Dr. Stephannee Standefer Assumes Leadership Role at Illinois Counseling Association

Counseling@Northwestern’s Associate Program Director, Dr. Stephannee Standefer, recently assumed a new leadership role with Illinois Counseling Association, an organization that has had an important impact on her professional career. She will serve as the organization’s first Pilipino-American President.

“The Illinois Counseling Association was such a formative part of my identity as a counselor,” said Dr. Standefer, who was elected as President-Elect-Elect of the organization in July 2020. “As a student, it helped me to network and further my career by introducing me to the culture of clinical mental health counselors in the state of Illinois and as a professional, I have the opportunity to help advocate for the profession of counseling in Illinois.”

In her new role, Dr. Standefer will serve four years with different leadership responsibilities throughout her tenure. This year, she is in charge of coordinating the annual awards process and ceremony. 

Dr. Standefer sat down with Counseling@Northwestern to discuss her new role with the Illinois Counseling Association. 

What Is the Role of the Illinois Counseling Association?

Illinois Counseling Association (ICA) has many roles in Illinois. The mission of the association is “to enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession, and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote respect for human dignity and diversity.”

A role of ICA is to support professional counseling in the state of Illinois. The number one thing we do to support our members is stay connected to our state legislators to ensure that the profession is well-supported by laws that facilitate licensure, counseling practice, and client welfare.

Additionally,  Illinois is a respected Branch of the American Counseling Association. We work regionally and nationally to advocate for counselors and clients. We have our pulse on the national perspective of counseling and share the Illinois perspective with national counseling leaders.

How Did You Become Involved With the Illinois Counseling Association?

I started with the Illinois Counseling Association when I was a master’s student and one of my professors, ICA president elect-elect at the time, gave our class a choice: He said that we could either take the final exam or attend the ICA conference.

I chose to attend the conference where my professor introduced me to a lot of established professional counselors. Little did I know that decision would blossom into a career-long commitment to advancing our field.

I continued volunteering as a graduate student through different roles and my prior business experience helped me successfully complete my assigned tasks. Eventually I was asked to help coordinate the ICA state conference, which is a large event where people attended to earn their continuing education credits and stay on top of the newest ideas in the field.

Through my eight years coordinating the conference, members and leaders encouraged me to run for president. I declined frequently because I wanted to finish my doctorate and then take a well-deserved break. For several years, members nominated me, and I continued to decline. In 2020, I accepted the nomination and decided it was time for me to come back and serve. I was on the ballot with other outstanding candidates and felt excited when I was notified that I would serve as the next president elect-elect.

What Are Your Top Priorities as You Assume This Position?

We have more than 11,000 counselors in Illinois, and I really think that people who aren’t members are missing out on a great professional opportunity. Illinois Counseling Association is a very strong association, and I long to invite more people into our organization and to see an increase in our current membership to about 2,600–2,700 members.

We need to extend our outreach and start filling the pipeline for future leadership. I want to invest in others so that they can have an experience similar to mine. When Divisions, specialty groups within the association, invested in me as a student, it led to such great experiences for me. I want to do the same for others and invest in our future leaders.

Are You Excited About Any Specific Initiatives?

We continually work toward approval of licensed counselors with Medicare, Medicaid, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Currently, other licensed mental health care workers dominate that space, and I’ve long wondered why. I’m excited to be a part of that conversation and help create inclusivity for counselors.

I’m also really excited to be a part of an effort that we’re starting that I’m calling the “Critical Conversation” series. People need to carve out a space where we can start having critical conversations on the intersectionality of race and socioeconomic status. Currently there are limited spaces where people can talk about intersectionality experiences without being judged.

We’re trying to make spaces for counselors to have difficult dialogues in a trusting and professional environment. If we can’t talk about difficult topics or create safe spaces amongst ourselves, we’re not going to be able to support our clients. The goal of the “Critical Conversations” series is to help counselors continue their own personal and professional development and self-exploration so that we can help clients do the same.

How Has the Pandemic Affected Your Role With the Organization?

It’s interesting because when I accepted the nomination to run for ICA president, the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t happened yet. I feel that I’m positioned to really help take the organization to a different level when it comes to connecting with our membership.

As associate program director of Counseling@Northwestnern, the digital space is not new to me. I’ve lived in a digital space now for over five years. During planning meetings for the fall 2020 Illinois Counseling Association conference, most of the people around the table said, “I don’t know if we can do this; can this be done?” I feel honored and privileged to get to say, “Yes, it can be done. It’s going to force you to think in a way that you aren’t accustomed to thinking, but I can assure you that it can be done.” As a result of our planning, we had a very successful virtual conference.

My digital experience allows me to cast a vision that all is not lost. All is not lost because in digital conferencing, we can still have connections, and I can model that. Another thing I do well with my leadership is that I stabilize. While there’s a sense of anxiety and trepidation about whether we can connect with people in the same way in this new environment, I can honestly say to folks that we can if we’re open to it, if we own our anxieties around it, and still courageously step forward. It’s entirely possible.

How Can Counselors Help Illinois Residents Navigate These Uncertain Times?

I definitely think part of it is we need to model the resiliency that we want to see in our clients. One of the things I love to say to my graduate students is that you cannot ask your client to go and do something that you are not willing to go and be and do yourself. As counselors, we have the ability to model for our clients what it looks like to manage through immense and unanticipated change.

Another thing we can do is continue to advocate. Right now, telemental health requirements have been a little bit more relaxed due to COVID-19. We need to leverage this fact and help people understand that telemental health is effective. We need to advocate for it to remain because ultimately being able to counsel in a digital platform affords access to folks who wouldn’t normally have access to clinical mental health counseling. I think about the rural parts of Illinois, and I get excited about the ability to provide counseling services to families in rural Jackson County where they might not have access to clinical mental health care unless they drive 45 minutes or an hour away. Their drive to and from is longer than the session itself. Helping others understand the need for telemental health is a priority in our field.

When Your Tenure Is Over, How Will You Measure Success?

Illinois Counseling Association has a Leadership Development Academy that takes place every other year. It’s a biennial event where folks nominate either students or other counselors into a two-day workshop that is funded by the Illinois Counseling Association to invest into the attendees as leaders, to give them an understanding of all the different branches and agencies within ICA, and hopefully equip them to serve in a leadership capacity. I’d like to see the Leadership Development Academy flourishing and growing. In four years, I’d like to see a lot of new faces in leadership across the Divisions of ICA, bringing new energy, new ideas, and new levels of engagement.

Continuing to help counselors who are not members see the benefit of ICA membership is another goal of mine. I will also be able to measure my success for growing the membership if we were able to grow it by 15% which will bring our membership to 3,000. This measure of success will mean that more counselors will learn about legislative advocacy, networking, and personal and professional development that so many members have experienced.

If I can do those two things, then I would be able to say that I had accomplished what I’d hoped to when I took the position. 

Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the Online Master of Arts in Counseling Program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.