BISMARCK, ND — When a University of Mary student walks into Megan Grosz’s office for some advice, counseling, or just a good old-fashioned shoulder to lean on, it’s really easy to be comfortable. Not only does she greet her clients with a down-to-earth smile but also it is stated in big, colorful letters on the wall. ‘Smile’ is one word among many brief phrases on a wall hanging. No, it’s not the Ten Commandments, but powerful enough to inspire her and those she seeks to help.

“They are good words to live by,” said Grosz, an academic advisor with Student Support Services at the University of Mary who is in the process of receiving a master of science in School Counseling from Mary. “I like to have it visible for me and my students as a daily reminder of the important things in life.”

The St. Mary’s Central High School graduate certainly checks off the smile box and probably most if not all the others like, “Stay happy and be positive,” or “Try new things.” It’s from many of those qualities, experience as a high school teacher in Houston, Texas, and an interview that helped earn her selection as the first University of Mary Graduate Counseling Program intern with the Missouri River Educational Cooperative — an educational service agency that assists member school districts address their local needs in an efficient and economical fashion. Grosz, following her dreams and passion, will be filling one of those needs interning as a school counselor at Turtle Lake-Mercer Public School starting this fall.

“The state of school counseling is no different from that of the regular classroom teacher throughout North Dakota, there is a shortage and we need more people going into the counseling profession to help fill these shortfalls,” stated Lyle Krueger, executive director of the MREC.

Krueger says REA member districts have been requesting help to provide counselors for the last few years, without taking current counselors away from them to fill the needs. That’s when MREC College and Career Counselor Jennifer Grandalen came up with the unique idea to partner with the University of Mary. Grandalen, a certified counselor within North Dakota, is able to provide ongoing supervision and mentorship within the districts the interns are placed.

“The collaborative effort is a win-win-win as the University of Mary has assistance in placing their counseling interns with supervision and mentorship from our MREC College and Career counselor; the students receive a paid internship, of which they generally do not receive compensation for their internship; and the MREC continues to provide another valuable service to our interested member districts,” added Krueger. “The University of Mary is a top-notch, nationally acclaimed institution that produces exceptional, well-qualified graduates in various fields, including education. They are one of only a handful of higher education institutions that offer a counseling program in North Dakota. Also, being located in Bismarck truly benefits us in working to place counseling interns into our member districts who are located within the south central portion of North Dakota.”

School counselors help students at all levels, from elementary school to college. They provide counseling in three sectors: academic, career and personal or social. Their services and programs help students resolve emotional, social, or behavioral problems and give them a sense of direction. Effective counseling programs are important to the school climate and a crucial element in improving student achievement.

“School counseling students begin this internship during their second year in the program, and are thus able to work as school counselors, while completing the two-year degree,” stated Dr. Julijana Nevland, chair of Graduate Counseling at the University of Mary. “This is an excellent opportunity for University of Mary students to receive both supervised training and a healthy salary. We are seeing an increase in demand for school counseling jobs across the state, and as a result, have received more school counseling applicants compared to previous years.”

And the shortage of school counselors isn’t just in North Dakota — it’s across the U.S.

According to the California Department of Education, that state’s ratio of students per counselor averages 945 to 1, compared to the national average of 477 to 1, ranking California last in the nation. During Grosz’s six years as an U.S. and AP U.S. history instructor in one of Houston’s inner city high schools she noticed that counselors at her school were only staffed to handle academic challenges and requirements – with very little done for social and career development.

“That is one of the gap areas I saw that prompted me to create the ‘College Friday’ program to help all my students get information about their college and career options,” said Grosz about her experiences in Houston. “When I was teaching in Houston I found that my favorite part of the day was after school when students would come in and just talk about their day. I had a lot of students ask questions about going to college, the process of applying, and how they could pay for it — as many of my students came from large families with limited income. Each Friday I took a different question that was commonly asked by students and created a mini 15-minute lesson to address the question. That is how ‘College Friday’ was born.”

And that’s essentially the birth of Grosz’s counseling career.

“These students did not necessarily need to complete work for my class, but they wanted someone to listen to them and get help with issues they had with school, friends or relationships, or even family,” added Grosz. “I liked learning more about my students’ life stories and being that person to listen and try to help them through their struggles if I could.”

All they needed was for someone to listen. A simple, yet powerful word often not practiced by many people, nor is it on Grosz’s office wall hanging, but definitely another trait she lives by as a passionate and dedicated school counselor.