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On School Counseling: An Interview with Dawn Hodschayan

Have you heard of Alex and Dawn Hodschayan? They are a young, creative, talented, motivated and kind-hearted couple who took Washington by a storm over a year ago.  In less than twelve months, Alex and Dawn sold two houses, bought a beautiful home together in Washington, MO, renovated it to perfection, and found respective jobs in the community that help them follow their passion. Alex is the event coordinator at Downtown Washington Inc. and also a freelance graphic designer, and Dawn is the new High School Counselor at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School. They got in touch with me via Facebook even before they moved to Washington, MO, and ever since I met them in person I’ve been amazed by their creative energy, community spirit and positive attitude to life. That’s why when Dawn got her new job at Borgia High School an interview with her was on my to-do list 🙂 {To read the Re-Discover Washington interview with Alex, click here}

Meet Dawn, Alex and their adorable fur babies! Alex is amazing when it comes to graphic design!

Meet Dawn, Alex and their adorable fur babies! Alex is amazing when it comes to graphic design! (photo: Top Shelf Designs by Alex Hodschayan)

1. What made you decide to become a school counselor?

If you asked my family, they would say from an early age I was always carrying around stacks of books at home, usually biographies and autobiographies to learn about people’s lives and perspectives. I was particularly fascinated with stories of individuals who succeeded in their dreams despite perceived obstacles. I watched documentaries with my family and became very aware of the challenges faced by people in our own community and around the world. I’ve always believed it was my calling to work with people in need.

Posted in the hallways of my small-town Missouri high school, I discovered an opportunity to pursue my interest in the human services field. I was 15 years old, and I worked as a summer counselor for a camp with children and adults with developmental disabilities. The experience was life-changing and one of those “aha” moments. I can vividly remember the feeling I had when a woman, who was nonverbal, was leaving the camp with her caretakers and signed the word “friend” to them as I was saying goodbye to her. Even though she could not hear or speak to me for the entire week, my actions towards her had created the feeling of safety and acceptance. I think that the perspective gained from those interactions guided me not just in my career, but as a person.

Over a decade later, I’ve worked in many human services jobs including hospice care, psychiatric hospitals, and community mental health. School counseling became a passion of mine after I worked as a one-on-one paraprofessional in a behavioral disorder classroom. I was completing my Master of Education degree at Stephens College, and my professors were veteran school counselors. I began to discover that school counseling truly allowed me the ability to positively impact the lives of many people on a daily basis. Even after completing my M.Ed., I accepted a position as a supervisor at a Community-Based Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center and realized that I felt the most professionally and personally fulfilled while working within a school system. There’s something powerful about the consistency and close-knit nature of a school. Schools allow for students to find support and hope no matter what their circumstances.

Meet Dawn, looking professional and adorable on her way to work in the morning.

Meet Dawn, looking professional and adorable on her way to work in the morning. 

2. How long have you been at your current job and what do you like about it?

Washington has felt like “home” to my husband, Alex, and I since we moved here over a year ago. There is a strong sense of community pride and a shared sense of family values. Likewise, when you hear “Borgia,” you immediately think of the strength of their community that is well-known throughout the state. Just recently at a conference, a counselor from St. Louis saw my name tag and commented on how impressed she always is at Borgia’s level of unity at their events. The “Borgia Family” atmosphere has created a strong reputation for character and respect.

The self-motivation and drive to succeed that Borgia students have impresses me more each day. From their weekly morning news television show to organizing retreats to coordinating completely student-led assemblies, their students, individually and as a whole, are truly special.

Having commuted as a school counselor for Fulton Public Schools and Gasconade County R-1 Schools, it was a priority for my husband and I to discover an opportunity for me to work within the community we love. When the opening was posted at Borgia, I applied the same day, and it has been an honor to become a part of their team. I have been blown away by the kindness and support of the staff, administration, parents, and students. I hope to invest many years into guiding Bright Knights at Borgia.

Everyone at Dawn's office enjoys the  morning news television show at Borgia.

Everyone at Dawn’s office enjoys the morning news television show at Borgia.

3. What does the typical day in the life of a school counselor look like? What are the rewards and challenges?

School counselors act as a touch point, linking students, parents, administrators, and other stakeholders together. Our main role is to be first and foremost an advocate for students. In schools across Missouri, public and private, you will find that our day to day duties may look surprisingly different based on each building’s needs, however, the core of our mission remains the same: to help students be successful learners and citizens.

As an elementary counselor, I would spend the majority of my day teaching proactive lessons to support healthy social and emotional growth in areas like friendship, feelings, goal-setting, and more. The lessons utilized video, SmartBoard technology, and even songs. I would always leave the classroom feeling energized. I hosted daily “Lunch Bunch” groups to have an opportunity to meet with all students in a more individualized setting as well as specific groups to address needs such as changing families and impulse control. I love working with elementary-aged students, because the students have such an excitement for learning. My creative side could really shine in that position. I created a curriculum called “Tiger Tools” in which we learned a new tool each month like a hard hat for safety in September. I even wore a tool belt and hard hat to each lesson. It was a blast, and I still miss teaching those students.

Transitioning to the high school was a rewarding experience for me. I had worked with younger children for most of my career, and I was excited to learn a new aspect of school counseling. As a secondary school counselor, the main focus is on career and college planning. You serve as a guide to help students navigate the world of work and options for education and training after high school. At Hermann, I made it a goal to meet with every single student individually in all grades, and with the support of exceptional administrative assistants, I was able to achieve that goal. My proudest moments as a school counselor were the school-wide events like our College and Career Ready Series that brought in speakers from DESE and Junior Achievement and also, over 30 representatives from colleges, the military branches, and trade/technical programs. For the Class of 2014, I organized a Decision Day assembly for the students to officially announce their plans and goals for after high school to the entire student body. A few teachers spoke regarding their personal “decisions” that led them to their career as teachers. It was a powerful and moving experience.

What amazes me is how much the field of school counseling has evolved over the last twenty years. The importance of school counselors is beginning to gain national attention in the media particularly from Michelle Obama’s public address this past summer which emphasized the strong, positive impact a school counselor can have on students when give the time, resources, and support.

4. What are your observations on high schools kids today: their dreams, hopes, and fears?

I love this question since I am currently in the last round of Bright Knight individual meetings with my Class of 2015 students, and I have been reflecting on each individual’s unique hopes and ambitions. What I wish for each student is that the discover a dream that is their own: a dream that inspires them, a dream that drives them, a dream that takes them on adventures, a dream that contributes to their community and world, a dream that goes beyond what they ever thought was possible.

While their dreams are each different, there are common hopes I hear throughout each meeting: the hope to pursue their passion, the hope to feel pride in their career, the hope to support themselves financially, the hope to contribute to a family one day, the hope to reach their full potential.

I want our students to know that fears are natural. Fears will exist long after high school within each chapter of life. I think acknowledging your fears and uncertainties is the first step towards moving forward. The unknown can be intimidating, and as a high school student, there is so much left unwritten and undecided. I believe one of the best strategies to cope with that feeling of being overwhelmed  is to simply say, “It’s okay that I don’t have the answers or know exactly what the end result will be. I’m just going to do my best and take it one day at a time.” Sometimes high school students and parents just need a reminder that it doesn’t have to happen all in one day. The focus should be taking those small steps towards the larger goal.

Dawn's goal is to help students decide what is it that they want to do and to also assure them that it's ok if they don't know yet.

Dawn’s goal is to help students decide what is it that they want to do and to also assure them that it’s ok if they don’t know yet.

5. How do you help a student who is unsure of what they want to do after high school?

Thinking back on the most valuable experiences I had in high school, the ones that stand out the most were the “real-life” exposure opportunities. In my junior and senior years of high school, I was able to participate in a job shadow day each year. I selected a middle school to shadow special education and an assisted living facility that served individuals with developmental disabilities. In addition to the summer jobs I held in the human services field, I served as a cadet teacher in a special education classroom my senior year.

I am listing all these experiences, because even though I decided to specialize in school counseling and not special education, I was able to discover specifically what I enjoyed in a career through that blend of experiences: job shadowing, employment opportunities, and volunteer service. With those three types of experiences, students are able to truly learn what they like and dislike about certain jobs. The more you experience, the better you are able to identify a career that you will be happy and successful at.

Along those same lines, I think it is important to keep an open mind and step outside of your comfort zone. I had never really thought about school counseling until I met my professors in college. Through speaking with them and being able to observe a school counselor when I worked as a paraprofessional, I was able to discover that school counseling was an ideal fit for my interests and skill set.

Beyond your own experiences, talk to adults – ask them about their career journey. It is fascinating to hear the different stories of working adults and the types of education or training they received and jobs they had along the way. We all have a different way of finding our career path, and no two paths ever look exactly the same.


6. If there was some advice you’d like to share with the parents who have children in high school what would that be?

No matter how much training and education the professionals have received, you will always be the expert of your own child – trust your instinct and at the same time, be open to your own personal improvement. Mistakes will happen, but use those experiences to teach your child how to find strength and opportunity in their struggles. Be a guiding light without forcing them down a certain path. Teach patience and gratitude by modeling those values in your home. Spend “unplugged” time listening and really speaking to each other. Feeling heard and acknowledged is critical for teens. Find a safe and positive balance of structure along with freedom to grow.

Dawn at her office. She certainly is being the change she wishes to see in the world, and I am so happy that she is part of our community!

Dawn at her office. She certainly is being the change she wishes to see in the world, and I am so happy that she is part of our community!

7. What is one thing you wish you knew when you were in high school that you know now?

Take the struggles, the worries, the disappointments, the mistakes. Take them all, and use them to create opportunities, motivation, knowledge, and strength. Let go of “the need to know” and simply accept that everything that happens, happens for a purpose. There is always a solution, and there is always a way to shine even in the dark.

Dawn and her colleagues at Borgia are a wonderful team and a great asset for the students and the community.

Dawn and her colleagues at Borgia are a wonderful team and a great asset for the students and the community.

About Slava

I am a twenty-something Bulgarian girl in the USA, re-discovering the world through the lens.


One Response to “On School Counseling: An Interview with Dawn Hodschayan”

  1. Loved the interview!

    Posted by Anita Sherrill | September 18, 2014, 3:57 pm

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