Just knowing that one’s problems are not unique and having the feeling that “we are all in this together” can help students feel more at ease about their life challenges. This is one of the reasons that we decided to pilot a group career counseling program at Career Services at The Pennsylvania State University. Despite the proven benefits of group counseling, many career development practitioners are hesitant to implement group counseling as a strategy with students. It is not uncommon for counselors to doubt their ability to facilitate groups or to be hindered by the planning efforts that successful groups require. Yet the benefits of group counseling can be worth the effort required. In addition to the relief that students experience in realizing they are not alone in their challenges, students have the opportunity to learn from each other and to gain feedback and encouragement from their peers. Students also find that by helping others in group, their own worries feel lighter.
After examining some of the common challenges students brought into our center, we chose to begin with two groups: 1) a career exploration group for students who were confused about what they wanted to do in life, and 2) a group for international students who were job searching and having trouble navigating U.S. culture. We agreed that the ideal group size would be 5-8 students and that each group would have two co-leaders, as two heads are better than one and make running a group more fun.
Deciding how we should obtain our group members was our next challenge. Should we advertise? Seek referrals from advisers? We chose to experiment with a model that is used frequently in university counseling centers, which is to offer group as an alternative to students who would have otherwise been referred for individual career counseling. Since we had a number of different individuals providing drop-in counseling and referral, our next step was to educate our drop-in counselors about the groups being offered. The co-leaders of each group developed a short description to share with drop-in counselors that we posted in our drop-in office. We also took time during a staff meeting to explain the groups to the counselors and to role-play how one might go about introducing the idea of a career counseling group to a student.
After a student was introduced to the group concept, a half-hour “group orientation” appointment was scheduled. During this time, the co-leaders became acquainted with the student, entertained questions about group, discussed expectations of group members, and shared the projected start date. To prevent students from dropping out while the group was being formed, we checked in with potential members periodically.
Illustration: Career Exploration Group
The first session of any group is perhaps the most important because it sets the tone and expectations for the group. During the first session of our Career Exploration Group, members introduced themselves, shared challenges and goals, and engaged in brainstorming and solidifying group rules, which included such things as confidentiality, not judging others, and being on time for group meetings. We then involved the group in a structured activity in which they completed a values worksheet, identified their five most important values, and then shared these with each other. This helped to begin the process of building trust and cohesion in the group. During the following weeks we engaged group members in a combination of structured exercises including completing formal assessments (Strong Interest Inventory, MBTI) and discussing results, learning about informational interviewing, visiting our career library, and informal discussion in which group members shared their stories, their hopes and their fears, and offered each other supportive and constructive feedback. At the request of the members, our last (7th) session was a pizza party during which they summarized what they had learned in group and where they were all headed in their career journeys. We also asked students to complete evaluations of the group.
Overall, we found our initial attempt at a “group career counseling program” to be a success. Students seemed to benefit a great deal from being a group member. Feedback we received included the following comments:
I was surprised by the atmosphere of the group setting. It was a great place to share ideas and get constructive feedback;
Definitely would do again over single counseling. Helped me to clarify my interests and goals;
I was skeptical about the group counseling session because I didn’t know what to expect. I loved the feedback from other students and hearing about other experiences.
The common theme we found was that people were often skeptical about group at first, but ended up being very pleasantly surprised about how helpful group can be. While overall we were pleased with our initial groups, we realized that our efforts, like any career, are a continuing journey. An ongoing challenge will be to continue to build staff confidence and skills in group facilitation. It will also be important to continue to build skills in educating students about and preparing them for group, as we have found that this makes a great difference in how committed students are to the group. While embarking on a groups program can seem somewhat daunting initially, we found that taking small steps and allowing ourselves to learn and grow through the process was helpful. Great benefits can emerge from the power of groups.
Nancy K. Farber, Ph.D., is the former Associate Director of Career Counseling & Planning at The Pennsylvania State University. She has also served as an Associate Professor of Counseling at Eastern Illinois University and has worked as a psychologist and school counselor in universities, community mental health settings, and K-12 schools. She can be reached currently at firstname.lastname@example.org