I am a school counselor in New Jersey, and I am so fortunate to have found my calling and passion in my career. To enter this field, counselors must have a specific certification after completing a school counseling graduate degree. Becoming a school counselor is not an overnight decision! You might think that I always knew I wanted to be a school counselor and specifically sought a graduate program to help me achieve this goal. Nothing could be farther from the truth!
I attended a small public university in New Jersey, majoring in English and Education. I remember completing my student teaching assignment, the last requirement for becoming a certified teacher, when an administrator pulled me aside to offer me a full-time position teaching English the following September. This is every education major’s dream! However, I explained that I was looking to pursue a graduate degree and was in the process of interviewing at several universities. The administrator explained that I could always pursue a graduate degree in the evenings (while taking advantage of the district’s tuition reimbursement program), and this opportunity is a great way to start my career. That was absolutely true. Jobs were hard to come by, and here I was turning one down for an uncertain future.
At the time, I had applied to several universities and looked into some different degrees. I had taken only one college class in educational psychology and I was positive that was the field I wanted to enter. Seriously, one class. That spring I interviewed at several universities, and I was thrilled when I received a full scholarship and stipend for a Ph.D. program in School Psychology at a prestigious university. I also received acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania for a master’s degree in Psychological Services, a comparatively expensive program with no scholarship. The choice seemed simple, right? Nope, I turned down the Ph.D. program and took out every possible loan to pay for the master’s degree, and there was one thing that made the decision clear. The interview for the Ph.D. program was competitive and even (I felt) duplicitous in that they “paired” me with another interviewee to see how I could manage the stress of competition.While waiting for the interview, the other candidate shared some damaging information with me about herself that I could have disclosed when she left the interview early. I didn’t, and I only learned afterward about the “set up.”
In contrast, the interview for the master’s degree program involved about 12 candidates in a room, and we all chatted with the director of the program about topics in the field and even fun, unrelated topics, such as where to get the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia. I remember leaving the interview and feeling like I was surrounded by new friends who shared my interests. I was thrilled to be accepted and felt like I found a home.
When I thought about which university and with whom I wanted to spend time studying with and learning from, the choice was clear. I loved the program at the University of Pennsylvania, the people, and the energy, and I knew I made the right choice for me. The program was short (a full year) but incredibly intense.
Working while attending the immersive graduate program was simply out of the question. I had worked all through high school and worked full-time all through undergrad. Even with a full scholarship to earn my BA degree, I had no financial resources to pay for other life expenses. With a tight budget, super-structured time schedule, and making major sacrifices, I was able to achieve my graduation goals. However, I look back on that time of my life, and I realize how disconnected I was from the college experience in many ways. Social events, friendships, and memory-making fun times were put on the back burner in exchange for long nights at the library. I was determined that my experience at UPenn was going to be different, and it was one of the best decision of my life. I invested in a graduate degree, and, in return, developed profoundly meaningful, authentic, and lasting relationships, including the one with my best friend, Saqi, that led to this blog.
When it came time to select a graduate school internship, I looked at the list of possibilities. I told myself, “I want to really make a difference,” and I applied to intern at a shelter for abused women and children. I didn’t even consider the school counseling internship! I was incredibly disappointed to learn that there were no more slots available to intern at shelter and the only option left to me was working in a school. I am embarrassed to admit that I begrudgingly accepted and thought to myself, “I have to do this to get my degree, but it doesn’t mean it’s my career path.” I can’t believe that I even once believed that!
That internship completely shifted my view, though. I worked with an inspiring veteran counselor who ran clubs, groups, and wowed me with all of her energy. One day I asked her why, with such a heavy caseload and so many responsibilities, she did volunteer to run a scrabble club in the mornings? She explained that the club provided a safe place for students to go in the mornings, scrabble helped them increase their vocabulary, and she explained how important it is to see the whole student and that the children are not the sum of their most difficult challenges.
I remember getting chills and realizing that had I worked in a shelter, I would have burned out. I admire the work and dedication of everyone serving that population, but I realized that, for me, a school setting provided a nice balance. I thought about my personality and where I could see myself most fulfilled in a career, and I immediately applied for a school counseling certification.
While I have stayed in the same field since 2001, I have seen unexpected changes in the school counseling profession. I have always been someone who seeks stability and security and shies away from risk and big change. I surprised myself by how reinvigorating the changes have been and how my interests and passions have evolved and grown as a result.
Saqi has always inspired me with her ability to try new things. This new venture together is made possible by our willingness to take a risk, ongoing authentic dialogues about the challenges and joys we have faced in our personal lives and careers, and a mutual growing interest in sharing with and learning from others in this journey of life.