Counseling Facilitators Experience Life-Changing Moments


Graduate studies aren’t easy. At Divine Mercy University, we see our counseling students hard at work in the virtual classroom as well as on campus during residencies for the Master’s in Counseling program. While on campus for their residencies, students get help from onsite clinical facilitators to develop their counseling skills.

Back in the virtual classroom, though, non-clinical facilitators are on hand to facilitate the School of Counseling (SOC) students through course PHT 523: Moral Character and Spiritual Flourishing, which addresses the students’ interpersonal flourishing in terms of vocations, virtues, and spiritual resources as they progress to becoming licensed professional counselors.

The program has had consecrated women, priests, and spiritual directors serve as non-clinical facilitators. “The people who become facilitators for this are people who have a heart for ministry, and course PHT 523 is for the students to learn about themselves and how they’re growing,” said Laura Mayers, Academic Affairs Assistant for the School of Counseling and a non-clinical facilitator stationed on campus.

Unlike their regular courses or the residencies, where both the students and clinical facilitators are on campus, the students are divided into groups of six in a workshop-style structure. They meet  through video conferencing every other week during the eight-week course. The purpose of PHT 523 is for the students to focus on their own journeys of growth, both spiritually and personally. The course assignments are personally intense but also, according to Mayers, forever life-changing. 

One of those life-changing moments comes in the first assignment: the Spiritual Life Map. This assignment requires students to illustrate their whole personal, professional, and spiritual development from birth to the present day, highlighting major moral and spiritual events, experiences, and milestones throughout the course of their lives that have enabled their development in virtue. 

For facilitator Victoria O’Donnell, who is also the Program Assistant for the Spiritual Direction Certificate program at the university, both the course and the stories that arise from the spiritual life map assignment are sacred. 

“I think of Moses and the burning bush,” said O’Donnell, “where God tells Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on sacred ground. That’s what this course feels like for me. There is a profound, sacred vulnerability in it that leaves me humbled and in awe, and it brings back an experiential awareness of our common humanity. Each of us has our cross, but then we come to the question: what do you do with it?  Will you let it isolate you, or will you allow it to bring you to a place where you can feel your own pain and, in doing so, are capable of feeling someone else’s pain?”

As the students become more self aware of their own struggles and their own spiritual development, they gain a special insight that’s critical to their future careers as healers. According to O’Donnell, the program helps them bring their past into a cohesive whole. The course allows them to develop and work with the tools to heal themselves, and gives them a better understanding of how others can work with them, as well. 

“When you’re working through and processing your own stuff,” said O’Donnell, “there’s an experiential empathy that’s simply invaluable and cannot be taught — it has to be experienced. This empathy allows one to have a respect for the other in their own individuality. The students’ processing through their own issues produces an understanding and a valuable empathy for their future clients.”  

“I think they develop a lot of self-knowledge, a lot of self-acceptance,” said Mayers. “They develop a greater understanding of how they can lead a group that’s cohesive and enlightening for all involved, but also well-contained. The t experience of a group that’s well-controlled will help them when they’re working as counselors themselves in the future.”   

As she hears and learns from each of her group’s personal stories, Mayers believes the facilitators also gain tremendous insight, and come out of each session with tools that they can exercise in their own lives.   

“We all make judgments about each other,” Mayers said. “Sometimes counseling students come in with the idea of knowing what types of people they are going to work with and what types of people they won’t work with. But then they sit down with someone they don’t believe they had anything in common with and, in a very short time, find themselves experiencing a love for that person in a very profound way.

“Every time someone opens up their life to you, you’re standing on sacred ground,” Mayers continued, “and that person will be forever a part of your heart because they shared their story with you. I look back at some of the experiences I’ve had in the groups, and I have a special place in my heart for each one of those people. You’re forever changed because you got to know someone in a very profound way, and maybe you’re forever changed because you got to know yourself, as well.”    

PHT 523: Moral Character and Spiritual Flourishing is course counseling students take within the first academic year of their enrollment. To view a sample video from course, click here.

If you’re passionate about helping those who struggle with mental health issues or suffered serious trauma, consider building the skills to do so through the M.S. in Counseling at Divine Mercy University.