Five Questions with Dr. Fulmer: An Interview with Third-Quarter Student Sarah Douglas

In the third post of our ongoing series, Dr. Russell Fulmer meets with student Sarah Douglas to discuss her journey toward becoming a counselor, which included a career change. Douglas also gives advice on how to navigate the program for students who are new to the field of mental health.

What has your third-quarter Counseling@Northwestern experience been like?

The third quarter is an interesting beast. In a way, I feel like I have hit my stride and know what to expect in terms of the arc and pacing of courses. However, most courses vary in design, and professors’ expectations differ, so I am also still very much on my toes. I appreciate how the content from the initial three quarters is overlapping now and merging into a unified understanding of the field. My own counseling style is emerging, and it gives me confidence that this is not just theoretical, but also grounded in my practicum work with clients. My counseling relationships are the best part of this quarter for me.

By now, trust has been established and there is a new depth to the work my clients and I have been doing together. The termination process also begins this quarter. Termination is the final stage in the counseling relationship when the client and counselor work together toward closure. I have been able practice so many of the skills we’ve been learning: promoting autonomy, allowing clients to guide the process, using advanced micro-skills, practicing authenticity and discernment regarding self-disclosure, and keeping an eye on attachment behaviors and countertransference. My preconceived notion that termination is always a fraught, difficult process has been debunked this quarter by the rich explorations that have emerged. I am glad that we are encouraged to leave plenty of time for this process.

What is the Methods Sequence and what have you learned in these courses?

The Methods Sequence is made up of three skills-based courses that span the first three quarters of the program. Methods One is the bedrock of the counseling approach we are taught in this program, the focus being a psychodynamic application of micro-skills, which are concrete behaviors and interventions that we are trained to use in sessions with clients. For those of us on the full-time track, getting this content right away is essential, because we begin working with clients in our first quarter. Dr. Eric Beeson does a wonderful job helping us integrate all of those skills through role-plays and discussions.

We also record and transcribe sessions with clients in Methods One and Two, which is tremendously useful. It feels very awkward at first, but I don’t know how else I could have gained the insights that came from analyzing those sessions word by word. In addition to learning the micro-skills, we learn other key counseling skills like transference and countertransference, attachment styles, assessing and conceptualizing clients, and making treatment plans. Methods Three has focused mostly on advocacy and social justice in counseling. It has been inspiring to be reminded of all of the ways counselors can get involved in creating positive change for clients, communities, and society. These courses provide a concrete, practical methodology that has helped me feel grounded and confident in working with clients.

Your undergraduate academic background is in religious studies and you have an MFA in acting. What led you to the counseling field?

I think choosing a degree in religious studies was a reflection of my early interests in those psychological and emotional aspects of humanity that find their expression in faith traditions and spirituality. Acting was really a continuation of my investigation into human behavior. Before and after earning my MFA, I was a teaching artist in underserved school districts around New York City, and I ran a small theater company that did a lot of outreach in the community. I could never get comfortable just being an artist, I always wanted to connect in a more direct way with people in need of services.

Eventually, I found a drama therapy organization and was trained to facilitate trauma-informed drama therapy groups with a wide variety of populations. I was thrilled to find a way to bring my interests together. The more I worked with groups doing drama and expressive arts therapy, the more I desired to develop one-on-one psychotherapy skills and to work toward licensure. Now that I am in this program and seeing clients, I constantly find crossovers between therapy, theater, and spirituality. I have noticed that many techniques involve becoming aware of and adjusting cognitions. This is similar to an actor’s process of “getting in the head” of a character he or she is portraying.

You earned your MFA in 2002, so you have been out of school for a while. What has it been like returning to graduate school?

My brain definitely needed a kick-start! It didn’t take too long to get back into the swing of things — I remembered how to work again by the second quarter. I am often the oldest person in class, and sometimes older than the professor. In many ways, I feel as if I am “smarter” than I was when I was in school before, because I have been studying myself and other people all of these years simply by virtue of being alive. I have a broader perspective and a more personalized way of taking in information and contextualizing it for myself. This time around, I am also clearer about my own interests and goals within the program. Because of this, I feel empowered to ask for what I need, which I may not have done when I was younger. Knowing myself better makes it easier to engage in the material through my lived experience. There are many advantages to being an older student in a program like this one, where there is a strong emphasis on self-reflection.

What advice can you offer prospective students from non-mental health backgrounds or who last saw a classroom many years ago?

My advice for students from non-mental health backgrounds is to recognize the benefit of coming to this program with fresh eyes. Your experience in another field will give you an original perspective, and you will enliven class discussions and group projects by bringing that perspective to bear. 

So, rather than feel insecure about your lack of experience in a mental health-related field, recognize the value you bring. The same goes for those who have been out of school for a long time. In this field of study in particular, it is important for there to be a diversity of ages and lived experience in the student body. When we share ourselves authentically in a case conference or group immersion experience, we really inform each other’s understanding of the array of client experiences that we will encounter as clinicians. So, whatever makes you unlike others will benefit your cohort.