Suzanne Degges-White has never forgotten the words of a professor during her master’s studies in counseling.
“ ‘Probably only half of you are going to end up doing professional counseling,’ ” Degges-White, chair of the NIU Department of Counseling and Higher Education, remembers that professor telling her class.
“ ‘The rest of you are probably going to be used car salesmen, but you’ll be the most successful used car salesmen there ever have been, because you’ll have the skills you need to be able to help people understand that you know what they want, and you can convince them to buy it.’ ”
Aptitude in counseling can translate to success in almost any career, she says, and registering for coursework that yields that outcome appeals to students with giving hearts. It also proves helpful for acing job interviews, she adds.
“We teach students hands-on communication skills – ways to communicate with other people effectively, ways to help other people to understand what professional helping looks like,” Degges-White says. “It’s sexy to students.”
It’s likely what’s fueling huge demand for the still relatively new minor in Counseling, she says: Nine students signed up last fall, a number that soared to 116 this fall, only the third semester.
None of those has a College of Education major.
Most – 71 – are Psychology majors. Others come from Accountancy; Biological Sciences, Communicative Disorders; Nutrition, Dietetics and Wellness; Theatre Arts-Acting; Rehabilitation and Disability Services; and Sociology.
Dana Isawi, the assistant professor who spearheaded the effort to develop a curriculum for the minor, cites three reasons for launching the program.
First, she says, is what Degges-White heard back in North Carolina: Academic preparation in counseling allows students to develop knowledge, skills and competencies for effective communication and interpersonal skills.
Second, it has allowed CAHE to collaborate with other college and departments across campus.
Third, it has created a pathway for students interested in any mental health profession or graduate program, including CAHE’s own M.S.Ed. in Counseling, and provides plenty of hands-on practice.
“When Suzanne and I were developing the minor, we met with different departments where we thought the students would benefit from our courses, and had conversations with them,” Isawi says. “We’ve had a few applications from the Counseling minor to our master’s program, and when they come to our master’s program, I see the difference. I see that they’re well prepared.”
For Psychology majors, Degges-White says, the minor shows them what Department of Psychology Chair Amanda Durik calls an “off-ramp.”
Durik “has been really interested in building an alliance between the psychology program and our program. She’s excited to see us offering this and is helping to promote it,” Degges-White says.
“With a psychology degree, you’re going for a Ph.D. You’re not going for just a master’s,” adds Degges-White, who herself holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “This gives students an off-ramp from a psychology in Ph.D. to potentially a master’s in Counseling so they can get to work helping people in the way that they think a psychology undergrad will let them do.”
Many students also are coming from two longtime gen-ed course available in CAHE: COUN 211: Career Planning and COUN 400: Exploration in the Counseling Profession.
COUN 211 was launched nearly 40 years ago by retired faculty member Carole Minor, who always had envisioned the minor. “Everything kind of began with Carole Minor’s brainstorm,” Degges-White says. “This is something our program has been building toward for some time.”
And with numerous sections of COUN 400, she adds, “we realized the demand. Students coming to this program are ones driven by a desire to help others. They’re really motivated to find ways to be better human beings and to help other people be better. I think they’re special students.”
Program applicants “will talk about having an excellent counseling experience when they were in high school or younger, or they wish they’d had a better counselor when they were in high school or younger, or they have people in their lives who really need counseling, so they think they’re going to learn the skills to help the people around them,” Degges-White says.
“But what we help them understand is that counseling is learning about yourself and how you can use yourself as a tool to help other people,” she adds. “It draws folks because people want to help other people. They have this urge.”
Students in COUN 400 can earn extra credit by scheduling personal counseling sessions for themselves, which also has ushered some into the minor.
“We encourage students to participate in counseling as a client before they gain their own practice skills in the practice source so they know what it feels like to sit in the client’s chair,” she says, “as well as what it feels like to be the professional helper.”
But how will that help those Huskies who are planning to become accountants or actors or speech-language pathologists?
The answer is clear, Degges-White and Isawi say.
Counseling curriculum that prepares students to listen – and to motivate – can lead to finding investors for business. It can convince parents to appreciate the value of working with their children on speech therapy at home. It can give customer service workers the ability to remain cool, calm and collected when dealing with angry callers. It can allow thespians to understand the emotions of others and to portray those emotions on stage.
It teaches relationship-building. It teaches conflict resolution. It teaches effective problem-solving.
Much of this is encapsulated in the COUN 425: Human Relations Skills and Strategies course, Isawi says.
“They get to learn interpersonal communication skills and practice them. It’s a very practical course, and students have thoroughly enjoyed it,” she says. “A lot of the feedback we get in evaluations for this course includes, ‘This is one of the only practical courses that I’ve taken where I can actually learn these skills, practice them and start using them and generalizing them in my real life.”
With hopes to continue growing enrollment in the minor, adding more sections of the courses, launching a course that focuses on social justice and creating more teaching opportunities for graduate students in CAHE, Degges-White and Isawi are exploring the possibility of allowing undergraduates to complete the minor and start the M.S.Ed. at the same time.
Faculty in the department share their optimism, they say, and are confident that students in the program will make the world a better place.
That conviction is grounded in the philosophy that students need not bring with them natural abilities to listen and to motivate – and that they can learn those in the classroom and nurture them in practical experiences.
“If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in the profession,” Isawi says. “If you believe that you can motivate people, that’s powerful. That’s powerful for you, and that’s powerful for the person in front of you.”
“I wouldn’t either,” Degges-White adds. “I believe in the power of change. I believe that we all can learn. I believe humans never stop developing, and I believe that folks want to be better.”