Some jobs are harder than others.
Take counseling, for example. Counselors know that each and every word they say to their clients carries great weight, and it’s impossible for the practitioners not to become invested in the lives of those who have come for the right words or just the open ears.
“In counseling,” says Kimberly Hart of NIU’s Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, “we’re not just dealing with the inner workings of the body but with emotions of the heart and spirit.”
Real human beings ask counselors for help. They arrive vulnerable, sometimes careful not to expose all of the distressing parts of themselves. “How do I trust you with that?” they might wonder. “I just met you 20 seconds ago.”
Counselors, in turn, must communicate and convey empathy. They must exhibit professionalism and ethics. They must build relationships. They must clearly understand what their clients are asking – or not asking – of them.
“What we need as human beings isn’t always the core of our problems. Sometimes there are pieces underneath that. We need to help our clients illuminate parts of their lives that might be repressed,” Hart says.
“We need to know how to use questions effectively when questions are appropriate,” she adds.
“How do we gather information and make sense of joining in with our clients to sort of get a sense of their world view, how they’re navigating life, to understand as closely as possible how one person can understand another person, in guiding them to wellness, and knowing that wellness can look different in many ways.”
And how do students of counseling acquire these critically important skills before practicing in the real world?
At NIU, the answer and the experience are found inside the Community Counseling Training Center.
Located in Graham Hall, the CCTC is home to around 50 counselors who are either new master’s clinicians in training or as doctoral counselors who are advancing their skills or learning supervisory roles.
Yet another 60 to 70 master’s degree students are developing their initial skills at the center, which is equipped with two-way mirrors and cameras that transmit to a television in the conference room, where Hart and others can watch and provide live feedback.
Free counseling services for individual and groups are offered to between 400 and 600 clients, consisting of NIU students, faculty, staff and members of the DeKalb community. Services include general assessment and counseling; when appropriate, the CCTC can offer referrals.
Hart, who became involved in the CCTC as a practicum counselor in 2012, says that students receive “intensive supervision.”
“Pretty much all of our courses have some major assignment where they’re doing mock sessions – with clients in the community, in career sessions, in practice groups,” she says. “One of the things I love about the CCTC is that we’re training counselors and we’re also training new supervisors, all working under licensed, credentialed faculty.”
Sometimes, Hart says, those faculty or supervisors take a larger role.
“During a mid-session break, we’ll process the session. If supervisors believe there’s something critical that’s not being addressed, they’re able to provide that feedback to the counselors, who can go back and use those interventions in that moment,” she says.
“Occasionally, when there are greater crisis needs, the supervisors might do some co-counseling with the client in the room,” she adds. “It’s really a privilege and great wealth for our students to have the center. Students in programs that don’t have their own training centers don’t get the same level of supervision or as focused.”
Suzanne Degges-White, chair of the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education, says that “the semester-long practicum is one of the most dynamic learning experiences students will ever have.”
“One of the most important aspects of preparing students for careers in the helping professions is providing relevant and timely feedback as they practice their skills,” Degges-White says. “Because our students have the opportunity to provide counseling services in our on-site training center, we are able to challenge and support them with ‘real-time’ feedback which they can integrate in the ongoing session.”
Faculty feel a great “sense of pride and satisfaction watching students move from a place of super-charged anxiety and trepidation as they enter their earliest sessions with clients to a brand new level of confidence and professional identity three months later as we see them wrapping up their work with their clients,” she adds.
“The CCTC provides the best opportunity possible for this transformation to take place,” she says, “and each semester, we all enjoy a lot of ‘Wow!’ moments as we see students grow into capable counselors who are ready to take their newly honed skills out into the larger community through their internship placements.”
Work at the CCTC – a 16-week, semester-long training – comes after completion of a minimum of eight core courses that prepare students in counseling skills, theories, professional practices, group counseling, career counseling, working with children, working with families and assessment practices.
And when that on-the-job training starts, Hart says, students are eager to get started and are conscious of how they’re doing.
“By the time our students reach practicum, they have the skills to come into this space with a level of competence necessary to start building expertise,” she says. “They definitely have that passion to do well. I haven’t come across a counselor who’s worked in our center who wasn’t concerned about the level of quality care that they’re providing, wanting to do right by those individuals and asking, ‘What could I be doing better?’ ”
One of the center’s goals is “to create that dual space of being a place where you’re able to grow and being a place where you’re able to recognize what you’re doing well,” she adds.
“My favorite part of the center is at the end of every semester, when students are wrapping up, and they’re tell me, ‘This is what I did,’ or, ‘This is how this client’s doing,’ or, ‘I used this intervention, and the client really loved it,’ ” Hart says. “The most common thing I hear from students is that this was the most valuable practicum course; the most meaningful; the most beneficial. This is where it all came together, from the theoretical to the applied.”