Help provided: Students staff ASU's Counselor Training Center

Jessica Gerton was about to begin her first session as a student counselor for Arizona State University’s Counselor Training Center when she said she was nearly overcome with anxiety.

“Who is this person going to be? What are they going to think of me?” Gerton recalled. “Then, two hours later, suddenly I was like, ‘Wow, OK, I’m a therapist. I can really do this.’”

Gerton is one of hundreds of master’s or doctoral students who have trained to be therapists in the Counselor Training Center, which has been open since 1956 and is part of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts.

Located at Payne Hall on the Tempe campus, the center currently provides free services for ASU students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the public. It recently expanded to offer telehealth services.

“With telehealth, we’re able to extend our reach out to folks that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to meet with,” said Jamie Bludworth, the center’s director. “We’re seeing people from Apache Junction who can’t make the commute, or people who feel uncomfortable leaving their home, or they might have other kinds of concerns about coming to a clinic. Being able to stay home is an important option for them.”

Bludworth said the center will return to a low-cost fee structure — no charge for students, $60 per semester for faculty and staff and $80 per semester for community members — this fall, but that the willingness to offer free counseling the last three years demonstrates ASU’s desire to reach out to the public.

“People were hurting, and it was important to try to get them in so they could be helped,” Bludworth said.

The center has dual benefits. First and foremost, it’s a free or low-cost counseling option for people who may not be able to afford sessions with a licensed therapist.

“The ethic in this space is around equity and inclusion,” Bludworth said. “You’re not turning anybody away if they can’t pay. You’re not turning anybody away for their identities or anything. It’s about being able to provide the best quality service that we possibly can to everybody who comes into our space.”

Second, the center provides invaluable real-life training for students who want to become licensed therapists. Gerton, a third-year doctoral student, called the center a “curated environment perfect for someone to have their first training experience.”

“If we didn’t have the structure of our (center) and the experience we get, we would not be prepared at all to enter into internships,” said Emma Calveri, a Master of Counseling student who completed her practicum last semester. “It was a very valuable time.”

Here’s how the program works:

Master’s or doctoral students must take a skills course, theories course and an ethics course before even being considered for a counseling position. They also go through a video simulation where undergraduate students are trained to act as clients who suffer from depression or anxiety. Faculty at the Counselor Training Center then meet to determine which students are ready for the practicum.

The first-year students in the practicum see no more than four patients once a week. They’re assigned patients that fit their competency. New student counselors, for example, are not assigned high-risk patients.

“It’s good, because you’re challenged but you’re not being over-challenged so that it’s entirely overwhelming,” Calveri said.

Each of the 32 students currently in the practicum have their sessions watched in real time by a licensed supervisor via a video recording system that’s in-house and not accessible on the internet. 

Once the sessions are completed, the students write up their notes and meet with their supervisor once a week. All the patients know the students are under the guidance of a licensed supervisor.

“We go over the clinical issues and the training issues,” Bludworth said. “What the student needs to learn to help their clients.”

“In my experience with my supervisors, they were always really great at catching things that I didn’t necessarily see,” Gerton said. “I’d come in with a question like, ‘I’m not really understanding what this client is needing or what they’re wanting, or I’m not sure how to make sense of their experience.’ Then the supervisor would help me process through asking more questions, sharing common experiences and reviewing the video of the sessions.”

Calveri said some patients expressed initial reluctance about being counseled by a 20-something-year-old, but those concerns quickly dissipated when they were told the students had the support of licensed supervisors.

“And the good thing is that it’s therapy,” Calveri said. “So it can be brought up and discussed in a way that’s therapeutic and can kind of help with some of those anxieties of working with someone that is potentially in their early 20s.”

Ayse Ciftci, faculty head and a professor in counseling and counseling psychology, said two long-range goals for the clinic are to offer sessions in Spanish and to expand to the ASU Polytechnic campus. Those who want to schedule an appointment at the Counselor Training Center can find information here.

“This place is a gem,” Ciftci said. “I mean, it’s truly a gem.”

Scott Bordow