picture of Karen James

Karen James


Clinical Mental Health Counseling Student Makes Her Mark

“Great leaders don’t set out to be a leader; they set out to make a difference. It’s never about the role–always about the goal.” This quote by Lisa Haisha is one that has informed Karen Andrea James’ time on campus and her role as the Marywood chapter president of Chi Sigma Iota, an international academic and professional counseling honor society. 

Sitting in the first floor lobby of the McGowan Center on a Wednesday night in early February, the graduate student in Marywood’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program recounted the journey that brought her to Marywood in the Spring of 2021. 

“Sometimes life just turns,” James said as she discussed her decision not to pursue doctoral work in psychology, defying many of her prior professors’ and family expectations. A graduate of both Howard University and the Chicago School for Professional Psychology, James held a number of positions in the Juvenile Delinquent Justice System and the Foster Care System before enrolling at Marywood to receive her second graduate degree in pursuit of her Licensed Professional Counselor Certification. 

“Funny story; when I went to undergrad, my goal was, initially, law school,” she said with a sober note in her otherwise expressive voice. A survivor of an abusive household from her early adolescence, James’ initial intention was to put abusers behind bars. “It was for the wrong reasons…after doing a year and a half in law school, I started working in a firm as a paralegal, and I started thinking, ‘This is not for me. How can I be happy with this?’”

James pivoted to a graduate-level degree in psychology in pursuit of her Psy.D. or Ph.D. with the aim of becoming a psychologist. The “turn” in her life referred to her experience in the workforce.

“I was working with a foster care agency, and one of the things that I saw…the biggest thing that I saw, was the lack of effective therapists and appropriate therapists. Some weren’t even licensed, or had a degree in the mental health field but they were playing a therapeutic role because, unfortunately, at agencies, those things are allowed, so they were causing more harm than good to the children that we served, and that really started bugging me,” James said.

She had witnessed the effect an ill-trained or inexperienced counselor could have on a client while still an undergraduate student. After being encouraged by her advisor to seek counseling for self-destructive coping mechanisms, James’ initial skepticism of counseling was exacerbated by the treatment she received from her therapist.

“I felt like I was being judged and being criticized because of some of the questions she asked...we met maybe three or four times, and I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to counseling,’” she said. “I worked over the years with counselors when I worked full time before school, and, personally, I’d be like, ‘Why are you in this field? Why?  you know, because it’s like there’s no empathy there.’”

When James did return to counseling later in her undergraduate academic career, she did eventually find a counselor who was able to better connect with her. The empathy and positive regard shown to her throughout her journey was life changing. 

“I want to use the term save,” she said of her second experience. “If [my counselor] didn’t save me, I probably wouldn’t be here today. Sometimes–a lot of times–with the kids we worked with–they need someone, not to save them, but to be empathetic, to be understanding, to show them unconditional positive regard and let them share their story and help them through it, so they can be successful.”

At the time, James’ role was to train foster parents and ensure the homes children were placed in maintained compliance. Though she did not work directly with the children her agency served, James was able to build a rapport and a level of trust with them. 

“I realized how impactful I was with them, and that’s what propelled me to go back to school,” James said. “I was like, ‘I need to make a difference, I need to advocate for those kids,’ especially those kids that were like me. They really touched me...because, when I reflect on my childhood, based on what was happening in my home, I could have ended up in foster care. I could have been bounced around like some of those kids.”

A resident of Blakeslee since 2018, James began searching for programs and schools that would help her make this change. Marywood’s program and its commitment to leadership and service resonated with her, and she applied. 

When she first enrolled, her classes were online. The 50-minute drive to and from campus didn’t factor in until that fall when the curriculum returned to in-person instruction. 

“At first I was like, ‘Eh, I’ll start,’ because I was working from home, but in the fall they were like now you’re going to be in person,” James chuckled. “ I was like, ’Oh boy, now I have to travel an hour to and from school.’ But, honestly, I’m grateful we did transition to in-person instruction because, although online is okay, what I gained by being in person was so phenomenal. Just being able to meet the professors, being able to interact with them–I was able to learn so much more and gain so much more from it.”

Throughout her term in Chi Sigma Iota, James has focused her efforts on embodying the honor society’s core principles of advocacy, leadership and service. 

James’ integrity in relation to these attributes doesn’t end with her responsibilities as a leader in the campus community. According to James’ advisor and mentor Dr. Bradley Janey, Ph.D., NCC, LPC, her commitment to her craft and her community make her stand out among her peers. “She has been outstanding from the first day. I really can't say enough good things about her. She has been exemplary in every possible way, including professionalism, conscientiousness, relatability, and skill development.

She has also been remarkably generous with her time with Chi Sigma Iota...I admire her discipline and work ethic, and I know that she will be among the leaders in our profession after she graduates with her degree,” Dr. Janey said. “I am proud to have worked with her so much during her time at Marywood, and I look forward to the time she joins me as one of my peers when she completes her studies.”

Throughout her presidency, James worked with other members of the society to organize service opportunities such as a Valentine’s Day card blast for the residents of the Our Lady of Peace Residence on campus, making care packages for veterans in need, collaborating with Elm Park United Methodist Church for its annual Trunk or Treat community event, and hosting a CPCE review night in the form of a trivia and hot chocolate event among others.

“Marywood has so much to offer...I’ve had a phenomenal experience just by putting myself out there,” James said as she recounted her experiences within Chi Sigma Iota and her department. “I wanted to do something impactful, leave a legacy here that we were able to help others in the community.”

Upon graduation, James hopes to complete the supervision hours required to attain her certification as a Licensed Professional Counselor and to continue serving her community by opening her own private practice.

Marywood's Department of Psychology and Counseling provides a wide range of programs designed to serve the varied interests and diverse professional orientations of our students. For over 50 years, the department has been involved in the training of psychologists, counselors, and other mental health professionals and has helped students to find their purpose and passion for careers in business, law, education, research, and community work. 

Chi Sigma Iota is the international honor society of professional counseling and counselors. Its mission is to promote scholarship, research, professionalism, leadership and excellence in counseling, and to recognize high attainment in the pursuit of academic and clinical excellence in the profession of counseling. Membership by invitation is open to all graduate counseling students who achieve high academic standards for two consecutive semesters.