Support System

Firsthand counseling experience gives students a career head start.

Seated in front of two large closed-circuit television screens, Bryce Hagedorn, ’00, surveys the 10 rooms at UCF’s Community Counseling and Research Center (CCRC).

Hagedorn, a UCF associate professor in the Counselor Education Program, drags his cursor along the computer screen and clicks a button to enlarge the screen for one counseling room.

On screen, a lone supervisor sits with her back to the camera, adjusting her chair and looking over her notes. Hagedorn watches the room fill with a dozen counseling practicum students, who settle in for their morning discussion.

Hagedorn was among the first group of student counselors to train at the clinic when he was studying for his master’s degree in 1999. “Before the center opened,” he recalls, “I remember doing family therapy with our knees basically touching due to the small rooms.”

Seated in front of two large closed-circuit television screens, Bryce Hagedorn, ’00, surveys the 10 rooms at UCF’s Community Counseling and Research Center (CCRC).

Hagedorn, a UCF associate professor in the Counselor Education Program, drags his cursor along the computer screen and clicks a button to enlarge the screen for one counseling room.

On screen, a lone supervisor sits with her back to the camera, adjusting her chair and looking over her notes. Hagedorn watches the room fill with a dozen counseling practicum students, who settle in for their morning discussion.

Hagedorn was among the first group of student counselors to train at the clinic when he was studying for his master’s degree in 1999. “Before the center opened,” he recalls, “I remember doing family therapy with our knees basically touching due to the small rooms.”

“Before the center opened, I remember doing family therapy with our knees basically touching due to the small rooms.”

Filling Gaps

The CCRC opened in 1998. Through the center, counselors see more than 1,800 clients a year. More importantly, Hagedorn notes, it is the only free mental health clinic in Central Florida.

“That’s a very active practice,” he says. “There’s always a waitlist.”

In addition to serving the Central Florida community free of charge, counselors at the clinic also work with UCF students who have been referred from the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) center. These referrals occur when students’ mental health needs go beyond the mission of CAPS, which is to address concerns in six to eight sessions. If students need longer-term counseling, they can be referred to the CCRC and see a counselor for up to one year.

The clinic is also unique in its staffing arrangement — all 60 or so counselors are master’s or doctoral Counselor Education students at UCF. “Our advanced graduate students gain supervised clinical experiences during their practicum (i.e., pre-internships) in ways that surpass students from other university counseling programs in Central Florida,” Hagedorn says.

In other graduate programs, students often enter their initial internships in the community needing to shadow licensed counselors for an entire semester before being ready to work with clients.

The clinic puts UCF student counselors in a position to go into the community and begin immediately working with clients during their internships. “We have a current list of approved internship sites where we have strong reciprocal relationships: We provide them with strong student counselors, and they refer clients who are looking for the services we can offer,” Hagedorn says. “Our students come highly prepared, so site supervisors are always asking for us to send more students their way.”

One of those approved internship sites is The Center for Drug-Free Living, one of Central Florida’s largest nonprofit behavioral health organizations. Roughly 10 to 15 UCF student counselors work as interns at the center each semester.

“Within a couple of weeks, the UCF interns are ready to start seeing their own clients,” says the center’s clinical director, Jody Scott, ’77. “When we get students from another university counseling program, we end up serving as their practicum site, and it can take two to three months before we allow those students to have their own caseload.”

A Bug in Their Ear

New counselors are highly supervised in the CCRC, meeting with faculty supervisors for weekly sessions and to discuss ongoing cases. Once students successfully complete the practicum portion of their graduate studies, some choose to stay at the clinic as interns and manage a larger caseload of clients.

Whenever a student counselor is working with a client, their supervisor sits in the control room, able to offer the counselor suggestions through an earphone.

Vanessa Dominguez, a master’s student and counselor in the clinic, says the earphone was awkward at first. “My supervisor chimed in on the bug in my ear — you can hear it sometimes if it’s a little too loud — and there was this moment when the client and I made eye contact, and I said, ‘Yeah, you just heard my supervisor chime in.’ ”

Hagedorn says, “To settle the potential nerves of clients who may have some initial trepidation with having cameras in the rooms and the counselor having an earphone, I suggest that the counselors tell them on the first day that they are getting two counselors for the price of none.”

All counseling sessions are digitally recorded, allowing student counselors and their supervisors the opportunity to review and assess their work with clients. According to Hagedorn, this greatly enhances self-critique and supervision processes, which lead to better counselor development.

The staff at the CCRC pairs counselors and clients based on the counselor’s experience level and the severity of the client’s concerns. Student counselors work with a wide range of mental health concerns, from self-esteem issues to depression and anxiety to relationship issues. “For example, whereas beginning student counselors may be paired with clients who are experiencing mild depression, advanced students would be paired with clients with more severe depression,” Hagedorn says.

Because the clinic is a training facility where clients only have access to their counselors on the day of their weekly session, there are certain concerns the CCRC isn’t equipped for. “The clinic is not a crisis facility,” says Hagedorn. “We do our best to refer clients with more severe concerns to specialists they can access more than once a week.” Clients seeking counseling for substance abuse, domestic violence or depression that has resulted in a suicide attempt within the last six months are referred to other facilities.

“The challenging thing about those three areas [substance abuse, domestic violence and active suicidal ideation] is that people are as forthcoming as they feel they can be during an initial telephone call. These issues often come up later in counseling sessions once trust has been established,” he says. “So we navigate those issues on a per-case basis. If we find out that a client’s panic attack is related to the fact that she is being abused by her partner, the last thing we want to do is penalize her disclosure by telling her she can’t be seen here.”

“Having multiple clients at once is good preparation if you are going into the mental health field in the community.”

Trust in the Training

Some new graduate student counselors are their own worst critics. “I constantly remind them that they are too self-critical and ask, ‘OK, how long have you been doing this? Oh, so you should be an expert?’ ” says Hagedorn. “ ‘Remember who you are, trust in your training and in your supervisor, and give yourself a little break.’ ”

Aaron Distler, ’13, a graduate of the Counselor Education master’s program, recently finished four semesters working in the clinic (two as a practicum student and two as an intern) and is taking a position as a residential life coordinator at Stetson University in Deland, Fla., managing residence hall assistants and being responsible for crisis response in the dorms. One challenge for Distler was the transition from having live supervision as a practicum student to being on his own during the internship phase.

“It’s a lot of dealing with having personal confidence and knowing that I do know how to apply the class lessons that I’ve learned and relate those to actual people,” he says. In the internship phase of training, graduate students like Distler are given a caseload of 12 to 15 clients per week. “I think that as you transition from a practicum student to an intern, there’s a lot more paperwork, and the caseload is something you need to get used to,” Distler says. “Having multiple clients at once is good preparation if you are going into the mental health field in the community.”

Measuring Progress

The clinic continuously assesses both how its clients are improving and how new counselors are performing. “We use pre-, mid- and post-assessments on clients’ progress so we can actively demonstrate what our students are doing to make an impact,” Hagedorn says. “We also assess our counselors’ development to ensure that they are progressing as professionals.”

The clinic’s focus on assessment has attracted the attention of other institutions looking for ways to measure the effectiveness of new counselors. UCF Associate Professor Glenn Lambie and his research partners have developed the Counseling Competencies Scale, a means for assessing how beginning counselors perform. Other institutions have adopted this measurement tool, including Rollins College, Northern Illinois University, the University of Denver and Syracuse University.

Bryce Hagedorn illustration

Bryce Hagedorn, ’00, is an associate professor of Counselor Education in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. As the Program Director of Counselor Education and School Psychology, he oversees the education and training of graduate students with tracks in school, mental health, and marriage and family counseling.

Expanding Access

Despite the more spacious setting today, the clinic continues to look for ways to grow. Counselor Education faculty are mulling an expansion that would make the clinic a site for DUI assessments and educational programs, which would require more space.

Another challenge facing the university is the center’s location. “If you live in Ocoee or Winter Garden, you are 25 miles away from the CCRC,” Scott notes. “And if you need free services, you may not be able to get there. It would take you half a day on a bus.”

“There is a tremendous need for low-cost or free services,” she adds. “Florida’s near the bottom for allocating funds toward mental health services. At [The Center for Drug-Free Living], we serve thousands of people a year and are in four counties, and we still have to turn people away sometimes. That’s heartbreaking.”

The clinic is in the process of adopting a new system called TelePresence, which Hagedorn describes as “Skype on steroids,” a way of seeing clients in a teleconference setting. Such a system, he says, might allow for clients who can’t travel to UCF to tap into the clinic’s free services.

Help in High Definition

Telepresence connects students 1,530 miles away.

In Mankato, Minn., the winters are unusually harsh. To help keep her students from having to traverse treacherous roads, Diane Coursol of Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSU), stays connected via TelePresence high-definition videoconferencing technology.

“I have some students who commute from Fargo, N.D., which is a seven-hour drive,” says Coursol, a professor in the university’s Counseling and Student Personnel Department.

She describes TelePresence as watching the very best high-definition television. “Some of my students say, ‘I’ll have to wear makeup because every blotch is going to show.’ ”

In March 2013, Coursol visited UCF’s Community Counseling and Research Center and proposed a partnership between UCF and MSU to use this tool to train counselor education graduate students. As early as next spring, she hopes that students at UCF and MSU will begin practicing their counseling techniques with each other (as part of UCF’s Techniques of Counseling course and MSU’s Counseling Procedures and Skills II course) before they begin counseling real clients.

Originally from Florida, Coursol has worked with UCF Professor Edward “Mike” Robinson through the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. “I’ve had a long-term connection with Mike,” she says. “When I thought of universities that I would want to partner with, I thought of Mike and knew of the quality of UCF.”

She began working with TelePresence about three years ago when MSU introduced the technology as a way to enhance distance education between its main campus and its satellite campus in Edina, Minn., more than 70 miles away.

She believes that UCF and MSU students will benefit by using the system to practice their skills with unfamiliar students and gain exposure to different regional and cultural issues. Speaking about the relationship between the two programs, Coursol says, “What I think we are bringing in is a broader exposure to diversity for all of our students.”

MSU’s TelePresence system utilizes a large monitor with a built-in HD camera; each unit costs close to $9,000. The technology helps students identify nonverbal cues more clearly than traditional Web-based videoconferencing technology. It also features a recording setting that allows users to replay both sides of conversations side by side for analysis, allowing counseling students to review their techniques and their partners’ responses.

Though Coursol’s experience with the technology is relatively recent, she has been studying distance counseling and supervision since the late 1990s, having examined both the counselor and client sides of the online counseling process.

“I think [counseling’s] future is online,” she says. “Those digital natives are seeking counseling services, and currently, our field hasn’t prepared counselors on how to break through the digital barrier to meet those needs.”

However, she adds, “I don’t think you can ever take away the human element.” Instead, Coursol envisions counselors using a hybrid model where initial meetings are face to face, followed by periodic online appointments using videoconferencing technologies.

“I have lofty ideas about putting these systems in YMCAs and local community centers, so that people can access therapeutic services regardless of where they live,” she says. “Here, when people can’t travel due to snow and ice, TelePresence could allow them to see a counselor and get the services that they need.”

ILLUSTRATIONS BY ANDREW LYONS