Assistant psychology professor Carolyn Berger considers herself an advocate for a field of study still in its infancy: school counseling.
Berger was a grade school counselor before entering the world of teaching, and working with a population much different from college students eventually sparked a desire to contribute to the field in a more academic way.
Berger earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Northwestern University, but was initially unsure about her career path. She had begun college as a biology major, but after taking an introductory psychology course, she changed her major.
“I loved the sciences, but realized that I liked working with people and learning about the way they think more,” Berger said.
Working in the education system seemed like a natural course for Berger, because both her parents were grade school teachers and she also knew that she wanted to work with children. So Berger took up a position as a school counselor in a small Minnesota school, where she worked with students afflicted with mental and behavioral disorders.
“This school was the last stop for these kids, because they had already been expelled from all their other public schools,” Berger said. “There was a lot of one-on-one attention, and these were the kind of kids who bit people, threw chairs and threatened to kill you all day long.”
Working with this unique and challenging student population allowed Berger to realize that students of all ages and dispositions simply need someone to be invested in them, encourage them and demonstrate faith in their ability to grow and changed.
“People expected them to fail, and I felt like I made a difference, and I wanted to continue that, but on a more professional level,” she said.
She moved on to counseling in middle and high schools, but surprisingly, found that this was no easier than working with troubled students.
“Before, I was working closely with about four kids, but now I was responsible for about 500 students,” she said. “As a guidance coordinator, I had to meet their social, emotional, career and academic needs, which was much more complex.”
Moving from school counseling to teaching at the university level was a hard choice for Berger, because she loved working with children. But Berger realized that there was much missing research and evidence for the effectiveness of counseling, and she wanted to resolve this discrepancy for herself.
“Doctors and lawyers have been around for centuries, but school counselors have only been around since the 1950s,” she said. “Whenever I was doing things as counselor, I would look to find evidence-based practices, but that was difficult, because there are many gaps the research.”
Berger resolved to become an activist for the profession. She became involved with the Florida School Counselor Association, eventually becoming their governing board chair in 2014, and had the opportunity to advocate for school counselors in Tallahassee. A bill was finally passed that changed the official title of Florida counselors from “guidance counselors” to “professional school counselors,” an initiative Berger is particularly proud of.
“People still call us guidance counselors and that’s like nails on a chalkboard for me, because they don’t know what we do,” she said. “But we’re not just guiding and telling students what to do.”
She instills in her students at the Center for Psychological Studies her same mentality regarding the role of a school counselor. In December 2014, she was invited to a summit regarding college and career readiness at the White House and was able to share the experience with her Principles of School Counseling class.
“I must sound like a broken record to them sometimes, because I always repeat the same things: leadership, advocacy and accountability,” Berger said.
Berger is hoping for an upcoming promotion to associate professor and is proud of the positive results she has seen in NSU’s curriculum and counseling programs in the six years she has been teaching. She hopes to continue to apply her experiences in schools to her teaching approach in the classroom and beyond.