Ana Cruz is one of several graduate students in Eastern Mennonite University's MA in Counseling program to provide regular hours at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic in downtown Harrisonburg. The community placements are part of EMU’s Expansion of Counseling in Underserved and Rural Areas (ECURA) program, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photos by Andrew Strack)

Counseling interns contribute to holistic care at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic

Graduate students in Eastern Mennonite University’s Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC) program are gaining real-world experience – and providing needed counseling services at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic in Harrisonburg.

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The community placements are part of EMU’s Expansion of Counseling in Underserved and Rural Areas (ECURA) program. It is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that aims to increase behavioral health treatment and counseling to underserved populations in the Shenandoah Valley region of western Virginia and beyond.

Trey Harris, an MA in Counseling graduate student, waits for a client at the Free Clinic in downtown Harrisonburg.

Most MAC field placements are in federally designated rural and medically underserved communities. In 2017, the Free Clinic, which focuses on uninsured persons with income under 200% of the federal poverty level, provided 4,358 health care service visits, 158 dental visits and 462 behavioral health counseling visits, it reported.

Four MAC students had regular hours this fall (and will again in the spring) at the clinic. They saw clients for a variety of reasons such as grief and loss, anxiety and conflicts in interpersonal relationships, among othe issues, said student Ana Cruz. They also provided support in setting goals and working toward healing.

The Free Clinic internship has been part of a “rich learning experience and has helped shape my educational and career goals,” Cruz said, noting the collaboration of professionals to offer holistic care to the clinic’s clients. “The quality care that clients receive with the implementation of an integrative model are well worth the challenges that come with it.”

Graduate students Allison Funk (left) and Ana Cruz (third from left) with placement supervisor Gwen Louden-Gerber and MA in Counseling program director Michael Horst.

Practicing collaboration with medical professionals is a key benefit, said student Kristen Inouye – as is getting to work with a diverse, underserved population of individuals that are navigating complex situations.

The interns’ first-hand experiences are teaching them “what it means to be a part of an interdisciplinary team – a very important skill for potential future positions in healthcare organizations,” said placement supervisor Gwen Louden-Gerber.

The students came to the internships with “a strong sense of the importance of building rapport and the therapeutic relationship, strong skills in empathic listening, a nonjudgmental stance, and respect for the clients’ worldviews and life experiences,” she said.

Whether Free Clinic clients’ experiences have negatively impacted their ability to build trust with a counselor or involve struggles such as substance-abusing roommates, they often are carrying “an awful lot in their suitcases,” said Free Clinic executive director Summer Sage. The interns are gaining experience “unpacking all of the different pieces of that suitcase and figuring out how to help the client organize it in a way that is manageable,” she said.

The practical experience is equipping students to be better-prepared professionals, said Sage. “We all know that there’s book knowledge and then there’s life experience, and sometimes what the book says doesn’t apply to the life experience. Taking that knowledge and having an opportunity to problem-solve with it in a hands-on, realistic case experience, really enriches their ability to hit the ground running.”