MISSOULA – The University of Montana has received prestigious awards in recognition of its distinct graduate program that trains school and clinical mental health counselors, and for having the top publication in counselor education by a faculty member.
The UM Department of Counseling was named the Robert Frank Outstanding Counselor Education Master’s Program of 2020. This national honor is presented by the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, the premier professional organization dedicated to quality education and supervision of counselors.
ACES also recognized UM Counseling Professor Kirsten Murray with the 2020 Publication in Counselor and Supervision Award for her book, “Strong Couples.” Of the 11 national awards given by ACES each year, UM was awarded two.
“Together, these awards mean we are one of the top counseling programs in the country, and our faculty authored the top publication in the discipline,” said Adrea Lawrence, professor and dean of the UM Phyllis J. Washington College of Education. “Our program is truly set apart by our outstanding faculty, students, and facilities. We are immensely proud of this recognition.”
Lawrence said the designation is a testament to UM’s rigorous and innovative program and “tight fusion between clinical and coursework” that trains capable and competent counselors. Most notably, Lawrence said the Department of Counseling’s commitment to trust, relationships, and well-being among students and faculty create “a foundational focus on creating and maintaining caring communities.”
The criteria for the ACES award included having outstanding and industrious faculty, who have a tremendous focus on training counselors. UM was selected for innovative teaching, meaningful service, and continuous growth and improvement in all endeavors, but most notably the program was honored for its meaningful student and faculty relationships.
According to ACES, Murray’s publication was selected for the award for her “experience as a couple and family therapist and as a seasoned instructor in both fundamental counseling and family counseling courses.”
Janya Mumbauer, assistant professor of counseling, joined the UM faculty a year-and-a half ago from the University of Central Florida. She said she was so inspired by the program she volunteered to process the awards application to ACES on behalf of the department.
“When I joined the department, I was amazed how dedicated the faculty are, how responsive they are to student needs and what a truly unique program this is,” she said.
Murray said the program’s tri-part emphasis on a clinical focus, an academic focus, and personal development, lends itself to innovative teaching techniques.
For example, in a multicultural counseling class that Murray teaches, she asks students to creatively share an experience of privilege or oppression as a way to discuss power structures in the world, using slam poetry or a dramatic performance.
“If students are more attuned and sensitive to the injustices of the world, they can apply that to their training and more sensitively and effectively treat diverse people,” Murray said. “You can’t always tease out that understanding as powerfully in an essay or research paper format.”
The program’s focus on self-reflection is also evident in one of UM’s most popular courses on intimate relationships, where UM students use their own relationships to explore the class’s themes of communication, friendship, sexuality, love, conflict and power. Counseling graduate students provide counseling sessions as an optional lab of the course, and doctoral counseling students generally teach the class.
Department of Counseling Clinical Director Sara Polanchek, who oversees UM doctoral student instructors, was the recipient of the ACES 2019 Outstanding Supervisor Award. The course has prompted new teaching and research on intimate relations, funded and supported by Summerfield and Julie Baldridge.
“There’s a lot of informal mentoring and a sense of community among students, which lays an important groundwork in what can be a more isolating career,” Murray said.
A 2019 expansion of the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education is home to a new counselor education suite, where students can participate in counseling sessions with supervision and observation by way of a glass wall. Faculty can observe the sessions behind the wall and provide real-time coaching and feedback with an ear bud. Students also can record their sessions and review them in a safe and private setting.
The program’s state-of-the-art teaching, learning and collaborative spaces were made possible through philanthropic support from The Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, A. Warren and Betsy Ross Wilcox, Andy Hugos and other donors.
Lawrence credited the programs facilities as a point of attraction for many students.
“Because of our dedicated spaces – designed specifically for this kind of training – we can do things other programs simply cannot,” Lawrence said. “These facilities are going to mark a very solid gain for students’ practice in the field.”
Last year, the counseling program saw record enrollment and only accepts about 20% of applications. The program also has a 100% pass rate on the National Counselor Exam and 100% job placement.
Graduates of the program either work as clinical mental health providers or school counselors. The majority stay in Montana and some go on to serve in rural, underserved areas where mental health services are lacking. For each track, 600 hours of clinical internship is required and most students complete the program in 2 to 2 ½ years.
Murray attributes some of the growth of the program to a growing societal awareness of the importance of mental health, particularly during the pandemic when the isolation of families and individuals can be great. She said the program also serves a critical gap in Montana’s need for mental health as a rural state with one of the highest suicide rates in the country.
“I think about our students leaving the program and being very well prepared to hold significant needs for people and to respond to them,” Murray said. “I’m confident in their level of preparation and their ability to be self-aware, open to feedback, growth oriented and motivated. To be producing those kinds of professionals, most of whom want to stay in Montana, is a really good mental health foundation for a state that desperately needs it.”
Contact: Adrea Lawrence, professor and dean, UM Phyllis J. Washington College of Education, 406-243-5054, email@example.com; Kirsten Murray, professor, Department of Counseling, 406-243-2650, Kirsten.firstname.lastname@example.org.