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Why I Became a Counselor

06 Mar
McAdams Charles

Rip McAdams, Ed.D., professor of Counselor Education at William & Mary, shares why he became a counselor. From his beginnings as a hopeful marine biologist to his Naval career to how he developed counseling skills over long hours working at a wilderness therapy program, you can read his story below.

When I first entered college, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist. In fact, I didn’t really know that much about what marine biologists did, but I had become interested in scuba diving in high school and figured that as a marine biologist, I would likely get to scuba dive as part of my job.

My early years in college were generally difficult years to be in college, because I, like a number of young men my age, was conflicted about whether I should enroll in college or join the military to contribute to the war effort in Vietnam. I ultimately chose to leave college during the middle of my sophomore year and, due largely to my interest in scuba diving, joined the Navy. A year later, I became a member of the Underwater Demolition/SEAL teams. I did not plan to make the military a career, and after four very challenging years in Naval special operations, I left the Navy to return to school.

After leaving the Navy, I needed a job in addition to the G.I. Bill to help support my schooling. I saw an advertisement in the paper for a child care worker position living and working with children who, for a variety of reasons, could no longer live in their own homes with their own families. I had been a camp counselor in the summers before and after my first year in college, so I felt that working with children and teenagers at summer camp would qualify me to work with them at the children’s home.

I was wrong! I was hired on a Wednesday, and by Friday, I found myself living with 14 adolescents for three-day shifts, responsible for their daily supervision and direction. I quickly learned that the adolescents in my care were not the same as those I had supervised at a classy summer camp.

These were all kids from broken homes who had been ejected and often rejected by their own families and who had many understandable reasons to be angry and confused about having to live in a group home. In many cases, the kids felt that if it was not for the group home, they would be back in their own homes, so their anger and resistance about being in the group home was most often targeted toward staff members like me.

Needless to say, the work was difficult and often unpleasant. However, despite its difficulties, I began to find that my interest in what was happening with the young people I supervised was becoming far more interesting to me than the subjects in biological science that I was studying at school. I also found that I was able to connect with the kids pretty well, not because I had any particular clinical skills, but, rather, because I simply wasn’t afraid of their aggressive outbursts. (Note: In the immediate aftermath of my military training and experience, there wasn’t much of anything that I was afraid of!)

Most importantly, I began to realize that, much like the program that had hired me, I was grossly unprepared to understand and address the emotional and psychological trauma underlying the kids’ adverse attitudes and behaviors.

After a year of employment at the children’s home, I graduated from college and made two pivotal decisions: first, to make working with troubled youth—rather than marine biology—my career path; and second, to acquire the clinical skills needed address the needs of psychologically and emotionally disturbed children.

At this point in my career, my military experience once again influenced my career direction. I saw another advertisement in the paper for a group leader job at a wilderness therapy program for delinquent adolescent boys, and having become somewhat adept at outdoor survival in the military, applied and was hired. I once again found myself living with a group of angry, adjudicated delinquent adolescents, this time in tents in a wilderness setting for five-and-a-half days a week. Despite low pay ($500/month) and long, isolated hours, I credit this experience as the primary reason for my decision to become a professional counselor.

My direct supervisor at the wilderness treatment program advised me early in my employment that if I was going to be successful in helping the boys, I would have to be able to regard them not as patients who are sick, but rather as young people who are capable but struggling with life challenges. He also advised me that the treatment program’s success in helping the boys would be gauged on their successful transition after leaving the treatment program—not on our success at managing their adverse behaviors while they are in the program. Finally, he advised me that we had to look at each boy’s needs individually rather than trying to group them into diagnostic categories with standardized treatment approaches.

During my experience in the wilderness treatment program, I learned to apply my supervisor’s advice, and I witnessed the occurrence of significant positive changes in the boys’ attitudes and behaviors that continued after their graduation from the program. Above all, I learned that it was possible to make a positive difference in the lives of children with psychological and emotional disturbance.

At the end of a year with the wilderness school, I decided that it was time to get graduate training to support my continued interest in working with troubled youth, and I turned to my supervisor at the school for guidance in determining what graduate study I should pursue.

He told me that his own training was in psychology, but that throughout his clinical practice, he had found that his medical model training in psychology (i.e., in diagnosing and treating illness) had not proven to be particularly useful. He said that if he had it to do over again, he would have studied counseling, because of its emphasis on holistic wellness rather than treatment of symptoms alone and its views of people as capable rather than lacking and as individuals rather than diagnostic categories.

For those reasons, my supervisor advised me to pursue a graduate degree in counseling, which I did. Throughout my subsequent experiences as a professional counselor working with troubled youth, as a treatment program developer and director, and as a counselor educator, I have never regretted the decision.

The kind of personal journey described by Professor McAdams is a compelling reason to become a counselor, but it is not the only one. Explore the career outlook for both clinical mental health counselors and school counselors, and begin on your path to a fulfilling profession with the Online M.Ed. in Counseling from William & Mary.