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New Department of Education grants help SDSU address need for qualified vocational rehabilitation counselors.

By Michael Klitzing, SDSU News Center

November 11, 2019 (San Diego) - For people with disabilities, a job often can provide dignity, community and independence in addition to a paycheck.

To that end, faculty in SDSU’s Master of Science in Rehabilitation Counseling program—ranked No. 4 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report—have received two training grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Administration that will prepare students to help transition individuals with disabilities into the workforce.

“The biggest barriers in our society for people with significant disabilities are social isolation and poverty,” said Sonia Peterson, assistant professor in rehabilitation counseling at San Diego State University.  “Always, the main focus of rehab counseling is to help people get to work. It will help people get out of poverty and connected in the community.”


Professor Charles Degeneffe, interim chair of SDSU’s Department of Administration, Rehabilitation and Postsecondary Education, and associate professor Mark Tucker will oversee a five-year, $1 million grant that will support master’s students training to become vocational rehabilitation counselors for people with disabilities.

Degeneffe pointed to a shortage of qualified people to work in the complex field of employment, career development and community programs that can assist people with disabilities. “With the grant, prospective students are more likely to come into programs like ours,” he said.

In its first year, the grant will fund stipends for students committed to working in a state rehabilitation agency or similar organization after graduation.

The grant will support up to 20 students per year, expanding from California residents after the first two years to include distance learners from Nevada and the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands—areas lacking access to rehabilitation counseling programs.

“Traditionally, people with disabilities are a very marginalized population and we're going to get people out there who are going to work with them,” Tucker said. “We can help narrow the gap and level the playing field for people with disabilities.”

Mental illness

Peterson and professor Marjorie Olney will oversee a five-year, $750,000 grant to prepare licensed professional clinical counselors to help individuals facing mental illness or substance abuse transition into the workforce. Olney, who developed SDSU’s Certificate in Psychiatric Rehabilitation and has overseen similar federal funding for the past 14 years, notes that research has shown employment to be more effective than medication in reducing psychiatric symptoms.

“We see people on the streets who clearly are suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and they're untreated at the time,” Olney said. “When somebody is in that condition, introducing employment is nearly impossible. But if you can get people treatment, we can find out what they want to do with their lives—and help them get there.”

The training grant will support stipends for 10-12 students to earn their master’s in rehabilitation counseling, a certificate in psychiatric rehabilitation and a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor credential. The program typically seeks to attract people with experience working with people with mental illness, but are unable to be promoted because they can’t afford licensure.

Peterson added they’re also looking to recruit students with “lived experience”—people with a disability themselves, or a family member with a disability. That describes program graduate Karen Shein, ('19), who was drawn to the field after a family member’s mental breakdown.

“I love the work I do,” said Shein, now a full-time counselor intern for an outpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Boise, Idaho. “I received an excellent and inspiring education in the program at SDSU and feel that I am well prepared to counsel individuals and families and to be a voice for the recovery movement, person-centered counseling and do my small part to improve the system.”

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