Counseling Department Awarded for Innovation & Creativity

Mount Mary's innovative program teaches graduates what it takes to thrive

When Matt George and Erin Olson set up their counseling clinic, they decided upon a name that reflected their background and extended their hopes for their clients and their practice.

The name they chose? Flourish Counseling Milwaukee.

Though "flourish" is not a clinical term you would expect to find in a textbook or academic paper, it is a fitting word for the vision with which George and Olson approach their work as therapists. They also say it is a theme carried forth by the faculty and students of Mount Mary's counseling program as a whole.

Recently, Mount Mary's counseling department received the Innovative Counselor Education award from the 13-state North Central Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (NCACES). The department was recognized for its "outstanding, innovative, and/or unique counseling or counselor education program," according to the NCACES website.

Matt George

I feel like I got a different perspective on the mental health treatment process than I was able to get from conventional coursework. He helped me see things from the client’s point of view, and that has stuck with me.

Matt George

Students recognize innovative approach

As part of the award application process, several Mount Mary counseling alumni - Matt George among them - wrote letters of recommendation to the NCACES, citing the components that make Mount Mary's counseling program outstanding, innovative and unique.

Among the differentiators recognized by the NCACES that make Mount Mary's program stand out:

  • Integration of trauma-informed care
  • A student-centered teaching style
  • Focus on diversity
  • Strong experiential learning

Department pioneers trauma-informed care

For years, Mount Mary's counseling curricula have incorporated trauma-focused counseling techniques, which are just now emerging as a part of other counseling programs. In addition, Mount Mary offers a trauma counseling certificate of completion for graduate students.

The term "trauma-informed care" involves recognizing and responding to the impact of a traumatic experience, with the understanding that trauma comes in many forms and affects each person differently.

George said that the program's focus on trauma increased his awareness of many aspects of therapy, such as the importance of creating a feeling of safety for the client, and adjusting to each person's unique circumstances. He realized that it was critical to see each person as a whole, not only their mental state, but the emotional and physical factors that also played a role in their lives and in their therapy.

"All of these things-and a lot more-have influenced what I pay attention to in my work with clients," said George.

As part of the focus on trauma-informed care, counseling faculty members Carrie King, Ph.D., and Tammy Scheidegger, Ph.D., led a two-year project at Northwest Catholic School in Milwaukee that studied the impact of a trauma-sensitive school environment on students. They presented their findings at the national American Counseling Association in Montreal in 2015, and will present again at the Pathways to Resiliency Conference in Cape Town, South Africa in June of this year.

Student-centered teaching strengthens and supports

With small class sizes and a faculty dedicated to their students' success, Mount Mary's counseling program is responsive to each student's abilities and needs. Faculty base their instruction and evaluation on a growth mindset, in which personal improvement is valued over proficiency alone. The focus is not on a specific test score or skill, but rather on constant improvement for each individual.

Instructors and students are able to interact on a one-on-one basis, a valuable source of advice and experience even after graduation. George remembers, in his final semesters of the program, meeting individually with professors for more feedback on his plans for starting a private practice. Even now, he said, he keeps in touch with his former advisor, whose help he described as "invaluable."

Alumna helps create a grant-funded trauma sensitive project

Department values diversity

Beyond its commitment to individual students, the counseling program is also dedicated to the success of non-traditional and minority students. Nontraditional students - those over the age of 31 - make up 43 percent of the counseling program.

In order to encourage diversity in the counseling program by making it accessible to students of different backgrounds, the Succeed Scholars Program was established in 2016 through a $2.6 million grant from the federal Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA).

This opportunity is available to graduate students in the clinical mental health program. The goal is to provide underrepresented clinical mental health students with the resources, both financial and academic, to succeed in the program and in their future careers as mental health professionals.

Experiential learning makes an impact

For George, a deciding factor in his choice of Mount Mary was the emphasis placed on internships, a requirement for students in the counseling program.

"I expected that would be a critical part of the counseling education experience and I wanted to be in a program that gave it plenty of attention," George said. He also placed great value on the hands-on learning opportunities provided in various courses.

A visit to the Burn Center at Columbia St. Mary's, where he saw the care taken in designing a healing environment for the patients, made a lasting impression.

"The presence of certain pieces of art, the creation of a room to offer an awe-inspiring view of the city - these were deliberately incorporated elements intended to further healing. Experiencing first-hand the effect of these decisions - in terms of my own inner feeling of expansiveness and calm as I moved through the center - taught me a lot more about the impact of environmental aesthetics on psychology than reading about it in a book could have," said George.

He also mentioned a guest speaker in one class, who shared his own personal experiences with addiction and mental health problems.

"It was a small room, and the discussion was informal and spontaneous so it had an intimate feel. I feel like I got a different perspective on the mental health treatment process than I was able to get from conventional coursework. He helped me see things from the client's point of view, and that has stuck with me," said George.

Passing along the spirit of growth

"As a faculty member who is new to both the Milwaukee area as well as to the University and Department, I am awestruck at how our faculty members connect with our students and community, and how our Department, students, and alumni are regarded in the community."

Victoria Sepulveda
Assistant Professor, Counseling

Having been educated in such a fertile environment, where theory and technique are presented alongside real-life applications, has informed George's development as a mental health professional. He is able to offer fresh insight and perspective into the complexities he encounters in his practice.

The NCACES innovation award validates the impact Mount Mary's distinctive teaching environment has upon the community, said assistant counseling professor Victoria Sepulveda.

"As a faculty member who is new to both the Milwaukee area as well as to the University and Department, I am awestruck at how our faculty members connect with our students and community, and how our Department, students, and alumni are regarded in the community," said Sepulveda, who is also president-elect of president-elect of the Wisconsin Counseling Association.

"I am incredibly proud of how our students and alumni serve the counseling profession and carry forth the mission of our Department."

*This project is/was supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under award number 1-T08HP30216-01-00, Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students in the amount of $2.6M over four years. This information or content and conclusions are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position or policy of, nor should any endorsements be inferred by HRSA, HHS or the U.S. Government.