Applied clinical psychology students get real-world career counseling experience

woman with outstretched hand

Students were provided a transformative, real-world experience providing career counseling to students and community members.

Credit: Adobe Stock / H_Ko

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — A course in career counseling allowed second-year master’s students in Penn State Harrisburg’s applied clinical psychology program to conceptualize how the world of work and mental health influence one another. The students worked in pairs over the spring semester to research and produce methods of helping community members seek guidance for their careers.

Stephanie Winkeljohn Black, assistant professor of psychology in the college’s School of Behavioral Sciences and Education, first asked the program’s students in fall 2019 for their “wishlist” in terms of campus or community organizations they wanted to work with; during the spring semester, they began creating proposed career-counseling interventions such as Canvas modules, worksheets and infographics. These materials incorporated the students’ research into exercises to help individuals in these various groups develop their career goals and job searches.

The spring class, a total of 18 students, turned their attention to a multitude of populations and offices, including transgender young adults, Hispanic/Latinx youth, student-athletes, career counseling services, student disability resources, the counseling center, international students, student veterans, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

“This work exemplifies our students’ abilities to combine consultation, career theories and interventions, psychotherapy, and social justice into one project,” Winkeljohn Black explained on a blog site dedicated to showcasing the final products. 

Winkeljohn Black was motivated to take the class in this direction in an effort to provide a more transformative, real-world experience for her students. She also wanted to use this opportunity to teach them about social justice, as many of the populations helped by this project face social or systematic discrimination. By acknowledging where certain groups of people lack opportunities to expand their careers, her students can address ways to guide them in the interventions they design.

Additionally, she saw a need for career guidance in other populations that often receive less attention in needing help, citing student-athletes as just one example.

“Student-athletes have a tremendous amount of skills that they bring to the table, but sometimes they struggle with how to market that,” she said. “If I wanted a hard-working, detail-oriented go-getter, I would hire a student-athlete.” Her students’ intervention for this group, then, was designed to help student athletes translate their skills into a career search.

James Harness and Tucker Creevy, the students who researched for student-athletes, talked about their motivation for assisting this undergraduate population. “For student-athletes, maintaining a balance between the demands required of academics and athletics is often a challenging feat,” Harness explained. “Given these factors, it is important to recognize that student-athletes would likely benefit from career training during undergraduate time.”

Harness said he believes they chose the best method in order to design guidance for this group. “In our Canvas workshop, Tucker and I provided resources to help student-athletes identify their career personality and core values, assess one’s self efficacy, and learn skills that are important to obtaining successful employment, such as resume building and interviewing techniques,” he said. “It is our hope that the created workshop will serve to help student athletes overcome potential obstacles as they begin the transition to employment post-graduation.”

The COVID-19 pandemic arrived as a challenge late in the spring semester, but one the class would overcome. Although reaching out to communities became more difficult, the class remained unwavering in providing material to help with career counseling, especially during a time where employment has become more difficult to obtain. Winkeljohn Black describes how the pandemic “became a learning opportunity to understand the flexibility needed to work with a community group.”

Despite the uncertainty of the virus, many of the organizations responded positively, eager to use the students’ materials as support for those seeking career guidance. Big Brothers Big Sisters, one of the largest and oldest youth mentoring organizations in the U.S., emphasized that they would be using this program in the future. Winkeljohn Black also notes this success, wishing to continue these efforts: “The hope is that we’ve developed these community relationships, and I would love for, each year, students to work with new or existing communities.”

In order to showcase the final products of this project, Winkeljohn Black contacted the college’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Instructional designer William Illingworth suggested putting all of the interventions on a blog, allowing the public to access these projects and spread awareness of the social justice issues many of these student populations are facing. The students were also able to learn Wordpress and have the opportunity to be published in their field.

The applied clinical psychology students, like many others across Penn State, continue to work, help, and learn during times of high global tension. In addition to completing consultation projects and providing means of telehealth for clients, the students also completed their master’s papers during this time. Winkeljohn Black’s own background in social justice translated into her students’ efforts to reach out into parts of the community that need the most guidance.

“Part of what I wanted them to understand about consultation and social justice is that acting as a consultant requires them to know when to take initiative and make decisions, and when to take a backseat. This was realizing that you needed to push forward and take initiative,” Winkeljohn Black said.