Posted by: counselorcarmella | August 26, 2014

Grad School Decisions Part Two: Exploring options

I completed my Bachelors Degree (a double major in psychology and Biblical studies) in December of 1999. I had hoped to spend some time researching graduate programs during my last semester at Columbia Bible College, but quickly realized that was just going to have to wait until the semester was over. Finishing the last of the Bible and psych classes I needed to graduate took up most of my time and energy. Freeing up extra mental and emotional resources to tackle something as daunting as trying to figure out options for another huge step towards my ultimate career goal was more than I could handle. I knew I needed to be able to give my undivided attention to such an important decision and that just wouldn’t be possible for another few months.

Once I graduated from college, I told myself that I would put as much time and energy as necessary into making a final decision about graduate school as quickly as possible. I hoped to start taking grad classes in the fall of 2000. Once the holidays were over, I got to work. I was already interested in the counseling program at NC State. A mutual acquaintance had put me in touch with a woman named Lisa who was also blind and who was working on her doctorate in counseling there. She’d started out in their masters degree program and then decided to go for the PhD.

What began as a couple of question and answer emails about NC State and what their graduate program was like evolved into a deeper and broader conversation. I quickly realized Lisa was someone I could learn from and look up to and viewed her as a sort of unofficial mentor. She was in her late 40s, also worked with a guide dog, and was a woman of faith and wisdom. Lisa had been through a lot of difficult experiences. Her resilience impressed me and I viewed her as someone with a great deal of perspective. She was intelligent, ambitious, and motivated, and was pursuing career goals that were similar to my own.

Though I’m sure she was extremely busy, Lisa took the time to engage in thoughtful dialogue with me about what graduate school was like, the counseling profession, and the challenges and unique opportunities that went along with blindness. I admired her clarity and confidence about who she was and about issues related to gender and disability. Lisa was an expressive and honest writer. She responded to my questions in ways that were thoughtful, wise, and encouraging.

NC State was an attractive option. I liked the fact that the school offered both a masters degree and a doctorate, in case I decided to be like Lisa and go all the way. Research on the American Counseling Association’s website lead me to a number of other possibilities, including several schools in Georgia and on quite a few University of North Carolina campuses. The closest one was in Charlotte NC. I also looked into Wake Forest and Appalachian State. UNC Greensboro had the reputation of having one of the best counseling programs in the country.

At first, I couldn’t find any counseling programs in SC. This concerned and frustrated me for several reasons. I couldn’t understand why there were so many in surrounding states, especially NC, but none in South Carolina. The only one I new about was the one at CIU and I’d already decided I didn’t want to go back there. Besides, their program wasn’t CACREP accredited yet. Was that the problem? Did SC just not have any CACREP accredited counseling programs yet? I knew the Aiken campus of the University of South Carolina had a masters degree in clinical psychology but that didn’t seem to fit for what I would need to get my counseling license. I wasn’t sure how far away I wanted to be from my family and out of state tuition could make grad school a lot more expensive.

I poured over websites and brochures trying to figure out what made one program different from another. This was pretty overwhelming. Some campuses listed their counseling degrees under Education Programs. Others grouped them under School of Psychhology and Related Programs. Some were Master of Arts degrees while others were Master of Science or even Master of Education. Some programs only wanted students who’d had at least a year of “relevant” work experience. Some required a thesis while others seemed more focused on opportunities for clinical skill-building. Areas of specialization were explained, including community/agency counseling, school guidance counseling, and family counseling. On some campuses, the term used was “Counselor Education.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. The length of programs ranged from 48 credit hours to 60 credit hours. Some provided space for elective courses based on a student’s areas of interest, but the lists of required courses were pretty standard across the board.

I knew I had to make sure I chose a program that would include the courses and clinical internship experiences I needed in order to qualify for the SC licensure exam after graduation. I also looked for schools that had achieved CACREP accreditation. These were considered the best, as they had gone through an evaluation process by a national organization to meet certain standards considered essential in a solid counseling program. I read that it would be easier for me to get licensed in any state if I attended a CACREP accredited counseling program. I knew I preferred to find a program that focused more on clinical skill building than on research. I really didn’t want to have to do a thesis. I also tried to find out which campuses had strong support services for students with disabilities.

About a month after I began searching out programs, I finally found a link to a graduate program in Counselor Education at the University of South Carolina on CACREP’s website. In addition to a doctoral degree, USC offered something called an Educational Specialist degree. The EdS was described as a graduate degree considered more extensive than a typical masters degree. This particular one was about 66 credit hours in length. If I pursued this program, I would take various general counseling courses and would also have to choose an area of specialization. I could either specialize in school guidance counseling or marriage and family counseling. I had no interest in working in a school setting, but the idea of receiving specific training in helping people with their most important relationships was extremely appealing to me. Even more appealing, if I specialized in marriage and family counseling, I would be qualified to test for licensure in Professional Counseling and in Marriage and Family Therapy. The possibility of obtaining two licenses intrigued me. Plus, there wasn’t a thesis required. Would be an hour and a half away from family and wouldn’t have to pay out of state tuition.

I knew it would take a while to get everything I needed to apply. I had to get copies of my college transcripts and letters of recommendation from former professors. I had to write a letter of intent expressing my interest in the program and in the counseling profession, standardized test scores on either the GRE or the MAT were required. I also had to complete applications both to the graduate school and the Counselor Education program itself. I knew graduate programs were competitive. There was no guarantee I would be accepted. My GPA was quite good and I had strong writing skills. My work experiences were all volunteer positions, though, and I would have to arrange for accommodations to take the GRE or MAT. I’d never done especially well on such tests and worried about how heavily those scores played into decisions about who would be accepted into the program. Hoping for the best, I began assembling the paperwork I needed to apply to USC.

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