By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
As a teacher in the Seattle suburbs, Cherrise Smith saw the anxiety and depression of students increase during the pandemic.
“If they’ve got a ton of other barriers – struggling with depression or the family doesn’t have food or the lights were shut off – and I can help them with the barriers, the academic piece will come easier for them,” Smith said.
That’s why she chose to earn a Master of Education in School Counseling at Grand Canyon University. Smith is among the first cohort of students in the program through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. She is finishing the final course in early August. Many, like Smith, already have secured a school counseling position for the new school year.
Since its inception in CHSS in spring 2019, enrollment in the master’s program has increased fivefold to nearly 700 students. Dr. Kimberly Grigg, Program Chair of School Counseling, said it has grown because educators working remotely furthered their education and also because of an urgency for school counselors.
“Especially during COVID, there was a need for social emotional support in the school settings. There is a new recognition of how important school counselors are in supporting the students holistically,” Grigg said. “Anxiety really impacted all the school stakeholders, so system support was necessary.”
Smith was a teacher who other educators approached when it came to talking with a child having trouble.
“I created that space for them to tell me outside of academics what went on outside school. Oh my gosh, there was so much more that goes on,” she said. “We think the students are here, so it’s OK, but they are carrying the baggage of everything else that has happened before they walked into the building.
“I wanted to be in a position where I can help students and not have to worry that, OK, it’s math time. I just want them to come to me and have a safe place to work through the challenges they are facing.”
Through her studies at GCU, she learned tools to help them, she said, and her graduate work led to a job as school counselor at Midway Elementary in the same Burien, Washington, school district that she attended from kindergarten through high school graduation.
“It’s like a full-circle moment,” she said.
Kristie Tacadina is also a teacher who has made the transition to school counseling as she completes her master’s program at GCU.
As a former youth probation officer and special education teacher in Elko, Nevada, Tacadina felt like she knew how to help kids – “being that positive person in their life who could encourage them to do better and let them know someone cares about them.”
But as a special education teacher, she only had 30 children; now she can help so many more. At GCU, she learned a side of school counseling beyond the social and emotional support.
“Until this program, I didn’t understand the options that were available to kids in high school and after high school – requirements for diplomas, jobs, if they want to go to a four-year college,” she said. “I have a daughter who is a sophomore in high school, and it was because of this program that we really looked at fixing her schedule.
“That is part of the school counselor’s job, but unless you seek it out, you don’t know your options.”
While career counseling is part of school counseling, there has been a shift toward a more holistic approach to working with students, Grigg said. “School counselors address many factors that affect student learning, including the social emotional aspects surrounding COVID.”
The graduate students were going through personal shifts of their own.
Tacadina is a single mom with a full-time job, so it helped that GCU didn’t have a requirement to come to campus for a residency, she said.
Another mom and student, Aurelia Gomez, didn’t have nearby access to earn a school counseling degree. Gomez had been hired as an elementary school counselor in East Wenatchee, Washington, but needed to attain a master’s to maintain the position.
“GCU’s distance-learning program helped me be able to reach the goal, while still maintaining my full-time employment and caring for my children and my husband, eliminating that barrier of not having access to a university nearby,” said Gomez, who was able to accelerate her program by taking three courses at a time.
That was a mark of this first CHSS group of school counselors in training.
“When you consider this specific group of students, I’m really quite impressed with their ability to navigate through an especially stressful time,” Grigg said. “They are all adult learners, they all have responsibilities with their families and with their full-time positions, and yet they were very dedicated in completing their degrees with purpose.
“We are proud of how they have paved the way; they are pioneers in our program.”
To Smith, it means she can help more children.
“I always say if you are humble enough, the youth you are with will teach you as much as you teach them,” she said. “They are going to teach you patience and understanding and empathy but are also going to be honest and funny and keep you on your toes.
“You get to see them grow and overcome those challenges. You walk with them as they overcome those barriers and celebrate with them at the end. That just fills up my mind. I’d never want to do anything else.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
GCU Today: Advocacy and counseling go hand in hand