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'We are change agents': UNC program trains future rural school counselors

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Associate Professor Dana Griffin poses for a picture in front of Peabody Hall on Wednesday, June 21, 2023.

The UNC School of Education was recently awarded a $2.27 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to pursue a project that will increase the number of school counseling graduates in rural elementary and middle schools in North Carolina. 

Dana Griffin is an associate professor in the school counseling program at UNC and the principal investigator of the grant-funded project called "Helping Heels — Expanding Access to Care and Improving Opportunities for Rural Schools in the Tar Heel State." The first cohort of students began the program in May.

The project aims to improve mental health and educational opportunities in rural schools and sends graduate students to a rural community for a yearlong internship. Afterward, the program assists them in seeking employment in these districts.

Griffin said that she chose to focus on schools in rural communities because her research indicates that they are often in high-need areas with huge opportunity gaps as seen in attendance, test scores and behavioral suspensions.

She said she also centered the project around school counselors to bring awareness to their role and how it has evolved over the last few years.

“I wanted to use this opportunity to put out there that school counselors are mental health professionals," she said. "They can be assets in the school that can work to address behavioral problems, as well as academic problems."

Manuela Perdomo, a graduate student in the school counseling program, discovered the project when she was applying to counseling schools with an interest in working in rural areas. Perdomo, originally from Georgia, worked in several Title I and rural schools and said she knew the program would be a perfect fit for her.

Through the program, she hopes to use her privilege to advocate for underrepresented students in rural areas.

Perdomo says she attended Title I schools in Gwinnett County, Ga., that were predominately Black and Latino. Having this experience and growing up Latina, she said that she didn’t have the same opportunities and resources, even compared to other schools within the same county. 

“We need to be making sure that it's equal for all of our students, not (unequal) just because they live on one side of the county," Perdomo said. "I really want to make sure that my kids are getting the same resources, the same opportunities as other students all across the state.”  

The project’s counselors-in-training will go through an accelerated 14-month program where they will take courses over the summer, spring and fall semesters. Traditional counseling programs are around two years, Griffin said.

Students in the program first take counseling theory courses, where they are taught how to apply the theories they learn in individual and group counseling settings. They also take classes other in topics such as working with diverse populations and researching and recognizing mental health disorders. 

Then, students will complete a yearlong internship in a rural elementary or middle school to apply the skills that they learned.

LaChelle Allen, another graduate student in the program, grew up and worked in a rural community. She said she wants to help her students realize all the educational opportunities available to them and to spark interest early in their lives. 

She said that it ultimately doesn’t matter where they are coming from or their background, but rather how they can get to where they're going. 

Allen said that school counselors play a unique role, acting as the glue that holds a school together by balancing both the academic and emotional needs of students.

“I've just learned that being a school counselor, you are a leader. You are an advocate," she said. "And most importantly, we are change agents, but we have to want to see change and be ready for change in order for it to happen."


@dailytarheel |

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