Alumna Profile: Ali Volpe, M.S.Ed. '12

What was your educational/career background coming into the program?

Prior to being accepted to Penn's School and Mental Health Counseling program, I had recently graduated college with a degree in Psychology and had been working for over a year in epilepsy clinical trials at a local hospital. I knew my passion was in counseling, so I began to look for graduate programs in Philadelphia, since I loved the area and wanted to stay.  

Why did you choose SMHC at Penn GSE? 

I quickly found several schools that would meet my needs, but Penn was unique for several reasons. First, their focus on school and mental health counseling was a different approach than other schools in the area. I liked the option that I could pursue both a licensure as a professional counselor (LPC) as well as a school counseling certification in both elementary and secondary education. Even though at the time my focus was in mental health counseling, I liked the potential for diversity within my cohort, since it would consist of people who were interested in both subjects. (Little did I know how the rich diversity of my cohort would play into my educational experience.)

Another aspect of this program that I enjoyed was the flexible class schedule and that I could continue working at my job full time. I recognized the importance of having additional work experience, and as a recent college graduate, remaining in my job would provide me with more life experience to grow as a counselor. 

But what contributed to my decision to choose Penn over other graduate programs was meeting Dr. Mike Nakkula, the Chair of the Applied Psychology and Human Development Division at Penn. During my interview, he emulated the type of counselor I saw myself being: compassionate, patient, and open-minded. I remember being so excited about having the opportunity to learn from him as a professor, as he spoke about the art and science of counseling.  

How has the integration of school & mental health counseling in our program contributed to your education/experience?

Upon entering the program, I viewed the curriculum as two distinct subject areas, school and mental health, but I later found that these two subjects are highly integrated. My original focus was the mental health population, but with the encouragement of my professors, I decided to try the school setting. After two years of interning in a mix of schools and mental health sites, I recognized the necessity of the integration. Experiencing student life as a counselor, whether it be in the elementary or high school years, provides a unique insight into how ones development during these critical periods can affect ones trajectory in life. I was able to use the lessons from my classes in school counseling as a framework to understand my clients emotional development and how they may have arrived where they are now. 

What has the experience of the program been like in regards to time management? How have/did you balance work, family, field placements, classes, assignments, etc.?

Looking back, the balance between life, work, school, and even more life was often difficult to strike. I can say it definitely stretched me. On the positive side, experiencing this stretch in my own life allowed me to find even more compassion in my clients that I would see every day. I learned about the necessity of having a social network of people to rely on, and a large part of my social network during that time were the members of my cohort. They played a huge role in my professional and emotional development as a counselor and as an adult. I was able to bounce ideas off of them about counseling techniques I would use with clients and share any questions I had when I was confused or unsure. They were a positive outlet for me and a trusting group who I could just talk with and share my ideas. Most importantly, the people in my cohort helped me to see the importance of the counselor’s role in a person’s life and how I would like to provide that same support for my future client’s. 

How has the diversity of the cohort contributed to your experience? 

Growing up, my background with diversity was limited, however, the level of diversity in our cohort and the focus of our classes towards sociocultural issues was so rich that I gained an additional level of education. I feel so lucky and grateful to have met the exceptional people in my cohort. Each person brought something unique to our class discussions and some of them I know I will remain in touch with as friends and colleagues, as a source of support and consultation. The people in my cohort opened my eyes to my own personal biases, some that I didn't even think I had. This, I feel, has made me into a more self-aware person and more effective counselor. 

What are you doing now?

Shortly after graduation, I was offered a position as a school counselor at the Philadelphia Charter School of Arts and Sciences, a K-8 school in North East Philadelphia. I'm so excited about this amazing opportunity. To me it’s funny how I changed my focus from strictly mental health to focusing on both school and mental health. With the help of my supportive professors, cohort members, and family, I was able to pursue my life’s passion.