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Taking Counseling Skills to Most Vulnerable

Halfway around the world MNU graduate students apply learning to help others.

By Amy Holmquist ('09)

July 9, 2014

Fourteen graduate counseling students and a professor from Mid America Nazarene University (MNU) sit around a makeshift “campfire” made of flashlights in a small village in Uganda. They share the day’s experiences, processing together the traumatic stories they heard, marveling at God’s blessings that they experience in the profession of counseling. They feel honored that so many are willing to share.

Students in the capstone class in the Master of Arts in Counseling program at MNU journeyed to northern Uganda in June to be “the hands and feet of Jesus” by teaching others about counseling for two weeks. As part of their final requirements for graduation, students put into practice what they have learned in the classroom, applying it in real life to what can only be called a mission field.

Led by Professor of Counseling Tricia Brown, PhD, they visited various churches and orphanages where they taught church leaders, seminary students, and the women (called mamas) who staff the local orphanages, teaching them how to counsel those who have suffered through traumatic situations. Also accompanied by Marsha Campbell of Global Orphan Project in Kansas, the students met many individuals who devote their time to help the “most vulnerable” children.

“The purpose of the capstone class is to give students the opportunity to present what they’ve learned to people outside of the university,” Dr. Brown explained, “This trip was an opportunity for the students to pull together what they’ve learned about counseling and advocacy, mental health, and families, and offer something back.”

The group teamed up with the project Go Africa, a part of the Global Orphan Project, whose goal is to support African churches with their work in orphanages, regardless of the circumstances of war or turbulent times.

“That is what appealed to me about this organization. Their philosophy is they don’t pull out when times get bad. They are still there because the churches are still there, the churches are permanent,” Dr. Brown noted.

MNU group with women in Gulu, Uganda who survived and escaped from the Lord's Resistance Army, an extremist group. These women meet to support each other and rebuild their lives after years of captivity. They spent time with the MNU group and performed their story of freedom through dance.

The group traveled to the villages of Gulu and Lira holding workshops with educators, clergy, seminary students, and the mamas. The goal was to educate the locals’ on basic listening skills. In the Ugandan culture, people give and seek advice, but effective listening does not come naturally. Help was requested by an official in the Anglican Church of Uganda to train these individuals how to assist their fellow Ugandans who are victims of civil war and a myriad of traumatic experiences.

Workshops focused on active listening, and included practice sessions with participants. After a session in the village of Lira, graduate student Kim Farag observed two participants practice the skills they had just learned from the graduate students. Farag says she saw first-hand how valuable the training is for the Ugandans.

“It was at that moment I knew why we had left our friends and family for two weeks to travel half way across the globe. I realized we went to Uganda to give them a gift of learning how to help each other heal from the trauma of civil war.  We taught them some skills on how to deal with their own pain and how to listen to each other,” Farag commented, “I feel so blessed that the Lord allowed me to see a glimpse of a gift that we had shared before we left to come home.”

Many workshop participants had experienced trauma of their own. They needed to learn breathing techniques to calm them and how to deal with the moments when they are flooded with traumatic memories. Those skills were just as important as learning how to comfort someone else.

“They just wanted some help understanding what kinds of things they were seeing and what they could do to make outcomes the best for the vulnerable children and for the mamas,” Dr. Brown pointed out.

During part of the trip, students met women who had escaped from the resistance army. Hearing how these women survived and how they were trying to make a better life had a great impact on the graduate students.

“As I have reflected on this trip and how it will affect my counseling relationship with my clients, the best word I can come up with is faith,” Farag remarked. “Time and time again we heard stories of horrible trauma that affected these people, and the mind just begins to reel and ask God why he would allow something like this to happen, but then I remembered that he did not abandon these people. He held them through all of it.”

The group returned to Kansas City, full of hope and encouragement for their future careers as counselors; along with the satisfaction that they were able to use their education in service to the Ugandans.

“It was an enriching opportunity. I hope we were as much of a blessing to them as they were to us,” Dr. Brown said.

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