My name is Lauren. I work as a small business accountant and language teacher in Asheville, NC, and this is my story about trying to become a counselor.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, I enrolled in a clinical mental health counseling program at a university in the southeast. At the time, I was a resident of my home state, California, and though I had intended to move for school, I found myself attending classes online. Nonetheless, I was excited to be starting my journey towards becoming a counselor, a field I had considered for some time and a career change I had selected very deliberately. Despite all the hurdles, the inane state-to-state licensure differences, the cost and length of the schooling, and a host of other arguably unnecessary barriers to entry, I truly felt, in my heart of hearts, that listening to people for a living would be worth it. I also expected that learning to listen to people would be what I was signing up to study.
How wrong I was.
The “educational” experience
Even in the first couple weeks of class, I sensed that something was off about the program. Only one of my professors prepared in the slightest for his classes, while the others took a let’s-see-what-happens approach. Having worked as a college teacher for over a decade, I found this very unprofessional. In addition to the poor quality of instruction, none of my professors returned a single assignment until the last week of the semester, and my advisor, who was incidentally the department head, either took several weeks to respond to my emails or responded to them incompletely and flippantly. Lastly, we hardly ever talked about counseling. Rather, disorganized social justice griping dominated every class. Overall, I ended my first several months in the program wondering why I was spending $10,000 a semester for such a poor education. I considered leaving, but the process of getting admitted to the program had been so difficult, I had already spent a good chunk of money, and I was in my mid-thirties, so I decided to stick it out, hoping the second semester would be better.
Semester two was marked by a mandatory “group counseling lab” that was not at all what it purported to be. Rather than practice group counseling, we were taught about Critical Race Theory, though I hesitate to even use the word “taught.” The experience was more like being in a cult where the leaders are friendly until you question them and where silence is interpreted as a lack of commitment to the “cause.” Now, I would like the reader to know that I am a staunch liberal and I am not at all opposed to the intent behind educating people more about racism. But I personally do not feel it is productive to shame white people and men for their race and gender, which is precisely what happened the whole semester during that group. One student was even forced out of the lab -for which she had paid a semester’s tuition and which she needed to graduate- simply because she did not feel comfortable discussing one of the questions. Even more disturbing and counter-productive was the fact that the groups were segregated by race. White students took the class together, black students together, hispanic students together. In all my years of higher education, both as an educator and a graduate student, this was by far the most fascist and unproductive experience I have ever had. Still, I survived it, if with gritted teeth.
Near the end of that second semester, I was informed in a rather roundabout way that a number of students in the program had expressed concerns about a few professors, particularly the department head (my advisor), and that those of us who had expressed frustrations were being invited to a mediation session between faculty and students. I remember being impressed by this development and feeling like there was some hope of improvement in the program.
With great anticipation, I attended the meeting, which was held over Zoom. Given the manner in which I was invited, I had expected to find myself in a group of 5 to maybe 15 students along with a handful of professors. To my shock, however, more than 80 students attended and not a single professor was present. The mediation was led by an employee of a different university who explained upon commencing that it was a safe and open space for everyone to share their grievances with the department and/or professors. Although not every student spoke, most of us did, including myself. In the two minutes I was allotted, I explained that I felt there was no oversight over the quality of instruction, which was egregiously poor given the cost of the school, that the advisors did not seem interested in advising students, and that I generally felt unsupported. Many other students voiced similar concerns, while some voiced concerns of a more serious nature, most notably about discriminatory behavior that had supposedly been perpetrated by the department head. All in all, a number of themes clearly emerged from the meeting, all of which were notated in a document the mediator shared on the Zoom screen. At the end of the meeting, the mediator explained that the faculty would be spoken with next, and that we would all hear back within a few weeks as to the steps that would be taken. I felt that I had been heard, and I experienced a sense of solidarity with my fellow students.
I had no idea what was to come.
A couple weeks later, all of us who had attended the meeting received an email from a student group known as SARP, or Students Against Racism and Privilege. This group was made up of counseling students who were hard-core social justice warriors. Though they didn’t appear to do very much at the school, they were all given a 50% tuition rebate for being members of SARP, which you couldn’t get into if you weren’t marginalized in some way more than being a woman. Anyhow, SARP sent us an email letting us know, in no uncertain terms, that the mediation process would only continue for marginalized students. For those of us who were not members of a marginalized group, including white women, there would be no more mediation with the faculty. Our issues were swept under the rug. Naturally, I and a number of my friends in the program found this to be racist in itself. We had all been invited to the meeting, regardless of our supposed “identities,” because we were enrolled students with concerns and the meeting was supposed to be about student concerns. Now, however, many of us were no longer allowed to participate. After collecting my feelings, I responded to the email with one simple question: What about those of us who are not in “marginalized groups?” Do our concerns no longer matter? I find that difficult to swallow.
Within minutes, I received a mountain of emails from other students, calling me a bigot, a racist, a white bitch, all sorts of heinous things. Over the course of 48 hours, I received lengthy letters explaining my white guilt to me, vicious diatribes from people who had never even had a class with me, and explanations of how much harm I had caused. I responded only once, reiterating that I simply thought we should all be included in discussions about departmental issues because we were all students, regardless of race, but I was only attacked further. Eventually, a member of the department put a stop to the email stream, but the punishment did not end there. That summer, I was informed that the head of the counseling department – the very man I had critiqued during the mediation meeting – had decided not to let me return to the program until I had both signed some documentation outlining my “incompetency” as a counselor-in-training, and completed an impossible number of therapy sessions during a single semester around my “inability to listen to people.” I was not allowed to state my case, to defend myself, or be heard by anyone. Rather, if I wanted to continue the training I had worked so hard to pursue, I would have to do as he said.
The thing of it is, though, I am not “incompetent.” And though I have no problem attending therapy – (indeed, I have attended therapy on and off throughout my adult life) – I did not feel it right for a professor to tell me why I needed to attend therapy, particularly when that professor was very likely punishing me for critiquing his teaching because I was the easiest one to punish. After all, nearly everyone who attended that first mediation had complained about him, and the vitriolic emails I had received from other students -(emails which that professor saw since they were sent via an email stream to which he was privy)- were far more offensive than the single question I had asked. Nevertheless, I was the only student who was penalized. Why? Because it’s much safer to scapegoat a white student in today’s academic culture than it is to scapegoat anyone with a marginalized identity, at least if you want to keep your job.
Because I have self-respect, and because I didn’t want my academic reputation to be tarnished, I refused to sign any documentation stating I was incompetent. Rather, I filed an academic grievance with the institution. In my grievance, I effectively proved, by quoting the counseling department’s own handbook, that I had not been given due process before being temporarily barred from continuing my studies. The university granted my grievance and I was allowed to return without signing the documentation or attending the impossible number of therapy appointments.
At this point, I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to return to the program, but I hadn’t yet decided to give up on my counseling education and transferring felt too arduous. Obviously, the pain of social ostracization was immense, but I also had a pragmatic problem: the professor who had tried to get rid of me was still my advisor. So during the semester that my studies were on hold, I petitioned for a different advisor. I was given a different advisor, but she didn’t answer a single email I sent her over a six month period. She ghosted me, for lack of a better word, and I found myself with no other option than to reach out to the internship coordinator. Though the coordinator did respond, her message was curt and cold, closing with the line, “if you are allowed to return.” Understandably, I did not feel welcome in the program, so I didn’t complete my counseling education. Though I could have returned, the message was clear: we do not want you here.
Reflections on counselor training today
I am not sharing my experience to garner pity or unload my grievances. I am sharing my experience because I believe it outlines a few critical, tremendously prevalent, and oft-ignored issues in counselor-training programs today.
Firstly, the education itself is often of poor quality. Why? That I cannot answer, but I can tell you that 80% of what we talked about in class was related to social justice, 10% was spent trying to understand the poorly laid out assignments, and the shred that remained was allotted to the counseling process. Secondly, many of these programs have become biased cults wherein questions are dangerous, critical thinking is only permitted if the “critical thinker” agrees with the accepted theory, and white students, particularly white males, are consistently shamed for the color of their skin. To the mind of any rational thinker, nothing about this is “anti-racist.” Thirdly, faculty wield far too much power over students, frequently abusing their role as a “gate-keeper” to silence those who question their professionalism as educators or question the lens through which they are teaching. The psychological impact this kind of treatment can have on the students who are remediated, ostracized, or kicked out is tremendous and long-lasting, a fact of which trained mental health professionals are undoubtedly aware. But apparently, in the name of protecting their social justice agenda and their jobs, a good number of licensed therapists, teachers, and mentors are willing to overlook the damage they can do to a student’s life.
Today, I have a hard time trusting therapists. I am currently seeing one, but it took me over two years to feel comfortable seeking help from a mental health professional after my experience in counseling school. The students who wrote me hate mail, who called me a racist and a bigot, who cursed at me and said things they’d never have had the courage to say to my face, have presumably completed the program and are now collecting their hours towards licensure. I have accepted that this is how things turned out for me, but I have not accepted that this is how things are in the world of counselor training.
Thank you to everyone on Critical Therapy Antidote for sharing your stories. I cannot express how much it has helped me to read about your experiences and thereby know I am not alone. Hopefully someday, our voices will change the field for the better.
By Lauren (full name witheld)