Spenser Norris is a second-year student in the Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling M.S. program. She balances coursework along with institutional research, dual internships at the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency and the Center for Leadership in Disability, as well as spearheads community initiatives as president of the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association. How does she manage it all? “Self-care!”
Q: What sparked your interest in a career as a Clinical Rehabilitation Counselor?
After several years of teaching students with (dis)abilities in public, private and charter schools I had to take some time off to take care of my dad, who had complications related to diabetes and was very sick. Before the family drama, I had been questioning my role as a teacher and kept wondering if that was “it” for me. The year 2014 was like a perfect storm of events, forcing me to re-evaluate the direction my life was heading. Through those caretaking experiences, I realized that I was really effective at managing care, educating others about conditions and such and generally just “holding space” for people, all the while allowing those experiences to shape and change me. As I looked back on my career as a teacher, I noticed that the professionals who had inspired me most were counselors. I was ready to seek higher education at that point, after my dad was well enough to be independent, and figured counseling was the move.
Q: What led you to choose the Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling program at Georgia State?
Many of my friends and professional colleagues graduated from different counseling programs and I heard nothing but great things about Georgia State. I was trying to decide between applying to Mental Health Counseling and Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling at Georgia State. Clinical rehab seemed like a perfect fit because of my passion and experience working with people and families with (dis)abilities but honestly, I had no idea what a great fit it would be. After I met Dennis Gilbride and he spoke with such fervor, I knew rehab counseling was the right choice. I was attracted to all of the great research Counseling and Psychological Services pumps out. And, it was great to have the option to get on the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) scholarship because I was worried about how to finance my way through graduate school.
Q: What does “rehabilitation counseling” mean to you?”
It is so much more than the title sounds. Being a rehab counselor means being a teacher, being a “therapist,” being a case manager, a confidant, entering into someone else’s world to see things from their point of view. It means showing people the best parts of themselves at times when it may be difficult to see, or arguing with a world that tells people they are “less than”. Rehabilitation Counseling means finding the courage to instill hope in others when times seem hopeless. It means effort and advocacy. The field of rehabilitation counseling, in my opinion, is a pure form of social justice. We go above and beyond typical “talk therapy” and push to widen the scope of what it means to be a counselor and what it means to be a helper. Being a rehabilitation counselor means being courageous and humble enough to work on the margins of society and to use our power of social capital and education to pull people from the margins towards the center of care and service.
Q: Tell me more about the RSA scholarship that you are on.
The RSA scholarship offers Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling students the opportunity to intern at vocational rehabilitation settings on the state level while getting a tuition stipend. Georgia affords me the opportunity to get a master’s degree, while learning the ins and outs of government rehabilitation case management. When I graduate, I will continue to work with clients who have open cases at statewide vocational service agencies.
Q: Tell me about your work at the Center for Leadership in Disability.
In combination with the Center for Leadership in Disability and the School for Public Health, Georgia State has opened an Inclusive Digital Expression and Literacy program (IDEAL). IDEAL provides accessible higher education to students who “typically” would not be represented on college campuses. Right now there are a few students participating in IDEAL’s inaugural year of classes and I serve as the academic transition teacher. However, everyone who is a part of the IDEAL program wears many hats and plays many roles in order to make our first year a success. I currently serve as a liaison between vocational rehabilitation and the program as well as help build the social and academic curriculum for the students. I also hang out with students three days a week facilitating group therapy, psychoeducation courses and helping to find activities of interest on campus.
Q: Tell me about the research you conducted with Franco Dispenza
We studied how people with intersecting identities are perceived during the hiring process. We specifically looked at the intersectionality of sexual orientation, gender and disability. Working in the world of rehabilitation, you see that people with disabilities are pushed to the margins. Because a person has a disability, they’re often not seen as competent by employers. Employers often have a perception that creating accommodations for an employee with a disability is going to be very time-consuming and expensive. The more intersecting identities are added on top of a disability, the more marginalized the person becomes.
In addition to learning about employers’ perspectives surrounding these intersecting identities, we found that there seems to be a hierarchy of people with disabilities within the public perception. A person with a very visible disability seems to elicit a lot of sympathy from an employer. They’re often even seen as a hero or an inspiration. However, a person with an invisible disability, especially a mental health issue, get pushed to the outside. Employers seem to view them as less productive, or even dangerous. The findings of our research are currently in the process of publication.
Q: How have you seen yourself evolve since you started the Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling program?
When I came to Georgia State I was struggling with my identity as a professional. My self-esteem was low because I left a career I loved in search for something more. Being immersed in such a positive, supportive and engaging environment, my confidence started to lift. Finally, I was having the conversations I was hoping for. I was learning material that I wanted to study but could not find the time for in my old positions. I was generally being recognized for qualities that I had once considered “negative” or “undesirable.” I have started to recognize my unique set of skills and personality traits as well as begun to use them to their fullest potential.
Q: What advice do you have for anyone considering a career as a rehabilitation counselor?
This job isn’t easy. Don’t forget to take care of yourself so you can continue to take care of others.
Q: Have any faculty members been instrumental in your time in the program so far?
CPS has been so good to me, it’s difficult not to just make a list of everyone I have met here. You grow so much in this department because the people here are incredibly supportive and empathetic. It’s a very nurturing place to learn. I have not only grown as a professional but also as a human being because of the people in this department. Franco Dispenza has been an integral part of my time here. He pushes me to be the best version of myself while also supporting my clinical journey. Dennis Gilbride is a major voice in this field and has so much knowledge and wisdom. Counselor Education and Practice doctoral candidate Nikki Elston is one of my professional role models. She seems to always maintain a sense of humor and air of authenticity, even when days are rough. Debbie Berens was a role model from day one in the program. She is so calm and professional. All the powerful women who make this department run—Regina Finan, Katie Lowery and Yolanda Parker—have saved my life too many times to name. They always seem ready to receive my at-times nervous energy and turn it into calm determination.
Q: What has been your favorite or funniest moment so far in the program?
There are so many, but there was a moment last year when the cohort was planning our bulletin board. The entire room was participating in brainstorming, everyone offering ideas, making jokes and having a good time. We were all just “in it.” I thought to myself, “this is what I came here for…”
Q: What do you do for fun when you’re not in school?”
Sleep! Self-care! I like to cook and bake. I spend time with my partner and our cat, listen to records and hang out on our front porch. We love to travel and try to go on road trips as much as possible. I also spend time researching and visiting historic sites around Atlanta. I have a passion for old homes. Right now, I’m into 1940s era housing.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote or words to live by?
“When you reach out and touch other human beings, it doesn’t matter if you call it therapy or teaching or poetry.” –Audre Lorde