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Cypress, Fullerton, Irvine Valley, and Santa Ana College Counselors Honored at Annual Counselor Symposium Programs

November 27, 2019
group photo of 2019 Orange County community college counselor recognition award winners

Before he was a Baptist minister, before he was an assistant professor at California Baptist University and program director of the Master of Social Work program, and before he was the 2010 Region H Social Worker of the Year, Dr. Charles Lee Johnson was a troubled kid. A kid who had been molested. A kid who had seen his mother stab his abusive father. And a kid who had been told he would never amount to anything.

But Dr. Charles Lee Johnson did amount to something, a fact that he attributes to the positive influence and impact of a few very special school counselors.

It is this transformative power that Dr. Johnson talked about during his recent keynote address at the Orange County Department of Education and California Community Colleges Los Angeles Orange County Regional Consortium’s annual Counselor Symposium.

Now in its 7th year, the conference boasts an attendance of more than 700 counseling professionals from regional K-12 schools and community colleges who join together to be inspired by nationally known speakers and to attend targeted breakout sessions covering the latest trends and techniques in academic, social, emotional, and career counseling.

The 2019 symposium also saw the presentation of the second annual Counselor Recognition Awards, given to honor the exceptional and life-changing work of regional K-12 and community college counselors. This year, the five community college awards were given to counselors from Cypress, Fullerton, Irvine Valley, and Santa Ana Colleges. 

“In life, we recognize people for their achievements (e.g. meeting sales goals, obtaining a grant award, etc.); while that is important, our counselors go a step beyond that as they deal with students’ lives and futures,” says Dr. Gustavo Chamorro, Orange County Director of the Los Angeles Orange County Regional Consortium, a key supporter of the event. “Their efforts and dedication to ensuring that our students are better prepared for the next steps in their careers is something that should be recognized and celebrated, as they are contributing to the future of our communities and country.”

In honor of these accomplishments, we asked the winning community college counselors to share reflections on such topics as the biggest challenges facing students, why they entered the profession, and what they find most fulfilling about their jobs. Read on to see their answers.

Olivia Barajas, M.S., Fullerton College

Why did you become a counselor?

Looking back, there were several reasons that led me to become a counselor.  First of all, I was fortunate to have been exposed to outstanding high school and college counselors and advisors. These student affairs professionals were compassionate and caring people who mentored and encouraged me at critical points in my educational journey. I also worked for a faith-based nonprofit for 11 years where I mentored and developed college students in their leadership skills.  It was while working with the nonprofit that my commitment to developing college students was confirmed.  I consider it a great privilege to work as a counselor, because it not only allows me to positively impact individual students’ lives, but also through them, their families, and communities.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing students today and how do you help them overcome them?

I think some of the biggest challenges facing students today are related to finances, or the lack there of.  Sadly, we are witnessing a rise in college students facing food and housing insecurities.  Many of the students that I encounter work full-time jobs to support themselves and their families.  As a counselor, I believe we play a critical role in their success by helping them access different types of financial aid, as well as on and off campus resources.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get a college education but isn’t sure if they can “handle” it?

I think that I would first want to understand why they thought or felt that way before offering any advice.  I’d definitely want to empathize, but also encourage them that if getting a college education was a desire that there is a whole community of faculty, staff and administrators committed to supporting their success.  

What is one thing you wish students knew about counselors or the services or programs offered at your school?

I wish students knew about all of the valuable resources available to them on the college campus.  It’s not only the programs but it’s also the people.  The campus is made up of students, faculty, staff and administrators who are brilliant, creative, talented, funny and caring people…I could go on and on. I really believe that for every need a student has, there is a person or a program that can help meet that need.  Students just need guidance knowing where or who to go to, and that’s where we as counselors can help.

What is the most fulfilling thing about being a counselor in your opinion?

What I find most fulfilling about being a counselor is getting to know students, hearing their unique stories and aspirations, supporting them through the challenges and celebrating their victories.

Fritzie Cañas, M.S., Irvine Valley College

Why did you become a counselor? 

Born on the Southside of Chicago to two amazing, immigrant parents, our circumstances were challenging, language barriers, financial struggles, cultural differences all in pursuit of the American Dream. 

As a teenager I was fortunate to enroll in an ROP class that offered high school credit.  It was there where I met Dr. Bill Nelson, whom became my mentor through college.  This incredible person believed in me and challenged me to my full potential, he taught me the importance of gratitude, contentment and the value of an education.  Not knowing, he had planted a seed of curiosity and the dire need and joy to serve others.  

What are some of the biggest challenges facing students today and how do you help them overcome them?

I would say techno-stress and the effectiveness to manage time and priorities. Reminding students to make some solitude time to reflect and disconnect from technology from time-to-time.  This helps everyone be more mindful, to slow down, to practice empathy and be in the moment. 

Another more discouraging task is the stress of having to decide on a major that will have employable livable wages.  This is another huge challenge for our college students, and I don’t blame them.  Students are only exposed to what they are exposed too.  So asking them to choose a major without learning about all industries and those not even created yet is a bit daunting. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get a college education but isn’t sure if they can “handle” it?

I would first start with the why, in order to identify holistically why they feel like they couldn’t “handle” it.  I would tell them that education is a life-long journey. You are learning a skill, a trade or in pursuit of higher education, all aspiring to be better, and do better. 

Have a goal and don’t let anything stop you from achieving it. I assure them that if they really want something, there are very few things that could get in the way… A year from now we will want the new iPhone/Android, why? Because we want the improved version of what we have.  That’s how we ought to see our brain. Sure, a formal 4-year education is not for everyone, but learning is.

What is one thing you wish students knew about counselors or the services or programs offered at your school?

I wish they knew that we genuinely care for them.  That they should use their resources such as programs, attend workshops, visit their Career and Transfer Center, use the Health Center, visit with University Reps, go on Business industry Tours, enroll in Counseling Classes, attend Career Chats that brings professionals from all industries to campus to meet with college students.  To engage and get involved and to make their school their community and that goes for both full-time and part-time students.  Friendship is important in any organization for the people and community to strive. 

What is the most fulfilling thing about being a counselor in your opinion?

Watching your students come full circle.  From the little things like seeing your students complete their first class,  first semester, first year of college to seeing them reaching their personal, educational and career goals.  Connecting with our students in person at the office and/or on-line through Linked-in.  Going the distance to ensure they know we expect them to do their best and reach their full potential.  And at the end of the day while driving home you know, you indeed made a difference.

Dennis Gilmour, Santa Ana College

Why did you become a counselor?

My goal in education was to be able to teach all ages.  I had the opportunity to work as a teacher at a continuation type high school, an elementary school and then when an opportunity to work as a counselor at Santa Ana College appeared, I took it and fulfilled my goal by being able to teach adults.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing students today and how do you help them overcome them?

Many of my students come from backgrounds of poverty. They have to work long hours to support themselves and their families. With the limited time left, they want to improve their lives through a college education. Counselors help students by creating a space where students can explore their concerns and circumstances without being judged, explaining things in a clear and concise manner, and being competent and current with the information  provided.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get a college education but isn’t sure if they can “handle” it?

Just take it one step at a time and remember you are investing in yourself.

What is one thing you wish students knew about counselors or the services or programs offered at your school?

That it is not a weakness to ask for help.

What is the most fulfilling thing about being a counselor in your opinion?

Every day I get the privilege to watch human beings use education to transform their lives for the better through their own volition. It’s the good news that happens all the time but never makes it on the news.

Jane Jepson, Ph.D., Cypress College

Why did you become a counselor?

Lucky me – I’d always wanted to be in a helping profession, and with education being one of my highest values, this job is a dream come true. Plus I get to work in a positive and progressive environment, which makes every day a labor of love! 

What are some of the biggest challenges facing students today and how do you help them overcome them?

Many students face personal, cultural and societal challenges. While the community college is very affordable, it is still a hardship for many, and then there are those actual and opportunity costs (wages one forgoes by instead spending time attending classes and studying). Community colleges have made great strides in addressing multiple issues, including food and housing insecurity.  Counselors are the liaisons, the facilitators, in getting students connected with those people and resources that can help them be successful.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get a college education but isn’t sure if they can “handle” it?

Take the first step by seeking out a counselor. Everything is a process, and getting into, through and out of college is just a series of several steps – a process of learning and growing and seeking answers to questions, even when you don’t know what the questions are.  You CAN do it! 

What is one thing you wish students knew about counselors or the services or programs offered at your school?

The community college is especially well suited to helping people move forward with their lives, whether it’s moving out of poverty, moving on to a better paying job, or becoming the best you were meant to be. You have to work for it – no one can do it for you – but you’ll get lots of support and encouragement.

What is the most fulfilling thing about being a counselor in your opinion?

Every day in the world of education brings new people, new ideas, and new projects; there’s never a dull moment!  Colleges and universities must be flexible and adaptable to industry needs and societal shifts via curriculum and support services, and counselors have a unique and integral role in infusing the human development perspective to all matters.  Indeed, students matter, and it’s a joy to be a part of students’ lives as they move through the educational process.

Cynthia Voss, M.S., Irvine Valley College

Why did you become a counselor?

Since childhood I always gravitated to the role of peacemaker. My natural instinct has always been to help others in need and assist them in recognizing the talents and abilities they have within.  Counseling was the perfect career path where I could utilize my natural talents, skills and professional education to help others reach their personal, educational and career goals.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing students today and how do you (or counselors in general) help them overcome them?

Some of the biggest challenges students face today are family and time commitments, academic preparedness and managing stress.  Having these challenges can be overwhelming for a student.  To overcome these challenges it is important for a counselor to be an active listener in order to fully understand what issues students are struggling with to ensure they receive the assistance that will lead to positive growth and college success.

The lack of time management, balancing commitments, and poor academic preparedness can cause stress. Counselors offer support and solutions to help students manage and overcome these obstacles.  Knowing the challenges, resources available, specific goals, developing a time management plan, conducting career exploration, creating an academic plan and recommending appropriate counseling courses are some of the tools I use to help students overcome these challenges.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get a college education but isn’t sure if they can “handle” it?

Everyone has some doubt at one point in their life. Don’t let doubt or fear dictate or stop you from taking action to get a degree. Take one step at a time and you will accomplish your goal.

What is one thing you wish students knew about counselors or the services or programs offered at your school?

Irvine Valley College has many programs available to students to help them achieve success. All the counselors are supportive to the individual and diverse needs of their students.

What is the most fulfilling thing about being a counselor in your opinion?

In my opinion, it is a privilege to assist students accomplish their academic and professional goals. It is so rewarding to be a part of their journey and witness students overcome obstacles. The most fulfilling thing about being a counselor is to see a student get excited about choosing their career path and become motivated to complete their educational/career goals.