional staff is often not enough to provide college students with a full understanding of the potential (career-wise) that each major offers. To that end, it is important to encourage students to reach out to community professionals to gain an extensive understanding of the possibilities that exist. Another benefit to reaching out to community professionals is that students may learn of unadvertised job opportunities during these discussions, all while expanding their professional networks. What’s more, engaging with professionals who have already put the student’s major into practice often helps to put the student’s mind at ease.

6) Encourage students to seek field experience during summer breaks. Summer vacation is a time for college students to reenergize. That said, there is no reason why students can’t use the summer months to further investigate their major and the career opportunities the major offers. Finding part-time, full-time or volunteer employment opportunities is a great way to gain firsthand experience in the field. Encourage students to speak with their professors and the community professionals with whom they connected to determine what jobs or volunteer opportunities exist that would provide related experience and help students gauge the appropriateness of the major they are currently pursuing.

Such summer experiences are more prevalent than most students and counselors might realize. It comes down to asking the right people what opportunities exist. In addition to giving students related experiences to include on their résumés, such jobs could provide money for college and help students expand their professional networks. Based on my own undergraduate experience, such opportunities reduced student stress by helping them gain a better understanding of the course material from the major, while also revealing hidden career paths not often attributed to the major.

7) Remind students that it’s OK to change their minds regarding their career goals. So what happens when students follow the above advice and determine that they are pursuing a major or career path that is unsuited to their interests, strengths and long-term career goals? Changing a major can be extremely stressful for students because they often feel it is a sign of failure. I remind students that changing a major is a common occurrence. At the same time, I also remind them that it is better to change directions with their newfound knowledge of their major and themselves now than to wait; it is a decision that could save them considerable time and money later on. It is also important in such moments to congratulate students for their efforts. This is encouragement that will help them tackle the stress and worry that often follow a change in major.


Collectively, these strategies have aided me in reducing my students’ stress, while simultaneously helping them determine a worthwhile career and gain valuable field experience prior to graduating. It is especially rewarding when one of my advisees follows through on this advice and has a full-time job lined up before graduation because of connections that he or she has made with community professionals. It is even more rewarding when graduates from years past return to say they still love the major and career paths they pursued after completing the aforementioned research. I believe other career counselors might find similar results as they assist students in managing stress related to choosing majors and career fields.



Neil O’Donnell is a senior counselor for SUNY Buffalo State’s Educational Opportunity Program, where he provides personal, academic and career counseling to undergraduates. O’Donnell is also the author of The Career-Minded Student, a book that provides a plan of action that helps undergraduates succeed in class while preparing to compete for jobs immediately after graduation. Contact him at odonnenp@buffalostate.edu.




Related reading

From the Counseling Today archives: “Unprepared, undecided and unfulfilled

Anxiety, confusion and questions of identity greet many college seniors as they consider their impending graduation and the necessity of determining their next steps in the ‘real world.’ wp.me/p2BxKN-3PD





Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Seeing people, not prisoners

By Kathleen Smith September 28, 2016

Upon being released from prison in the United States, the prospects for ex-offenders are grim. In some states, they might get $20 and a pair of clothes to wear out the door. If they’re lucky, they will receive a bus ticket back to the county where they were arrested. Almost immediately, they must secure or arrange for transportation, food and shelter in a world that might look very different from the one they were living in before their incarceration.

Rebuilding a life that is empowering and free of crime is anything but easy for ex-offenders. If your family lives in public housing, you can’t return home with them. If you have to check the box on employment applications saying that you’ve been charged with a felony, many people may hesitate to hire you. You might struggle to regain custody of your children, or you might be returning to a traumatic environment that is violent and unstable.

According to the National Institute of Justice, almost 80 percent of former offenders will be rearrested within five years of their release. Of these, an average of 30 percent will return to branding-images_prisonprison because of a parole violation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that ex-offenders are also two to four times more likely than the general population to have a mental illness, which puts them at increased risk for substance use issues. The odds certainly aren’t in their favor.

When faced with the task of helping and empowering individuals who are exiting the criminal justice system, counselors confront a looming initial question: “Where do I begin?”

The answer to that question is as diverse as the counseling profession itself because many practitioners commit to tackling different facets of a client’s transition from incarceration to life on the outside. For instance, counselors facilitate career development. They connect ex-offenders with social supports and mentors who show that there is hope for a different life. Counselors provide invaluable trauma treatment to heal old and present wounds, and they train professionals within the penal system to empathize and start real conversations about change with those who are imprisoned or are preparing to transition out.

What these methods have in common is one of the unique qualities of the counseling profession: a person-centered approach that focuses on making space for a new narrative. Together, and from many angles, counselors are helping ex-offenders create new stories for themselves that don’t have to end with a clanging prison door.

Fostering career development

In 2012, a student in Mark Scholl’s career development class inspired him to consider a new kind of work. The student, a probation officer by day, created a career support group for ex-offenders and invited Scholl to co-facilitate. Scholl, a member of the American Counseling Association, used his expertise in career counseling to design skill-building activities for the group, and he found that he loved the work.

When Scholl moved two years later to join the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University as an associate professor, he wanted to continue this work in the community of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After consulting with friends, he found that the public library was the safest and most encouraging space to work with ex-offenders. “The library doesn’t have the politics of other settings, which distinguish between social workers and counselors and psychologists. It doesn’t have those turf issues because it’s just about serving people in the community,” he says.

The New Leaf Career Development Group has been running steadily ever since. Over a period of five weeks, Scholl guides a group of four to six ex-offenders through a series of workshops. Topics include job skills assessments, résumé writing, interviewing skills and job search strategies, all of which Scholl approaches with a postmodern slant. Activities also reflect many techniques found in solution-focused and narrative therapies.

“There’s a tendency on the part of the clients who’ve been released from prison to dwell on the past and to focus on their problem,” Scholl says. “Turning that around and focusing on positive alternative narratives is both therapeutic and empowering to the members.”

To engage these narratives, Scholl asks participants in the first session to create a metaphor for how they relate to their futures. He believes this technique provides therapeutic leverage because he and the other participants can encourage the individual group members to construct more adaptive metaphors throughout future sessions.

One group participant, whom Scholl calls “Sandy,” used the metaphor of being a runner in a baseball game. Sandy felt like she had been stranded at third base and frustrated that she couldn’t make it home. Scholl and the other group members helped Sandy open up her metaphor, suggesting that perhaps there was only a rain delay in the game or that she was “rehabbing” after an injury.

“We helped her emphasize her self-advocacy,” Scholl says. “She began to see her ability to choose her own direction and access resources.”

In their final graduation session, participants share their narratives about what they gained from the workshop and how they view the next chapter in their lives. Family members and friends are invited to respond with how hearing their loved ones’ stories has affected them.

Because many members of the group face additional challenges, such as homelessness or substance use, Scholl admits that success for group members is sometimes difficult to define. He and his colleagues at Wake Forest are currently conducting a qualitative study to evaluate the impact of the workshop on participants’ lives.

Individual successes do stand out, however. One member, whom Scholl refers to as “Carl,” completed the workshop series this past summer. Carl was an ex-offender who came to the workshop after looking for employment for an entire year without success. “He had difficulty remaining positive during mock interviews,” Scholl recalls. “We worked with him on emphasizing his strengths and how he could potentially contribute to a prospective work setting. During the last workshop, he announced that he had been hired as a forklift operator in a warehouse position. This, as you can imagine, was a very memorable success for the client and for our team.”

Reflecting on his experience with the career development group, Scholl says the possibility of empowerment motivates him to continue the work. “There’s a feeling of futility when you have to check a box on an application [saying you are an ex-offender]. It feels like a strike against you before the employer even meets you. So,” he says, “I really feel a strong inclination to do what I can to empower these folks.”

Mentoring ex-offenders

Before she began working with ex-offenders, ACA member Bethany Lanier’s inspiration came from television. “I loved Law and Order: SVU. I wanted to do that kind of work and figure out why people do what they do,” she says.

As a master’s student in clinical mental health counseling at Radford University in Virginia, Lanier worked with women who were up for release from prison, teaching them life skills and strategies for navigating their home environments. When she moved to Alabama to begin a doctoral program in counselor education at Auburn University, Lanier’s passion for that work didn’t end.

The numbers are daunting in the Alabama justice system. Facilities are operating at 190 percent of capacity, leaving little to no money (or energy) left to focus on combating recidivism. But rather than choosing to feel overwhelmed, Lanier, as a graduate assistant, began helping to develop a mentoring program for the local women’s prison and writing grants for funding. While doing research, which Lanier has since presented at an ACA Conference, she found evidence of the effectiveness of mentoring programs with the ex-offender population. She cites one program in particular, the Mentoring4Success initiative in Kansas, that effectively cut the state’s recidivism rate in half.

Inspired by other successes, Lanier continued working with her colleagues at Auburn to train mentors in Alabama. The mentors serve a number of functions for women exiting the correctional system, including teaching them how to navigate applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) or the Women Infants Children (WIC) program. Because many of the mentors are themselves ex-offenders, they also provide inspiring examples of success and needed social support.

“You have to have somebody that’s going to be supportive, somebody who’s going to answer all your questions and help you get where you need to go,” Lanier says. “It’s good for people to see somebody and say, ‘I don’t have to be like this, because she made it.’”

As a future counselor educator and a member of the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors (IAAOC), which is a division of ACA, Lanier has also given careful consideration to how to talk with students who are hesitant about working with ex-offenders. “Students say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that because it’s not safe’ or ‘It challenges my beliefs’ because we’re in the Deep South. But once people get out into the field, they realize you’re going to see these issues anywhere you go.”

For instance, Lanier explains, anyone working in a community mental health center or even in schools is likely to encounter the challenges and rewards of working with ex-offenders. For that reason, she believes counselor educators need to prepare students to think about the unique needs of this underserved population.

As for current counselors who would like to explore the power of mentorship in working with ex-offenders, Lanier encourages these helping professionals to consider the unique skills they can bring to the work, including active listening and empathetic understanding. “Don’t be afraid to take a risk,” she emphasizes.

Addressing trauma

In the literature, rates of posttraumatic stress disorder among incarcerated populations range anywhere from 4 percent to 21 percent, with women being disproportionately affected. Regardless, advocating for trauma work as a component in reentry preparation can be a tough sell. While focusing on basic needs such as housing and employment, ex-offenders may not have the money or the time to find effective therapy for trauma. Therefore, counselors have begun working with prisoners while they are still incarcerated to address their trauma and connect them to resources on the outside.

ACA member Tara Jungersen had already spent a significant portion of her career working with trauma and intimate partner violence before coming to Nova Southeastern University in 2009. But after arriving there, her colleague, Lenore Walker, introduced her to the Survivor Therapy Empowerment Program (STEP). A manualized treatment program, STEP uses principles of feminist therapy, survivor therapy and trauma theory to address common issues found in the incarcerated population. Its goal is to empower victims to become survivors.

“If somebody is stuck in a trauma cycle, if they are completely disconnected from experiencing emotion and safety in relationships, then they may lack the protective factors that can help them move forward in life,” Jungersen explains.

As the acronym suggests, the treatment program walks participants through 12 independent “steps” that help in dealing with trauma and its effects. Leaders teach relaxation skills, interpersonal skills and cognitive restructuring, and they also help participants examine their attachment patterns in relationships and grieve past relationships. The program is also focused on connecting women to resources on the outside to reduce recidivism.

“A person may be on a five-day hold, and they’ll be gone the next week. So we want to make sure that each step we teach can stand alone and that [participants] are able to find a qualified trauma therapist when they are released,” says Jungersen, who has led STEP groups herself and trained others to lead the groups. “We know that it’s challenging to find reduced-cost and pro bono services.”

Jungersen also notes that leaving prison can feel different for each person depending on the individual’s experience. For some women, jail provides structure and a departure from the chaos of their daily lives, which often can include drug addiction or physical and sexual abuse. But for others, the experience of incarceration itself is highly traumatic. For instance, a victim of sex trafficking may find herself in the same prison as her trafficker, or offenders may face abuse or neglect by correctional officers. Running a treatment program that promotes safety and stability can prove difficult if individuals are always on high alert and constantly feel exposed to danger, Jungersen says.

Despite the challenges, the STEP program has been employed successfully with both men and women in the United States and internationally. Jungersen acknowledges that when working with ex-offenders, measuring success requires different parameters than those used in traditional counseling settings. Qualitative data collected by Jungersen and her colleagues have indicated that STEP participants, who learn about their trauma symptoms and how these tie in with their substance abuse or other behaviors, are more open to seeking mental health treatment after their release as compared with their attitudes prior to participating in the program.

Regardless of whether counselors are doing trauma work specifically, Jungersen encourages them to consider the ways that trauma can affect ex-offenders and to avoid making generalizations about this population. “You’re going to have a wide distribution of cognitive functioning, a wide distribution of social skills and differences in individual trauma triggers,” she says. “Most ex-offender treatment is done in a group format. You’ve got to scan that entire group, recognize the nonverbals that indicate someone is getting triggered and adjust the conversation accordingly.”

Fostering motivation 

Melanie Iarussi was first introduced to motivational interviewing in her master’s program. She liked the method so much that she decided to become “trained as a trainer” so she could teach others how to elicit meaningful, change-oriented conversations. Now an assistant professor of counselor education at Auburn University, she has found an opportunity to provide training for probation and parole officers in the state of Alabama. By teaching the officers motivational interviewing techniques, Iarussi and others are introducing a different mindset to the people who work in corrections.

Motivational interviewing is an increasingly common technique encouraged by the National Institute of Corrections and other organizations. The technique’s focus on creating collaborative conversations and guiding people toward prosocial change is a drastic departure from many of the punitive, fear-based techniques the criminal justice system has traditionally employed. Because counselors have fairly limited interactions with ex-offenders, Iarussi and others see an opportunity to educate those who have the most access to this population — parole and probation officers.

“We know the prison system as it is does not work, and we know that taking a punitive approach is not effective in facilitating behavior change,” says Iarussi, a member of ACA and IAAOC. “By introducing MI [motivational interviewing], we’re trying to capitalize on what does work, and we’re bringing some counseling concepts to the conversation that can facilitate lasting change among people in the legal system.”

To teach and improve motivational interviewing skills, Iarussi asked her trainees among the probation and parole officers to record their conversations with their clients. In turn, she listened to the conversations and provided feedback. She says the officers who were able to make the shift to use the new skills noticed that they were having completely different conversations with their parolees.

“They were able to help their clients recognize that they do have choices over what they want to do. It’s not that they are trying to force them into something or back them into a corner, but they can present them with options,” she says. “You can have the conversation, but the choice is ultimately theirs.”

Iarussi acknowledges that empathy, a cornerstone of both counseling and motivational interviewing, is a challenging concept to teach. “Probation and parole officers have multiple roles. They’re not counselors,” she says. “Their primary job is to enforce the law. So … they have to make decisions about when it is appropriate to be empathetic and have these conversations, and when it is appropriate to enforce the law. And when it is maybe a combination of those two.”

One probation officer stands out in Iarussi’s mind because they both noticed a remarkable change in his work. In one training, Iarussi presented a video of a probation officer who wasn’t paying attention to the client. The officer was constantly interrupting and not giving the client the time he needed. Her trainee came to her later and said, “I was that person. I was that officer who treated people that way.”

Iarussi describes how the officer soon after began submitting tapes that featured longer, more in-depth conversations, whereas previously he had been meeting with his clients for only one or two minutes at a time. In the new tapes, he and his clients were discussing concerns and issues about parenting and work. The officer noticed the difference he was making. “He definitely felt the shift,” Iarussi says. “By changing his approach, he was making a significant impact in his clients’ lives.”

A unique perspective

Because each person who is incarcerated receives a range of services and interventions and faces a unique set of challenges, it is difficult to know what exactly keeps ex-offenders from returning to jail or prison. As research expands, however, professionals are gaining a clearer sense of what can decrease recidivism. Among the elements that have been identified as effective: assessing for risk, engaging individual motivators, using cognitive-behavioral strategies and providing ongoing support in the community. These are all strategies familiar to those in the counseling profession.

Whether it is using career counseling skills, trauma treatment or motivational techniques, counselors are taking their existing skills and intervening in the lives of people who are exiting the correctional system. They are also serving as advocates for systemic and legislative changes that give ex-offenders a better chance for success.

Above all, Iarussi and others believe counselors are in prime position to help their communities and the criminal justice system begin viewing ex-offenders as individuals rather than a series of daunting statistics. Counselors are trained to take off the lens of judgment and to empathize with experiences that might be far from their own. Both of these skills make the field uniquely suited to work with this population.

“What I experienced is that ex-offenders expect us to treat them like everyone else does,” Lanier says. “Sure, there is an extra layer of rapport building, because maybe they haven’t had anybody listen to them [before]. All they wanted was for me to hear them and understand they weren’t terrible people, but [rather] people who had made some bad decisions. As their counselors, we have to put our preconceived notions behind us and move forward.”




Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. She also works as a mental health journalist and is the author of The Fangirl Life: A Guide to All the Feels and Learning How to Deal, published earlier this year. Contact her at ak_smith@gwmail.gwu.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.



Worrying for a living

By Laurie Meyers December 22, 2015

T his past August, The New York Times published an extended and detailed article on the work culture at Amazon.com (“Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”) The picture it painted was not pretty. The article, written from interviews with 100 former and current Amazon employees, depicts an atmosphere in which employees are pitted against one another and encouraged to report any co-worker’s perceived deficiencies to that worker’s manager. According to the article, workweeks of at least 80 hours are expected, as is the willingness to work on holidays. Branding-WorryThere is also a yearly culling process in which managers at each level must present detailed cases citing the reasons for keeping (rather than firing) each of their subordinates. Multiple former employees also told the Times they were put on “probation” by Amazon after returning from maternity leave or a leave of absence due to serious illness.

The article struck a chord. Loudly. As of Dec. 3, the article had received approximately 6,000 comments, the majority of which reflected reader outrage. Some who commented noted that similar workplace atmospheres exist at businesses in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street.

Other publications debated whether the article provided a complete picture of worker satisfaction at Amazon or merely highlighted the experiences of a few disgruntled employees. Some even questioned why anyone cared about the work culture of one particular company.

Perhaps the article become such a hot topic of conversation because many of those who read it recognized certain of the conditions described therein in their own workplaces, even if Amazon’s work culture as a whole may still be an outlier.

Crushing workloads. Hostile supervisors. The expectation to be available at any time, including during “off” hours. Co-workers competing to see who stays at the office the latest. Work-induced stress and depression. These factors are merely a sampling of the work issues that regularly bring clients to counselors’ offices.

“The corporate world to me sounds horrible,” says Barbara Ungashick, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) with a private practice in Denver. “The CEOs get $100 million, while those on the bottom rung get paid $15 an hour.”

Ungashick, an American Counseling Association member, accepts payment through employee assistance programs (EAPs). Although she says people aren’t necessarily seeking her out exclusively because of work-related stress, she calls it a pernicious force that is frequently entwined with the other problems with which clients present.

Workplace pressure has become so prevalent that both the World Health Organization and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health consider job stress to be a significant risk to public health.

Workers in overdrive

When pressed to pick the workplace stressor she hears about most often from clients, Ungashick says it is likely workload. She traces this back to the Great Recession when companies cut back their workforces out of necessity, but never replaced the displaced employees as the economy recovered. Instead, Ungashick has observed, the workers who remain are often performing the work of two or three employees.

Research tends to confirm Ungashick’s observation. Numerous studies have found that although the jobs lost during the recession were more likely to be midlevel and high-level positions, the economic recovery has consisted mostly of adding low-paying jobs. What’s more, the “restructuring” doesn’t necessarily seem to be over.

Robin Redman, a former human resources professional turned licensed professional counselor of mental health, says she continues to see frequent reorganizations that result in higher workloads for clients. “I had one woman yesterday who said she felt like she was on a wheel and couldn’t keep up,” says Redman, who has a private practice in Wilmington, Delaware. “She’s working 12 hours [per day] only to come home and attempt to catch up on emails.”

Brenda Ramlo, an LPC with a private practice in Colorado Springs, is hearing similar stories from her clients. “I think the expectations for workers continue to increase, leading to greater stress, on all levels of employment,” she says. “Because many workplaces are focusing more on increased productivity while using less resources, workers at all levels are feeling squeezed to produce more with less.”

“Additionally,” she continues, “because of the change in methods of communication over the past 10 years, employees are often expected to answer calls, emails and texts at all hours of the day and night, regardless of their pay or position. As a result, their time to regenerate and connect with family and friends is diminished.”

Employees increasingly feel the pressure to be reachable by multiple means, including email, cell phone, voice mail and text, confirms Cristi Thielman, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Seattle. In fact, in some organizations, employees feel the need to use constant connectivity as leverage to ensure job survival, says Thielman, who draws half of her client base from EAP referrals.

“Performance evaluations that rank employees against each other are a source of anxiety for many employees,” she explains. “If an employee knows that their co-worker is working late into the evening or is available at all times of the day, they feel they need to compete with that co-worker and be just as available. So it becomes very difficult to unplug. Clients are often working at home even when they’re off the clock.”

As a result, co-workers often sense they are being pitted against one another, regardless of whether that is management’s intention. In addition, examples of positive management seem hard to come by, according to the counselors whom we interviewed. They say their clients generally report micromanagement, unclear goals, poor communication and other ineffective management practices.

“This increased stress seeps into the way people interact with or support one another at work,” Ramlo says. “When an environment becomes competitive, people are taxed, and negative behaviors are more likely to come out.”

Sometimes, she continues, that negativity and competition become the norm. “If someone is working in a toxic environment or has been dealing with criticism, they may start to lose sight of what is reasonable behavior from both themselves and their co-workers,” she explains.

“Many people feel like they have little choice but to keep working at their current position, despite their discontent, due to high debt, a tight budget and a less-than-ideal job market,” she concludes.

According to a 2015 Work-Life Survey by the American Psychological Association, 37 percent of Americans report regularly experiencing significant stress on the job. With the same study showing that 48 percent of Americans report that they regularly respond to work communications after normal office hours, that job stress is increasingly bleeding into personal time. These stressed-out workers may be worried about losing their salaries, but they are often unaware of the price they’re paying for uncontrolled work stress.

“Many individuals with work stress begin using substances or escalate what use was already present, have trouble sleeping, become irritable or experience depression and anxiety,” Ramlo points out. “These symptoms become noticeable and disruptive in the individual’s personal life and relationships.” Employees suffering from excessive work stress may also develop health problems such as fatigue, headaches, elevated blood pressure, weight changes and gastrointestinal distress, she adds.

“Stress in the workplace and increased workload can lead to poor diet [and] exercise and increased irritability, decreased stress tolerance and increased anxiety and depression,” Thielman says. “Clients in these situations then are less likely to socialize, may rely on drugs or alcohol to relax and have low energy during their free time to pursue hobbies and interests.”

It isn’t uncommon for stressed and overtaxed workers to be unaware of how problematic their behavior has become, Ramlo says. “The person is not always pleasant to be around, has difficulty leaving work [at work] or is not interested in previously pleasurable activities,” she notes. “In many cases, it is a spouse or family member who is the primary motivator for the individual to seek help because they have noticed a change [in the person].”

Something’s got to give

Once clients have realized that work is wreaking havoc in every aspect of their lives, the challenge is figuring out what to do about it.

“I will often do the pros and cons with [clients] to assess if remaining in their current position is the best option or if there are changes that can be made in their current position or if seeking other employment will be the best option in the long run,” Ramlo says. “I’ve worked with individuals who are in work environments or jobs that are more what someone else may have wanted for them or do not match their personality. They often feel there is an expectation to push through and that if they are good enough, they could make it work. Accepting that their personality could be better matched or goals could be realized with much less stress in a different setting is tremendously freeing.”

Thielman says that exploring how clients deal with work stress provides her with clues about whether their current job is a bad fit, whether they need to change their approach to work or both.

“To do this, we look at what they enjoy, what they don’t enjoy and which aspects of the job are causing them the most stress,” she explains. “Another goal is to explore with them how their own actions and beliefs contribute to their work stress. For example, do they believe they must do their job perfectly? Is it difficult for them to say no to more work? Is the amount of effort commensurate with their outcome?”

“I encourage clients to try to understand and become more accepting of their work style and approach,” Thielman continues. “In the process of exploring these issues, we then discuss what changes they could make to their approach to the job while keeping within their own work style and priorities.”

Redman encourages her clients to ask themselves what’s keeping them in their current job. “Is it strictly financial? Is it fear? What’s keeping you there?” she asks. “If you love the field, can you get another position?”

But what happens if a client doesn’t want to or simply can’t leave his or her current job? “Once clients become more aware of the impact of their job stress and become more clear on what helps them decrease work stress, they often become more confident in expressing their needs with their co-workers and supervisors,” Thielman says. “Many clients have had success in communicating these needs more clearly to their co-workers and supervisors and in setting clearer boundaries about the amount of work they can accept.”

Thielman also dedicates time to actively working with clients on communication skills. “I stress [speaking] from a place of what they need versus what they want others to do,” she says. “From our work of understanding and accepting work style and approach, the client is able to communicate with others from the perspective of trying to maximize [his or her] working style [and] emphasizing that [he or she wants] to do good work and be productive, which I generally find is true for most people.”

“I also encourage clients to communicate a willingness to collaborate with the other person,” Thielman says. “For example, I might coach a client to say, ‘I am realizing that with my extra workload, I feel I am having trouble dedicating the amount of time necessary to this project. I want to make sure my work is getting done well, so I am wondering if we could talk about what the possibilities might be for managing my workload.’”

Ramlo also emphasizes communication skills with her clients. “Role-playing can be an effective strategy in helping clients communicate what they want or need,” she says. “Clarifying problems and goals is also instrumental in making sure clients effectively communicate what they want or need. When people get overly emotional, it is often hard to adequately see and articulate what they want to say, thereby increasing the chances they will not get their needs met.”

Communication skills are helpful, of course, but stressed-out workers also need coping mechanisms. Thielman emphasizes the importance of her clients taking simple steps such as eating lunch away from their desks, seeking out co-workers to take brief walks with during break times and engaging in meditation or other mindfulness practices to help with relaxation and focus.

“I work with clients to find little ways all day long to interject some relaxation into their work routine such as taking time out to meditate or do some deep breathing or even go for a walk,” adds Ramlo. “I encourage them to decorate their cubicles with pictures of family or their favorite vacation spot. I encourage them to take breaks, ask for help when needed and go to the nearest park to have lunch and enjoy nature. Above all, I think it’s important to laugh throughout the day to avoid getting too mired down in the details of the job.”

Ramlo also believes it is crucial to help clients identify sources of healthy support in their lives — both at work and outside of work — and reconnect.

“I would help [clients] determine what kind of support they need and who in their life can provide it,” she says. “For instance, instead of commiserating with other disgruntled employees at happy hour, [I might suggest] joining with people who can provide timely feedback if they notice you slipping into negative patterns or help cheerlead you through a tough time. Or, if they need ongoing support that they don’t have or [if they] work from home, maybe joining a local group to help enrich their life outside of work.”

Speaking of which, there is a world outside of work, and these experts emphasize that counselors need to help clients recognize when they aren’t spending enough time there.

Work to live or live to work?

What makes you happy? That’s a question Redman says overworked and stressed employees — and the rest of us for that matter — don’t spend enough time thinking about.

All of the counselors interviewed for this article mentioned the pace of our 24-hour, on-demand society as a complicating factor when it comes to all kinds of stress, including stress connected to work. “People aren’t allowing themselves to have downtime,” Redman asserts. “They’re not taking care of themselves emotionally.”

Redman highly recommends that her clients start taking time to journal, go to the gym, practice yoga or do whatever else they enjoy. Even if it’s “just a couple of hours a weekend — go out,” she says. “Get a babysitter and go to dinner.” She believes these breaks provide people a necessary chance to regroup and review what is important in life and what isn’t.

Ramlo agrees that work-life balance is important. The needed balance is different for each person, she acknowledges, but she often joins with clients to assess whether they’re happy with their current work-life ratio. Ramlo helps clients step back and look at the big picture to prioritize and be realistic about what they can accomplish. For instance, a plan to spend less time at work would involve analyzing what skills the client is currently using, identifying what is and isn’t working, and determining how the client might use his or her time more efficiently.

“Work identity is important for many people, but I encourage them to look at other aspects of their identity that help define them,” Thielman says. “Is family time important? Time with friends? Travel? Spiritual practice? Artistic expression? Whatever it might be, are they satisfied with how much energy and time they are spending in those pursuits?”

“Looking at these issues can help [clients] see how they want to spend their time and balance their life,” she continues. “Recently, a client and I worked on managing her workplace stress and workload issues. The client began to spend more time on self-care and the personal aspects of her life and ultimately decided to leave her current job for a new one. In the new job, which she finds less stressful, she is making a conscious effort to incorporate self-care into her daily routine. Her levels of stress and depression have decreased significantly as a result of finding more balance between work and personal life. And because she has more energy, she is devoting more time to the relationships in her life that matter to her.”




Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Unprepared, undecided and unfulfilled

By Adriana V. Cornell January 28, 2015

A client said to me: “I wish someone would just fill in all the answers.”
Caroline is a bright, motivated and seemingly confident college senior, yet she is terrified of graduation and bewildered in the face of her future. She wants “variety” and options, but she does not want to choose one. She wants a “gratifying and engaging” career, but she does not want responsibility or leadership. She wants a higher degree, but she does not want to spend more time in school.

The flood of graduation and the “real world” is slowly but ruthlessly rising, and Caroline and her peers find themselves neck-deep. Predictability and familiarity have never been so simultaneously Branding-Box-undecidedprecious and deficient. Gone are the days of acceptable denial and excusable procrastination: In roughly three months, college seniors will need to make a decision.

For many of these students, determining the next step will be the biggest and most weighted decision of their lives. They must negotiate not only practical necessities such as housing and a salary but also a personal resolution. Being a student is both an occupation and an identity; transitioning from college to career demands a resignation of the role college seniors know and do best. They have mastered the duties of a student, navigated the nuances of the educational system and understood what to expect and how to succeed within it. As students, they are in control.

Paul Sites, author of Control: The Basis of Social Order (1973), identified eight basic human needs: consistency of response, stimulation, security, recognition, justice, meaning, rationality and control. If these needs are not met, Sites claimed, one cannot exhibit “normal” or nondeviant individual behavior. School, it seems, is the model of this theory. To facilitate optimal learning, creativity and intellectual development, college campuses are designed to meet all of Sites’ fundamental needs.

Grading satisfies justice, recognition and consistency of response. When students complete an assignment, they receive a grade, representing (high or low) achievement. Presumably, professors and other faculty allow students equal opportunity to succeed by providing clear instructions (a rubric) and evaluating the student without bias or comparative measures. Fair and reliable feedback is not only a norm on college campuses but also an enforced requirement.

Students generally feel valued and safe in college. Admissions tours boast of high security on campus, emphasizing the emergency phones sprinkled throughout, 24/7 campus police patrol, convenient transportation and campus alerts sent via text and email. Last spring, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann responded to an alarming number of student deaths by suicide by forming a task force and informing students that “now is the time to review our work and to ensure that we have in place the best practices in outreach, education, intervention and treatment.” In college, students’ security and safety are the school’s priorities.

But college is perhaps most extraordinary for its pure mission to educate and stimulate. Learning is the primary occupation of students, and through learning, students find meaning and inspiration. Students are in an environment that encourages only growth. The sole purpose of that environment is helping students succeed.

Graduating from college means the loss of a comfortable identity and introduction to a host of empty needs. Syllabi, protection and unconditional (free) support are no longer available. In the workplace, recent college graduates expect recognition and compensation that may not arrive. They expect to be motivated and gratified in an entry-level position. And they expect their co-workers to look after them like their classmates and professors did. Although these employed graduates are left deflated with disappointment, their unemployed classmates are left inflated with anxiety.

In the weeks and months preceding graduation, college seniors anticipate with increasing urgency the imminent loss of resources. Some students begin to feel lonely, abandoned and unable to progress independently. These students typically feel unprepared to face adulthood and career. Others, like Caroline, are undecided. They feel overburdened by the responsibility of making a choice and instead choose nothing. Still others find vulnerability and exploration so threatening that they remain steadfast in their long-standing habits and routines. These students are often guided by their parents’ goals and are ultimately unfulfilled when they find their own wants, needs and identities unexplored and unexpressed.

How can counselors help?

Given the typically last-minute nature of these students’ concerns, counseling interventions should be purposeful and productive. Regardless of the duration of the therapeutic relationship, counselors must be considerate of the treatment deadline: graduation. Fortunately, the college-to-career transition is foreseeable and has precedent. No student is surprised by the end of his or her educational career or unaware of the general expectations that follow. Challenges arise when students interpret or react to these expectations in an irrational or maladaptive manner.

An important distinction should be made at this point: Mental health counselors are neither trained for nor responsible for securing a position of employment for students. Résumé building, networking, job searching and other related logistics fall more within the duties of the career counselor or campus career services. In my view, a mental health counselor’s role is to ready students emotionally and mentally so that they may perform at their best in their next pursuit.

Counseling the unprepared student

In my experience, normalizing fears of the undetermined future is the first step toward helping the student who feels unprepared for graduation. Though basic, this intervention can be powerful for students who reach that much-anticipated “finish line” only to feel disoriented, incomplete and submerged in unfamiliar demands. Celebration and congratulations are flung at them, while they want nothing more than to turn back time. Often, students find themselves in this category due in part to the regular yet empty votes of support and confidence they receive. Throughout the course of their youth, they have been told — and therefore believe — that they have ability, options and, best of all, time. But the rosy fog of encouragement is accompanied by far too few truths.

Typically, students in this category were rarely challenged to follow a course of practicality, and no one ever earnestly asked them what they planned to do after senior year. Although these dreamers fuel the very purpose of education — learning for the love of learning — they find themselves at a startling awakening come graduation. The chilling truths that ability may not be enough, options may not be plentiful and time is not endless are crushing. As counselors, we must first meet these students there, in that emotion. Joining the client is essential to developing a strong therapeutic rapport efficiently, and this is especially critical if time is limited.

Next, a counselor might explore and emphasize the student’s support system. Often, unprepared students feel as though they must approach the real world on their own. Many imagine that immediately following graduation, they no longer qualify as students and, thus, may no longer enjoy the resources a college campus provides. Helping students understand the possibilities and benefits of ongoing relationships with professors, classmates and coaches and how to establish those connections even at the end of senior spring can allow for greater confidence, comfort and a sense of control. Scheduling as few as one meeting with an adviser or professor to discuss career goals can set a platform for regular updates, communication and advice after graduation.

In this context, unprepared students are often good students. Lack of preparation for graduation does not always imply a lack of motivation. Rather, these students are typically unprepared because they are more invested in their education than in their careers. But realizing that this focus, although lauded in college, will be obsolete in a matter of months is disheartening. Counselors might utilize strengths-based counseling and positive psychology to help these students recall their skills and understand how to apply these skills to the professional domain. For example, a student who writes for the school newspaper might emphasize writing skills, an ability to meet deadlines and word limits, community outreach opportunities, creativity and team-oriented skills. By drawing a connection between education and career, counselors might empower these students to embrace life after college as an opportunity rather than as an end to self-directed possibility.

Counseling the undecided student

Whereas the unprepared student is fearful, the undecided student is apathetic. For these students, success is more of a societal guideline than a personal passion or drive. Caroline, for example, hopes to proceed to a doctoral degree for the associated prestige it offers rather than out of a genuine personal interest or purpose. When asked the “miracle question” of her ideal present or future scenario, Caroline replied flatly: “I don’t know.” Students such as Caroline typically seek counseling in hopes that “someone will just fill in all the answers” for them.

Several studies have found that choice leads to greater satisfaction and sense of control. Even the appearance of choice, regardless of the desirability or authenticity of each option, can create increased self-efficacy and superior performance. With this theory in mind, it seems counselors would most effectively help graduating students by presenting them with options (false or genuine): get a job, continue on to graduate school, take a year off, volunteer — or even do nothing at all.

Not only are these “options” vague or unrealistic for many college seniors, but they are also unhelpful. Although choice may offer control and power, too many choices produce confusion and dissatisfaction. Research conducted by Sheena Iyengar in 2011 shows that presenting consumers with multiple variations of a single product (in her study, different flavors of jam) attracts more attention but results in fewer purchases.

The miracle question is futile for undecided students because they see too many choices and “buy” none. For students to understand the differences between choices, they have to be able to understand the consequences associated with each one. Counselors may illuminate these consequences by asking students more specific questions, particularly regarding motivation and everyday realities. For example, a counselor might refer to John Holland’s hexagonal Self-Directed Search model to prompt questions such as whether a student is more comfortable working alone or in groups, with routine or spontaneously, and with his or her mind or hands. Pointed questions may help to eliminate unlikely or distracting options, force the student to think beyond external factors such as salary, prestige and location, and consider internal factors such as gratification, generativity and pride.

Counseling the unfulfilled student

Whereas the undecided student is apathetic, the unfulfilled student is baffled. The unfulfilled student — or, more likely, the student’s parents — declares an ultimate professional goal and explores few alternatives thereafter. The goal often provides the student a direct course to follow and a set of boundaries to stay within. While the student’s peers may have struggled to define their paths during adolescence and early college, the unfulfilled student seems to have found comfort in the step-by-step requirements of an esteemed career. Therefore, it is plausible that, over time, the career comes to represent a majority of the student’s identity. To refuse or abandon that career would be a betrayal of the student’s sense of self.

Although this student may not present with or even report career-related issues, symptoms of anxiety and stress often exist as graduation nears. After years of determination, this student may arrive in session on the eve of senior spring wondering if she or he made the right decision. With constant focus on the ultimate goal and the future, this student largely ignored the process and the present moment. These students may feel that although they have achieved their goal, they have learned very little about themselves and their environment. Stress and anxiety result when this realization occurs.

Research conducted by Nathan J. White and Terence J. G. Tracey in 2011 suggests that students who score higher on self-awareness and authenticity measures are more decisive about career and less likely to be fearful and anxious or to have difficulty believing in their problem-solving abilities. To orient unfulfilled students to their extracurricular identities and to develop their self-awareness, counselors might begin by facilitating exploration around fundamental identity ingredients: likes and dislikes, various roles played, strengths and weaknesses, and accomplishments, failures and goals (for example, starting a family). Next, counselors might focus on the student’s relationships and how she or he exists among others. Examining healthy and unhealthy, positive and negative relationships — particularly with parents in this case — may inform the old patterns and inspire new dynamics in the future.


One important commonality exists among the unprepared, undecided and unfulfilled student alike: All feel that in making a career decision, they must mourn the loss of potential selves. Since elementary school, possibility seemed endless. Parents and teachers promised that they could be anything they wanted to be. But suddenly the music stops, and everyone wants an answer to the dreaded question: What are you going to do now? Being captain of the soccer team, president of the arts and crafts club or editor of the school newspaper seems to pale next to the blank line where a shining career is meant to be — the career that one supposedly spent all this time working toward.

As counselors, we must help students transform their nostalgia for yesterday into enthusiasm for tomorrow. Choosing a career is not a single event but rather an ongoing, lifelong process. Encourage students to see not an end to but a beginning of possibility, and help them find energy in their new independence. For the first time, their lives are entirely in their control. Emphasize not the burden of choice but the freedom.




Adriana V. Cornell earned two master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and now works as a college counselor for high school students. Through private practice, she assists high school students with each step of the college application process, including self-conceptualization, college list development, essay writing and application completion. She lives in Center City Philadelphia with her husband. To contact her, visit adrianacornell.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org