'The Professional Counselor: Symphony in PC' named top ACAF grad student essay

Jul 05, 2007
It comes as no surprise that counseling graduate student Victoria Casper would call upon a musical metaphor when viewing her role as a professional counselor.

It comes as no surprise that counseling graduate student Victoria Casper would call upon a musical metaphor when viewing her role as a professional counselor. Casper used her experience as a veteran of the U.S. Army and a band director in public schools for more than 10 years to compose the winning essay for the Tenth ACA Foundation Graduate Student Essay Contest.

The competition was decidedly tight. More than 120 graduate students from across the country submitted essays that explored timely issues facing them as future counseling professionals. All members of the Review Committee commented on the high caliber of this year's submissions. According to one reader, the graduate students' writing exhibited thoughtfulness and creativity, making the task of evaluating the essays very challenging. She "thoroughly enjoyed hearing (the students') perspectives. Some had great stories with interesting insight. ... I look forward to our gen Xers and Y's joining our professional ranks." Despite this being a busy time of year, another reader described judging entries from the contest as "a wonderful challenge!" 

In the 10 years the contest has been presented, 50 graduate students in counseling programs have received financial prizes and ACA memberships courtesy of the ACA Foundation. Last year's top winner, Shana Averbach, summed up her experience this way: "Just as writing the essay ... helped me collect my thoughts on mental health education, so too did winning the contest help boost my confidence in my own ideas and convictions. Knowing that I had conveyed a message that people in the counseling field found important made me feel connected to and further invested in my developing career. It was as though my graduate school family had stuck my 'A' paper on the proverbial department refrigerator."

In addition to acknowledging all the students who submitted entries, ACA Foundation Chair Jane Goodman expressed her heartfelt thanks to this year's volunteer committee of counselors and counselor educators: Casey A. Barrio Minton, Randy Burwell, Brooke B. Collison, Suzanne E. Degges-White, Carman S. Gill, Melanie C. Harper, Courtland C. Lee, Jane E. Myers, Lesley D. Riley and Sister Lois Wedl.

Topics for next year's ACA Foundation Graduate Student Essay Contest will be announced in early 2008. Goodman urged all of this year's entrants to try their hand again in the future, as one of last year's winners, Amy Freadling, submitted another winning essay this year. "Providing a forum for the discussion of key ideas is what we're about, and excellent essays will rise to the top," Goodman said. Watch Counseling Today and the ACA website (www.counseling.org) for more information on the 2008 essay competition.

Editor's note: Counseling Today edited the graduate student essays only for spelling and minor style issues.

First-place winner

Victoria Casper, Walsh University (Ohio)

Casper, enrolled for a dual specialization of school counseling and mental health counseling, hopes to work with military veterans/families and adolescents in school systems. "I also hope to complete my doctorate and to teach at the college level."

Q: Discuss what it means to be a "professional counselor" and how you plan to contribute to the growth and maturation of our profession.

The Professional Counselor: Symphony in PC


The lights are dimmed. The spotlight is cast upon the podium. The conductor is donned in a crisp black tuxedo with tails. She steps on to the podium, shakes the hand of the concert master, faces the audience, takes a bow and then faces the orchestra. The orchestra is a diverse group, but the conductor knows the reedy voice of the woodwinds, the brilliant blare of the brass, the bold rhythmic pulse of the percussion and the gliding compassion of the strings. She knows the role of each instrument in the orchestra. The conductor has an immense responsibility to understand the diversity present in the concert hall for the evening to be a success. A counselor's clientele is similar to the diversity of the orchestra, and the roles of the professional counselor and the conductor are parallel. The conductor and professional counselor have skills that are unique and highly specialized that set them apart from just anyone who steps into their roles.

Movement 1

The professional counselor knows each client has a role in the counseling process with a unique journey to follow and understands that diversity is what makes each path special. A counselor has an immense responsibility to understand the diverse population of clientele because the counselor is the encourager of the self-exploration process which promotes the well-being of an individual. A professional counselor is a helper who cultivates relationships. The counselor listens, empathizes, and encourages a person to examine his/her self. Respect and trust must be nurtured in the relationship as the professional counselor conveys unconditional acceptance. 

Movement II

The field of counseling, like a musical performance, is constantly in a state of change. It is a professional counselor's responsibility to continuously seek new information and experiences which advance his/her skills, such as attending convention presentations, volunteering to provide counseling services during disasters or becoming involved in a counseling organization. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a professional is "engaged in one of the learned professions, characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession, or follows a line of conduct," and a profession is "a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation, a principal vocation or employment, or the whole body of persons engaged in a calling." Therefore, a professional is someone who is academically astute in a specific field which he/she feels a sense of calling to exemplify conduct expected from someone of such status; in this case, the status of a professional counselor.

Movement III

The future growth and maturation of the profession of counseling relies on every counselor to make it his/her duty to unite in educating the public to the benefits of help provided by the skills of a licensed professional counselor; skills such as effective listening, reflecting feeling and meaning, and supporting client change. I am the future of professional counseling; therefore, it is my responsibility to help the profession mature like a musical theme that grows into a majestic song. As a beginning graduate student, I am like a single note that has been placed upon a music staff! I will be nurtured by my professors' instruction and guidance until I emerge from the counseling training program as a rich and lustrous symphony. At that point, I will place my own first notes on a staff to contribute to the growth of the profession of counseling by writing my own symphony. I will look for new opportunities and responsibilities such as being involved in the American Counseling Association, acquiring supervision and conducting research. Every opportunity will better equip me to educate others about the benefits of professional counseling. With every responsibility, I will learn to nurture the new "notes" entering the profession.


A conductor is a professional who knows how to encourage each member of the orchestra to produce an aesthetically pleasing performance. A professional counselor is one who fosters an optimal relationship with his/her client that promotes wellbeing. Both professions require dedication to provide a service to the public that enhances the quality of life. The enhancement of the quality of a life is a work of art, and that should be music to anyone's ears!

First runner-up (tie)

Pennie E. Bucilla, Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

A master's student in counseling and psychological services, Bucilla has worked with a number of nonprofit agencies and would like to provide counseling services to the underinsured and the uninsured. "I believe we have a responsibility to use our knowledge and resources to help each other."

Q: Is it an advantage or a limitation to have counselors choose a specialty - family, career, addictions, etc. - early in their training?

Children learn to walk before they run, talk before they sing and smile before they laugh. They learn the basic skill before refining it. This model of learning the fundamental concept, before learning the subtler nuances, must be applied to the profession of counseling. New counselors must be provided with the opportunity to learn basic skills and fundamental concepts, to gain a sense of comfort and confidence with those skills and concepts, before attempting to refine or apply them to a specialized area. It is a limitation to have counselors choose a specialty early in their training. It limits their ability to help their clients, it limits their level of knowledge and professional growth, and it limits the strength of the professional body. New counselors must learn to walk before they run.

General counseling and broad psychological theories are necessary for new counselors to be able to help their clients. A broad knowledge base provides the new counselor with a framework within which they can practice. It provides a dependable method for assessing, conceptualizing clients' issues and then working along with the client to achieve resolution or improvement. Both the learning and assimilation of general theories before specializing provides the new counselor with a comprehensive framework at a time when uncertainty may predominate the new counselor's experience. It provides the new counselor with more confidence. This confidence is then portrayed to the client, and the client may be more open to the counselor and the counseling experience.

Specialization limits a new counselor's perspective. Along with the confidence that a broad knowledge base and dependable framework can bring, a broad perspective is also important, especially for anyone involved with the human condition, but even more important when dealing with the human mind. Rarely are an individual's issues found in isolation or in a single specialty area. Rarely is an individual only suffering from addiction without depression or anxiety. Rarely are eating disorders not associated with stress or trauma. Using a limited perspective associated with only one specialty results in the new counselor overlooking clients' other significant area of concerns. More commonly the problems and concerns are as complex and complicated as the individuals themselves. A broad education, rather than early specialization, enables the new counselor to better recognize and understand the interplay of all influences and life experiences on their clients, responding to their concerns more holistically.

Early specialization results in putting the problem ahead of the client. Rather than seeing the client as a person, an entity born of genetics, influence and experience, specialization encourages counselors to define the client by the diagnosis. Assessment is completed to meet the diagnosis, goals set to eliminate the diagnosis and interventions instituted to meet the goals determined by the specialty. The human element is missing. There is no holistic approach, and the client suffers. Rather than treating the person, the counselor who specializes too early treats only the problem.

General and broad counseling experience is beneficial to the new counselors themselves. It provides the new counselor with unlimited experiences, leaving the new counselor with more ability to adapt to other professional counseling situations. Specialized counselors' skills are less portable. The general counselor is better prepared and adaptable. They are likely to have been introduced to specialized areas in their general education. The general counselor is more likely to identify with the discipline of counseling as a whole and hold a more open and accepting attitude to different ideas and approaches.

Specialized counselors are more likely to identify with their specialty, resulting in less activity and support of the general professional body. This creates a weak and fragmented professional body, one that does not have the political structure or strength to lobby and support legislative changes that benefit the client, the new counselor or the professional body.

It is important for any profession to be able to flourish and grow, to be able to create a dependable and growing body of research. Too narrow of a focus created by too early of a specialization can lead to limitations on both research and the sharing of that research across specialties. Rather than cooperation, specialization encourages and supports competition. Research-supported interventions are the foundation of the science of counseling. 

For the betterment of the profession as a whole, for the benefit of the client and for the professional growth of the new counselor, specializing too early in an individual's career is unwise and even dangerous. New counselors must learn to walk before they run.

First runner-up (tie)

Wendy Eckenrod-Green, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Eckenrod-Green plans to pursue a career as a counselor educator, emphasizing multicultural competence and social justice both as a research agenda and as an advocate. She wants to become more involved as a leader for systemic change to provide equitable counseling services for all individuals seeking counseling.

Q: Are today's counseling students receiving adequate training to address the counseling issues related to the growing diversity of this country's population?

Multicultural counseling and counselors' multicultural competence have been recent hot topics in the counseling profession. Constantine and Sue (2005) stated that "multicultural competence is necessary in meeting the various needs of individuals belonging to diverse cultural groups or historically marginalized groups." This essay answers the question "Are today's counseling students receiving adequate training to address the counseling issues related to the growing diversity of this country's population?" and will offer an examination of (a) demographic trends in the United States, (b) the state of current multicultural training and (c) the future of counselor education programs.

Demographic trends in the U.S.

The U.S. Census Bureau (2000) projected that by the year 2050, racial and ethnic minorities will account for more than 50 percent of the U.S. population. Although the clients' population is changing, the counselors' population is remaining largely White and female. This discrepancy in the population being served (clients) and the population providing the services (counselors) is of paramount importance. Chae, Foley and Chae (2006) stated that "The number of counselors and therapists representing racial and ethnic minorities is inadequate to meet the current and anticipated demand of mental health services in minority populations." Thus, multicultural competence training is of critical importance and necessary in all counselor education programs at both the master's and doctoral level.

The current state of multicultural training

The groundbreaking work of Sue, Bernier, Durran, Feinberg, Pederson and Smith (1982) created the foundational tripartite model to define multicultural competence and incorporated (a) counselors recognizing their personal attitudes and values concerning race and ethnicity, (b) counselors developing their knowledge of diverse cultural world views and experiences and (c) counselors identifying effective skills in working with clients of color. It can be argued that multicultural competence training for counselors is incomplete. Colleges and universities that are accredited through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs are held to high standards concerning multicultural competence. However, most counselor education programs only offer one course in multicultural counseling, with the primary focus involving (a) self-awareness and (b) knowledge of four racial groups (i.e., Asian, African-American, Native American and Hispanic). While self-awareness and knowledge are critical elements to multicultural competence, training in multicultural skills is lacking. Thus, counseling students are not adequately equipped to serve clients that are in some way different from themselves.

It can be said that CACREP's standards are a direct reflection of the importance of multicultural competence within the counseling profession. In every program area accredited by CACREP, including (a) school, (b) community, (c) mental health and (d) gerontology, counselor multicultural awareness has been a consistent standard. CACREP multicultural understanding standards call for counselors to understand "the role of racial, ethnic and cultural heritage, nationality, socioeconomic status, family structure, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious and spiritual beliefs, occupation, and physical and mental status, and equity issues" (2007). Although CACREP's current standards call for multicultural understanding, the standards concerning multicultural competence are in serious need of revision.

The future of counselor education programs

Counselor education programs can enhance their current programs by incorporating a number of elements into their course work. First, programs can continue to offer other courses that focus on marginalized populations (i.e., Women's Issues in Counseling and Counseling the Sexual Minority Client). Programs can also recruit students who represent marginalized populations. In addition, multicultural competence needs to be incorporated into counseling skills and techniques courses. It is essential for students to practice these crucial skills in a safe environment accompanied by warm, yet challenging supervision. Programs can also incorporate multicultural competence into all courses offered to students. Multicultural competence has been largely relegated to one course, and if all elements of multicultural competence are interwoven throughout a program, the importance of this issue would become embedded within the knowledge, awareness and skills of future counselors. More important, students would also be equipped with the necessary multicultural skills to implement equitable services to all clients with whom they come into contact.


The counseling profession is slowly responding to the demographic shifts in the U.S. Multicultural competence is viewed as a serious issue concerning counselor education as evidenced by the upcoming revisions of CACREP's standards, which will include a skill component that coincides with multicultural competence theory. Multicultural competence in the counseling profession must continue to be an active and progressive process in which counselors and counselor educators ought to be proud, yet hunger for more change that involves a drive to ensure equity for all clients seeking counseling. 

Second runner-up

Amy Freadling, Kent State University

This is the second time that Freadling has been chosen as one of the winners of the ACA Foundation Grad Student Essay Contest. "After completing my doctorate, I plan to continue my current work with employee assistance programs, adding administrative and research functions to my existing clinical responsibilities."

Q: Discuss what it means to be a "professional counselor" and how you plan to contribute to the growth and maturation of our profession.

Caring, observing, understanding, normalizing, supporting, encouraging, listening, optimizing, reframing and strengthening, counselors assist in creating positive differences in others' lives. As a counselor, I am confident that I have been sufficiently trained to help others achieve wellness and growth through the acquisition of valuable content knowledge and process skills. Fostering a therapeutic relationship consisting of empathy, respect and collaboration, I assist people of all ages and all backgrounds to effect helpful life changes. In counseling, I focus not so much on the problem as identified through a generic diagnosis, but more so on the possibilities through a recognition of individual strengths. Counseling others toward realization of their potentials is emotionally, intellectually and spiritually rewarding. Each day in counseling is fresh and new, as clients present with unique concerns, personalities and experiences. From the marriage that is reconciled to the person who chooses life over death, I know that the provision of counseling services can aid others to make monumental and lasting changes. 

I am proud of my identity as a counselor, a distinct helping professional qualified to work in a variety of settings, including schools, community mental health agencies, private practices, employee assistance programs and hospitals. Confident in my knowledge and skills, cognizant of my needs for continued learning and hopeful for my future, I am committed to promoting the maturation of the counseling profession. In particular, to contribute to the counseling profession, I commit myself to scholarship, advocacy and membership in professional organizations.

As a counselor working to earn a doctoral degree, I consider it my obligation to commit myself to the pursuit of scholarly activities. Scholarship involves structured tasks toward generating new knowledge regarding a particular issue, which can then be shared with other members of the profession. To strengthen the profession, we as counselors must develop a knowledge base that is truly our own. My own scholarly activities do not just quench my curiosity or fulfill a class requirement, but these activities also add to the body of knowledge necessary for the counseling profession to thrive.

Second, I commit myself to advocating for the counseling profession. To do so, I must stay current with issues affecting counselors and the clients we serve. Such issues include coverage of licensed counselors under Medicare, counseling licensure in all 50 states and reasonable counselor-to-student ratios in public schools. Once familiar with these and other issues, it is my duty to serve as a strong voice for the profession by calling, writing and meeting with state and federal legislators to appeal for appropriate rights and needs. I cannot expect my clients to passively wait for change, and thus I cannot passively wait for change within the profession. Rather, I must be assertive and steadfast in pursuing transformations in the world for the betterment of our counseling profession.

Third, I commit myself to maintaining membership in professional counseling organizations. Networking with students, professionals and educators in the field of counseling enables me to feel connected rather than alone. Counseling can be tedious work, and the understanding and guidance from colleagues is crucial to continuing my passion and stamina. To help others, counselors must be willing to help themselves by seeking the support and nurturance found in the larger counseling community, especially through the service and solidarity gained in professional counseling organizations. There is strength in numbers, and joining together certainly serves to strengthen our investment in the profession and our ability to persevere in this challenging field of service.

In the future, I foresee increasing opportunities for counselors to help others with diminishing bureaucratic, public and personal barriers. I foresee a growth and maturation of the profession, and I can clearly identify ways in which I can make a difference. Through scholarship, advocacy and membership in professional organizations, I accept the problems and I embrace the possibilities. In other words, just as counselors uphold a wellness model for clients, we must endorse a wellness model for our profession.

Third runner-up

Pamela N. Stiles, Trinity International University

A master's student in counseling psychology, Stiles "would like to work with existing community resources to connect people and build healthy support systems to assist individuals as they cope with life stressors. It's important that I not only aid individuals, but also strengthen the larger community. My long-term goal is to earn my doctorate in counseling and begin a teaching career."

Q: Is it an advantage or a limitation to have counselors choose a specialty - family, career, addictions, etc. - early in their training?

As many occupations begin to demand increasing specialization, pressure mounts on counseling students to commit to a narrower field of study early in their academic careers. In my quest for a counseling position upon graduation, I have experienced firsthand the stress of feeling unprepared to face clients who often want - or even expect - to encounter an expert, a specialist devoted to their particular concern. In the face of these anxieties, however, I continue to believe that aspiring counselors are best served by a broad-based generalist curriculum rather than a program that requires them to choose a specialty early in their graduate training.  

Despite the commonsense assertion that narrowing one's focus early will provide the greatest opportunity for excellence in a given area, research ranging from the high school locker room to the medical school lecture hall has revealed that early specialization is typically premature and ultimately detrimental. For example, although parents and coaches once believed that pushing children to specialize in one sport would result in the best adult athlete, research now indicates that experimentation in a broad range of physically challenging activities more effectively prepares the elite competitor (Baker, 2003). Similarly, studies have repeatedly shown that medical residents who choose specializations early on in their training score significantly lower on the medical licensing exam than students who pursue a more generalized program of study (Gonnella, Hojat, Erdmann and Veloski, 1996). While little research has examined the issue of early specialization specifically in counseling, novice therapists may benefit from the insights derived from other fields. Encouraging students to master basic counseling skills and become aware of the breadth of the field, rather than quickly choosing a specialty, is valuable for at least three reasons.

First, understanding the basics of counseling provides students with a firm foundation from which to explore other areas of interest over time. Similar to the athlete whose performance is ultimately improved by using different muscle groups in a variety of sports and activities, the counselor who eventually specializes also benefits from earlier exposure to a diversity of counseling areas and approaches. Therapists who have received a broad counseling education are more likely to consider creative problem-solving methods, draw connections from different areas and incorporate ways of thinking from one subdiscipline of counseling into another. 

Second, by requiring an inclusive curriculum, educators optimize the capabilities of budding professionals. While a student may begin her graduate education convinced that she only wants to work one-on-one with troubled adolescents, after exposure to other counseling specialties, she may realize that she is gifted in leading groups and identifying the complex interpersonal dynamics within family relationships. If counseling trainees are pressed to choose a specialty too quickly, they may not discover their true area of giftedness; consequently, both clients and the profession may miss out on the innovations of a great practitioner who never quite found her niche.

Third, general knowledge of the breadth of the field serves to diminish the risk of new counselors pigeonholing clients into familiar diagnoses. The counselor, who from the beginning of his training has focused exclusively on a specialty, may miss important elements of a client's problem that fall outside of his narrow area of expertise. A marriage and family therapist must recognize the symptoms of an undisclosed addiction in a family member, just as a career counselor must be able to recognize when a client's anxiety and indecisiveness over occupational choices signals a more pervasive problem requiring attention. Accordingly, a thorough foundation as a counseling generalist ensures more accurate diagnoses by preparing new practitioners to think beyond their scripts and recognize the multifaceted nature of most problems.

Asking students to choose a specialty early in their training limits students' effectiveness by depriving them of a broad base of experience, preventing their exploration of various counseling specialties and setting them up to make less accurate diagnoses. While some specialization is eventually necessary for counselors in our ever-expanding field, such a decision should be a secondary step, taken only after a solid foundation has been laid. The drive to commit to a specialty to get ahead in one's field is normal; as novice counselors, however, we must temper this passion with patience and recognition of the immense value to be gained from first appreciating the richness and diversity of the counseling profession.

Select News by Year