MISSOULA – Rachel Keo, a University of Montana counseling master’s graduate and former school teacher, was understandably nervous about taking the National Counselor Examination in May.
Passing the NCE is a professional requirement for earning licensure in her field, so it’s a big deal. Plus, it wasn’t cheap, costing almost $300. She had to travel to Helena, a city she had never visited, to take the exam, and there were the niggling facts that the test was timed and taken on a computer. She jokingly said she prefers paper.
But in the back of her mind she knew she had studied under some of the best faculty in the field. So good, in fact, that the UM Department of Counseling has boasted a 100% passage rate for the NCE since 2017, with students placing in the 80th percentile nationally.
“Our professors are passionate and supportive about our learning,” said Keo, who handily passed the NCE. “There’s a confidence you get when you come from a good program. ”
UM’s counseling program, housed in the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education, offers two master’s tracks – school counseling and clinical mental health counseling – as well as doctoral level degrees and a specialist degree in counseling education.
John Sommers-Flanagan, a professor in the Department of Counseling, credits both the faculty and the students for the department’s success, which includes a 100% job placement rate for master’s graduates during the past six years.
“Our faculty are certainly supportive and encourage students to pursue what they want to pursue,” he said, “but our students also are smart and highly motivated. They genuinely want to help other people.”
The school’s reputation, Sommers-Flanagan adds, has led to strong application rates, primarily from Montana but also from across the U.S.
“The last two years we’ve had around 100 applicants each year, and we can only accept 25 to 30 students,” he said, adding that some 80% of graduates stay in the state after they graduate.
A close student-to-faculty ratio, added counseling department Chair Kirsten Murray, is critical for their students’ success.
“Our grads are getting 600 hours of active clinical practice under our close supervision. Because of the clinical nature of the work, we hold to a tight 1:12 student faculty ratio,” she said.
“We just added another faculty member to increase our capacity because demand is so high,” Murray added.
Montana, like much of the country, faces a critical shortage of counselors in mental health fields and school settings. At any given time, there are more than 40 openings for school counselors around the state – mostly in rural communities – and nearly all the state’s population lives in federally designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
“The need for more mental health care professionals has been an issue for some time, but it’s become even more critical the past few years as more people, and in particular young people, report feelings of sadness and depression,” said Adrea Lawrence, professor and dean of UM’s college of education. “The students that graduate from our program play a key role in improving the mental health of our communities.”
Lawrence added that school counselors are often the only mental health providers students encounter during their K-12 years.
“School counselors play such an important part of the team that educates students,” she said. “They help students achieve their academic goals and career development, but they also are there to help them work through social and emotional needs.”
Keo, who studied mental health counseling, is spending the summer completing clinical internships at the YWCA and UM’s Student Advocacy Resource Center.
“I love working with students one-on-one talking about life questions,” she said. “It’s really rewarding to see them make progress.”
Graduate Justine Cohen, who shares Keo’s love for working with students, spent a yearlong internship in Frenchtown Elementary and said the school and experience were “outstanding.” She now works at a middle school in Vancouver, Washington.
“The pairing of UM’s programs in mental health and counseling is a perfect combination because it makes you a better school counselor,” said Cohen, who earned a bachelor’s in psychology at UM before working in the University’s Clinical Psychology Center while earning her master’s in school counseling. “All of my cohorts were such hard workers – so determined and such high achievers. I felt confident taking the NCE. Having that certification is such a plus.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM strategic communications director, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.