news-category: Graduate programs

Mental Health Counseling Program offers supportive, hands-on experience  

Heather Banfield

Graduate Student Heather Banfield Values Personal Interactions with Classmates and Faculty

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—When Heather Banfield, of Forest City, N.C., enrolled as a graduate student at Gardner-Webb University, it had been 12 years since she received her bachelor’s degree. She was married with three young children, so there would be many adjustments. However, after meeting with the faculty in the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, Banfield was assured that they would help her to achieve her goals.

“The interview was a lot different than I thought it would be,” Banfield reflected. Although she attended a small college for her undergraduate degree, the classes were impersonal, and the faculty was distant and unapproachable.

“My interview (at GWU) was a lot less about what I knew and a lot more about who I was,” she affirmed. “That was really meaningful to me, and I knew I wanted to do a program where the people cared about me as a person and not me as a brain.”

Banfield’s decision to go back to college was triggered by COVID-19. “When COVID-19 hit, I was working for a non-profit organization, and we lost a lot of money. I took a step back to try to save us money and save the organization. In the midst of that, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I really felt like God was calling me to counseling, so I applied.”

Because she had been out of school for over a decade, she wanted an in-person option. She did an internet search to see where those programs were available and found Gardner-Webb. “I applied on a whim,” she offered. “I didn’t do any research; I didn’t think about it; I didn’t apply anywhere else; and I didn’t expect to get in. When I got accepted, I was like, ‘Now, what am I going to do? I have three kids, who are pretty little, so it was a huge life adjustment to figure out how I was going to make it work.”

With the confidence she gained from the initial interview, Banfield began the master’s program. Her instincts about the caring and supportive faculty proved to be true. “That’s something I have loved about the program,” she remarked. “It’s more than just learning. I’ve been shaped as a person. I’ve learned a ton, for sure, but I feel like I am a totally different person, just in how I see the world and how I interact with it.”

She wholeheartedly recommends the program to anyone who asks. “Because counseling is so human-related, you can’t just learn it out of a book,” Banfield informed. “We do a lot of role playing and practice in the classroom. The value is huge. The book learning is really good and important, but the internships, the capstone, and the role play are where I have been formed and feel I have been prepared for when I’m a counselor. It’s an opportunity to take the book knowledge and put it into practice in a real-time way and get immediate feedback from our professors and from our classmates, too.”

The experiential learning activities developed her listening skills as a counselor. During the internship, the students make videos of their counseling sessions and get feedback from their professors and classmates on how well they engage, express empathy, and use the skills they’ve learned. “It’s very humbling,” Banfield assessed. “A lot of that was allowing myself to be put out there in a very vulnerable way and receiving feedback on how well I do that. You don’t often get feedback on how you interact with other humans, so it was paramount in how I’ve been formed for the profession.”

Besides the caring and knowledgeable professors in the program, Banfield values the cohort model, which was especially helpful to her as an adult learner. “The cohort model allows you to bond with the people,” she observed. “We have gotten to know each other pretty deeply. Most of my cohort came straight out of undergrad. They have helped me with the school part of it—the technology part. I have a little more of the (life) experience and that balance has been really nice.”

Banfield expects the relationships to extend beyond the classroom to when she’s in the field. “I will have those people who went through this program with me to lean on and consult with, if I have questions or just to have someone who understands,” she affirmed.

Gardner-Webb University is North Carolina’s recognized leader in private, Christian higher education. A Carnegie-Classified Doctoral/Professional University, GWU is home to nine colleges and schools, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate majors, and a world-class faculty. Located on a beautiful 225-acre campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb prepares graduates to impact their chosen professions, equips them with the skills to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and inspires them to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others. Ignite your future at Gardner-Webb.edu.

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