Career spotlight: What it’s like being a counselor at the UW

A light at the end of the tunnel

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The UW Counseling Center is located on the 4th floor of Schmitz Hall, and serves students of the university on a daily basis Monday through Friday.

Along Northeast Campus Parkway on the fourth floor of Schmitz Hall is a waiting room with a pile of colorful origami swans on a table in the corner. This is where people come when they’re in a crisis, in a somber mood, or if they just need someone to talk to. This is the UW’s Counseling Center.

“We’re just people who have some training to help other people,” Amy Collins, one of the counseling psychologists who work at the center, said. “It’s free, it’s confidential. We all went into this career because we wanted to help people.”

On top of working with students, Collins is also the outreach coordinator for the center and liaison to Residential Life.

Surprisingly enough, it was the psychology courses she took as an undergrad that sparked Collins’s interest in becoming a counselor. Her interest in counseling grew gradually. After taking more classes and talking with people, she decided that being a counselor was the right occupation for her.

“I’ve always been interested in helping people,” Collins said. “It seemed like a good way to combine my intellectual curiosity about people with my human interest in helping them.”

Collins received her doctorate in counseling psychology at Texas A&M. As part of her degree, she did a year-long internship at the University of Missouri Counseling Center and did her post-doc at the health center there.

During her years in graduate school, Collins got to work with with a variety of people in different populations. She liked working with all different types of clients, but college-aged students had a special place in her heart.

“I especially like working with university students because they’re not children, but they’re still in this place where they’re growing and exploring,” she said. “I really enjoy working with students who are in that place.”

After graduating, she worked at the counseling center at Eastern Michigan University for two years before finally settling in Seattle where she’s been at UW’s Counseling Center for nearly six years.

“I also like working in the university counseling center setting, because there’s variety in what I get to do,” Collins said. “I love to do the individual counseling, but there’s the groups, the crisis work, the Res. Life, the consultation, the outreach, so there’s just a lot of opportunity.”

Collins’s role is a little different than that of her colleagues at the center. She works in the office Tuesdays and Thursdays, where she has appointments with students and attends various meetings. On the other three days of her work week, she works from home, where she undertakes various projects while coordinating with Residential Life and engaging in outreach.

“I’m given flexibility because I’m flexible in return,” Collins said. “I take after-hours calls from Residential Life’s professional staff if there’s a mental health crisis after hours and they need to consult with a psychologist.”

Being a counselor can be tolling at times because there are many instances when a counselor sees a client when they’re at their lowest.

“This doesn’t happen a lot, but if there are several clients on my case list who are at high risk of suicide or experiencing frequent states of crisis then that can take an emotional toll,” Collins said. “But I feel like that’s not generally a problem because … an advantage of [working in the Counseling Center] is having the support of colleagues.”

Having a team to consult with is instrumental, as Collins described that the counselors at the center “share the load,” helping each other so that they can best serve the students. In fact, one of the aspects of her job that she enjoys is getting to consult with her colleagues.

But not every day is a hard one. More often than not, Collins finds counseling to be a rewarding experience, especially when clients start recovering and she helps them attain their goals.

“I never feel like I’m responsible for that person’s personal journey but I get to be a part of it and I really enjoy that,” Collins said. “I really appreciate my clients letting me kind of peek into their world and get to walk with them on part of their journey forward.”

Collins is also on the multicultural advocacy committee in the Counseling Center. The committee addresses the needs of students of diverse backgrounds. One of the requests the committee is discussing this quarter is matching students to counselors who share their identity or have an identity they would feel comfortable opening up to. Even though the center tries to accommodate as much as it can, the well-being of the student is its first priority.

“We look at how do we balance honoring those requests with also knowing that the research shows that when you start meeting with a counselor, you’re more likely to continue the work and to benefit if you continue with that same counselor regardless of whether they are a match of those identities or not,” Collins said. “[We’re] looking at some of the ways we can be multiculturally sensitive to both students and staff.”

For anyone looking to become a counselor themselves, some qualities Collins said would be beneficial to have are a desire to help others, flexibility, and not minding going through several years of school.

“I think having that sense of empathy and curiosity about people and wanting to help is important,” Collins said.

There are a lot of different paths a student can take if they’re interested in the profession, from what type of degree to get to choosing the population you’d most like to work with. Collins advises to speak with an adviser and to try out different things until you find the right career for you.

“I think sometimes students feel pressure around figuring out exactly what they want to do, and I don’t think you have to know everything going into it,” Collins said. “You can narrow it down as you go and figure things out moving forward.”

Reach writer Cristen Jansson at Twitter: @cristenjansson

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