Professor Jane Okech rarely checks her email after work or on the weekends. On most weekdays, she leaves her office by 5:00 p.m. This was not always her practice. It comes from years of over extending herself and from lessons learned over time on the value of self-care and the importance of leading a balanced life.
“I am at a point in my life when I set boundaries around self-care and my family, and I’ve shared that with faculty, staff and my students,” she says. “When I’m in the office, I’m here 100 percent. But parenting is my top priority."
Okech, a Professor of Counselor Education and Chair of the Department of Leadership and Developmental Sciences in the College of Education and Social Services, believes this balanced approach leads to enhanced interpersonal effectiveness.
Establishing professional boundaries is one of the prominent themes in Okech’s new book, Counselor Education in the 21st Century (American Counseling Association, September 2018), which she co-edited with Deborah J. Rubel, Ph.D., an associate professor at Oregon State University.
“I often share with my students the lessons that I have learned and that to be successful in the counseling profession, rule number one is to set boundaries with your clients,” she says. “If you are perpetually checking emails or taking calls, then you are perpetually working, and most likely not taking good care of yourself. A tired, overworked and burnt out counselor is unlikely to be effective.”
Okech’s new textbook provides master’s and doctoral students, as well as new professionals, a thorough exploration of the range of responsibilities, roles, evaluation criteria, working conditions, benefits, and challenges experienced by counselor educators in academia. Throughout the book’s 12 chapters, a variety of counselor education scholars cover everything from teaching, supervision, and mentoring, to advising, admissions, gatekeeping processes, scholarship, research and grant writing, collegiality and wellness, among others.
“I wanted to produce this book because I felt like there was a gap in the counselor education professional literature that needed to be filled,” she says. “There were many books that looked at components of counselor education, but there wasn’t anything out there with an overview and a comprehensive examination of the experience of being a counselor educator.”
Counselor Education at UVM
Okech, who arrived at UVM in 2003 after completing her doctorate, explains that there are various aspects to counselor education, including admissions, teaching, clinical training and supervision, and professional gatekeeping, among others.
Once students are admitted into the master’s Counseling Program, they must adhere to the same code of ethics as professionals in the field. Counseling students get hands-on training in the graduate program by participating in a Counseling techniques lab during their first semester, followed by a practicum experience in their second semester.
Students specializing in School Counseling go on to complete six credits of internship experience, while those in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program complete nine credits of internship experience.
There is also a dual option for students who choose to complete degree requirements in both School Counseling and Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Dual option students complete a minimum of fifteen credits of internship experience.
All of the required practicum and internship experiences occur at schools and community mental health agencies that the program partners with across the state. Ultimately, students in the counseling program log hundreds of hours of faculty-supervised fieldwork, clinical practice and theoretical content before graduating.
Those who complete the program experience a high employment rate. In addition, Okech points out that the program has had a 100 percent pass rate in the National Counselor Certification Examination for the last fourteen years, and a 100 percent acceptance rate for counseling students who apply to doctoral programs.
“We have a reputation for graduating highly skilled counselors who are critically conscious, and invested in addressing issues of social injustice in society,” she says.
Interdisciplinary Training Work
Besides teaching and overseeing her department, Okech also collaborated with peers in the recently completed UVM Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) Interdisciplinary Training Program.
In 2014, the Counseling Program, as well as UVM Family Medicine and Internal Medicine residencies, the UVM Department of Social Work, and the UVM College of Nursing were awarded a $900,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for SBIRT. The interdisciplinary grant-funded project offered intervention training to more than 200 UVM students over three years from the Larner College of Medicine, the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, and the College of Education and Social Services.
“Our field doesn’t typically receive the multi-million-dollar grants, and this was the first time the Counseling Program was part of a grant that big,” Okech says, adding that she hopes there will be a shift toward awarding more funding for mental health clinical training-based research.
She would also like to see an increase in compensation for mental health professionals and school counselors because of the critical role that they serve in our communities.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about destigmatizing mental health and eradicating the shame around it. Opioids are the mental health crisis of our time, and there needs to be a revolution in our society that reflects what our society values,” she says. “But I do think we’re seeing a shift, and the SAMHSA grant showed that clinical training and intervention work is worth funding. The funding also shows increased encouragement for interdisciplinary work, because school counselors and mental health professionals can’t do it alone.”
A Calling for the Classroom
Dr. Okech received her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Kenya and her doctorate in the United States before accepting her first faculty position at UVM. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Education with a concentration in philosophy of religion and history at Kenyatta University, and her master’s degree in counseling psychology from the United States International University (Africa). She holds a doctor of philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision from Idaho State University.
Outside of being a parent, teaching is Okech’s most fulfilling role.
“I know for sure that teaching is my calling. I come alive in the classroom,” Okech says. “It is what I miss most as an administrator, since I teach fewer courses than I would typically do.
“When I’m in the classroom, I am very aware that students are sharing, watching, listening, making assumptions, and interacting with me and the course material. They know how I spend my time, they get to know my values and beliefs. Because of our interactions, they get to know me, almost as well as I get to know them during their graduate school years.
“I love the fact that as a teacher, I can’t hide in the classroom. My students can see and hear everything, and are deeply attuned to the narrative and expertise that I bring with myself into the classroom. I have no option but to continue evolving, to continue growing and challenging myself to be an even better and exemplary scholar and teacher. As a full professor, that makes my career exciting. And I’m just getting started.”