The Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) degree prepares students to become professional counselors with a strong ethical foundation and social justice orientation. Program director Melissa Alvarado explains how this St. Edward’s program gives its students an edge as they enter a strong and vibrant alumni community of MAC graduates.
Professional counseling is distinct from psychology or social work. What should students know about the field of professional counseling?
The professional counseling approach looks at the whole person, including their family of origin; their culture and identity; and systems they’re part of, such as their career, their religion and their family. We take all of this into consideration as we work with the client to develop goals for growth, behavior change or improving relationships. We focus on identifying and building on the person’s strengths.
At St. Edward’s, we encourage our MAC students to develop an identity as a professional counselor, which includes participating in industry organizations and educating others about the field. Our students also internalize the professional values articulated in the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics:
• Enhancing human development throughout the lifespan;
• Honoring diversity and embracing a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential and uniqueness of people within their social and cultural context;
• Promoting social justice; Safeguarding the integrity of the counselor/client relationship; and
• Practicing in a competent and ethical manner.
How does this code of ethics intersect with the St. Edward’s University identity as a destination university for a more just world and the location in Austin?
It is not uncommon to see the promotion of social justice in a professional counseling program’s mission statement, because that aligns with the values of the profession. What makes St. Edward’s different is that social justice and advocacy are aligned with the values of the entire university.
Members of our program have participated in advocacy days at the State Capitol, where we help legislators understand the bills that affect professional counseling and the populations we serve. We advocate for all the people who could benefit from professional counseling but have limited or no access to it.
We also provide low- and no-cost services to the people of Austin through our Community Counseling Clinic, which is our own attempt to expand access.
How does the MAC program encourage understanding of cultural diversity?
Throughout the program, students learn how to ask questions to better understand their client and their client’s cultural and social identities – including, for example, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religious or spiritual perspectives – as the client defines them.
Our program also helps students recognize their own privileged and marginalized identities and how those identities influence their work with clients. In our classes, we have hard conversations about power and privilege, and students complete assignments that encourage them to look at where they fit into these frameworks.
How does the Community Counseling Clinic prepare students for the field?
Our clinic serves clients from the Austin community who are seeking low- or no-cost counseling services. In their first semester of field experience – which is called practicum – MAC students see clients in the campus clinic. The rooms are equipped with state-of-the-art recording equipment, so the student’s faculty supervisor can watch sessions remotely in real time or review them with the student later. Students also can review their own sessions to see how they might improve.
One advantage is that students can see clients who live elsewhere in Texas via remote sessions. We recognize that, post pandemic, remote counseling is here to stay. Our clinic allows students to train for this reality by offering both face-to-face and tele-mental health services.
Do students need to know which specialization they want to pursue when they start the program?
No, it’s ok if they’re not sure whether they want to specialize in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, which prepares students to become a Licensed Professional Counselor, or Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling, which prepares students to become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Students develop a clearer idea as they near the end of their core courses. Sometimes they begin the program expecting to pursue one license, but as they learn more about the field, they decide the other specialization is a better fit.
What makes St. Edward’s different is that social justice and advocacy are aligned with the values of the entire university.
How do MAC students build connections in Austin?
Many of our professors also are engaged in clinical work, and they bring experience in diverse settings, including community mental health, hospitals, schools and private practice. We value having faculty with a wide range of experience that informs their teaching and supervision.
Students work at an off-campus site in their second and third semester of field experience, and we partner with more than 50 entities in Austin. Students can intern at hospitals, social service agencies, group practices and school districts. We have a strong reputation in the community that helps open doors for our students and graduates.
When are courses offered?
Although we offer some daytime classes, most are in the evening. This makes the program accessible for working adults.
What is the role of self-care for a professional counseling student?
People often want to become counselors because of their own transformative experience with a counselor. Or, conversely, they did not have access to counseling at a critical moment, and they want to increase access for other people. But it is important for students in this program to have worked through their own issues sufficiently that they won’t be triggered by content in their courses or clients they see in practicum. This is part of self-care, which is very important for professional counselors, and which we discuss throughout the program.
What kind of student is a good fit for this program?
Students will thrive at St. Edward’s if their personal values align with our social justice orientation. They should have an understanding of oppression and how that has impacted marginalized populations, or be willing to learn. We want students who are open to feedback and comfortable with some ambiguity, because there is not always a single right answer in professional counseling. We want students who understand self-care and are seeking work-life balance. Students will do well here if they are willing to have hard conversations and develop self-awareness – because this program changes you, both professionally and personally.