Article Published: 12/14/2022
Recently, the Montana Board of Public Education considered eliminating the required ratio of 400:1 students to school counselors. This would have led to a decrease in the number of school counselors, thereby putting students at risk. Fortunately, the board received overwhelming opposition to this proposed rule change during the public comment period and the change was not enacted. This outpouring was due in large part to the actions of the Montana School Counselor Association and associated stakeholders, and two University of Montana doctoral counseling students
Hana Meshesha and Sabina Sabyrkulova worked to raise awareness of the issue, including by contacting NBCC, who was monitoring the situation. Their efforts were successful, as the counselor ratio remains unchanged. We are pleased to speak with them about the experience.
Meshesha and Sabyrkulova are both doctoral students in the Counselor Education and Supervision program at the University of Montana (UM).
Meshesha is a professional counselor license candidate and National Certified Counselor. She holds a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from UM and a Master of Education in special needs education from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. She previously worked as a university lecturer at the University of Gondar, Ethiopia.
Sabyrkulova is a licensed clinical professional counselor and National Certified Counselor. She holds a Master of Arts in mental health counseling from UM. She is a teaching assistant who supervises master’s students and teaches classes, while also actively practicing as a counselor.
How did you get involved with this issue?
Meshesha: Our department here at the UM is active in sharing updates and new developments happening in the State. One of our faculty, Dr. Emily Sallee, is a board member for the Montana School Counselor Association. Other faculty, such as Dr. John Sommers-Flanagan, wrote a letter to other professionals addressing the issue. The department chair, Dr. Kirsten Murray, also shared information about the proposed elimination of school counselor-to-student ratio to all the students and faculty in the department and encouraged all of us to advocate for the profession.
Sabyrkulova: Similar to what Hana already shared, our department operates closely, and we receive updates about any changes that are occurring in our state. We were alerted about the issue and were urged to consider ways that we can contribute to this major concern.
Why was the proposed change in the counselor-student ratio a concern for you?
Meshesha: The Montana health department’s fact sheet states that “suicide is the number one cause of preventable death in Montana for children ages 10–14” and “approximately 90% of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness.” This shows the need for professional support for the young. Eliminating the school counselor-to-student ratio means we could run into the issue of one school counselor serving more than 400 students. (The current ratio—this number is obviously high, as the national recommendation is 1:250.) This stretches their ability to provide adequate service. We worry this will lead to burnout of our school counselors, leaving students disadvantaged.
Sabyrkulova: As a mental health clinician, it was concerning to hear that the needs of children and families could be unmet due to this proposed change in the counselor-student ratio. I previously worked in elementary school, which helped me understand how important the role of school counselors is. Since the rise of COVID-19, it became evident that the demand for support has been increasing, especially at school. Students deserve to receive the care and support that they need. Additionally, there was a concern for school counselors themselves, as supporting so many students can lead to higher rates of burnout and fatigue.
As an international student, did you face any barriers when it came to engaging in advocacy?
Meshesha: We can publish general articles and write opinions in accepted outlets; however, we cannot advocate directly to influence any policy or rule changes since we are not citizens of this country. This limits our ability to even send a letter of advocacy to the state or any national organization in cases like this one. Our best route is to voice our concerns to other professionals so they can use their voice to advocate for the counseling profession.
Sabyrkulova: Unfortunately, as international doctoral students we are limited in the ways that our voices can be heard. We do not have similar rights to the citizens of this country, which limits our ability to engage in advocacy work to the desired degree.
How did you involve NBCC, and what help did NBCC provide?
Meshesha: We both attended a session on professional identity and advocacy at the RMACES (Rocky Mountain Association for Counselor Education and Supervision) conference. The speakers included NBCC President and CEO Kylie Dotson-Blake and other prominent professionals in the field. We had a chance to chat with Dr. Dotson-Blake after the session and we mentioned Montana’s newly proposed rule. Dr. Dotson-Blake gave us her contact information and was able to connect us with NBCC Legislative Research Manager Jolie Long to engage in advocacy work. Long was able to send out an action alert to counselors in Montana encouraging them to advocate for the profession.
Sabyrkulova: As Hana mentioned, we attended the RMACES conference and got involved with Dr. Dotson-Blake who initiated a contact with Long. We were fortunate to attend “The Importance of Advocacy for Advancing Professional Counselor Identity” presentation which was facilitated by Dr. Dotson-Blake and other professionals. It was empowering to be involved in this learning opportunity which later led to much needed advocacy work in Montana.
What other strategies did you employ in advocating for this issue?
Meshesha: We used conferences as a platform to form connections. We also provided supportive data and the proposed changes to Long so a letter could be sent to counselors in Montana. The Montana School Counselor Association has been doing a lot of advocacy and participated in public comment sessions.
Sabyrkulova: We did our research on the issue and shared our findings during collaboration with NBCC. We also informed our department about the steps that we took in addressing this issue and encouraged them to look for the action alert that was sent by Long to inform other professionals about ways that they can advocate in Montana.
What was the most challenging part of advocating to keep the counselor-student ratio?
Meshesha: Personally, not being able to use my full capacity to advocate for the profession due to my international student status is challenging. I always have to think twice about my legal status before taking any action. Also, not knowing what other options—outside of what I mentioned earlier—were available for us as international students to voice our concerns.
Sabyrkulova: One of the challenges was a worry of how else we can be advocating on the behalf of school counselors while also navigating limitations as international doctoral students. The uncertainty of not knowing what the outcome would be with the counselor-student ratio was anxiety-provoking. There was a sense of urgency to involve other professionals and encourage them to contribute to the issue.
What was the most satisfying or rewarding part of advocating?
Meshesha: We were able to keep the counselor-to-student ratio as it was!
Sabyrkulova: I think that the most rewarding part of advocating was everyone’s involvement and willingness to assist Hana and me in our concerns. It was wonderful to know that we had support from different avenues and that our concerns were recognized. I was pleased and happy to know that the counselor-to-student ratio remained the same and that the need for school counselors was recognized.
What are your plans after you finish your doctoral studies?
Meshesha: I am applying for faculty jobs here in the United States. I think an academic job will help me engage in all aspects of the profession and continue to develop my professional identity. I am keeping my connection with my home country of Ethiopia and will support the new graduate program in counseling they intend to open in the near future.
Sabyrkulova: My hope after my doctoral studies is to continue with clinical work and explore opportunities for teaching. With the position of a counselor educator, I will have more opportunities to connect with diverse populations and establish ties with my home country. I would like to find ways that the United States and Kyrgyzstan can collaborate on raising awareness of mental health and how to better support students from various backgrounds. I hope to find a position within an institution where I can serve in the role not only of an educator but also as an advocate to amplify voices of the underrepresented.
Do you intend to engage in more advocacy work in the future?
Meshesha: Yes. I care about this profession, and I love the work we do to support the wellness of an individual and our community. I intend to use every opportunity I can get to advocate for the profession both here in the US and internationally.
Sabyrkulova: I believe that it is our duty as mental health clinicians and educators to be involved in continuous advocacy work. I will be looking for more opportunities to serve as an advocate and show up for people in any possible ways.
What would you say to other students who may be considering becoming involved in advocacy for the profession?
Meshesha: It is worth it! It is a lot of work to coordinate and be involved in policy and rule changes, but the success is gratifying. Through advocacy, you are not only helping your clients but all counseling professionals.
Sabyrkulova: I would encourage other students to reflect on their values, mission, and purpose in both personal and professional areas. It would be important to consider ways that you can be involved in the counseling profession and make contributions. With dedicating energy, time, and effort, the results are rewarding for so many people.
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