Telehealth Transforms the Future of the Fresno Family Counseling Center

How the counseling center has overcome the challenges presented by the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic by performing online counseling services, remaining a priceless asset to the community. 

There were many anxious thoughts floating across the minds of the Fresno Family Counseling Center staff when the COVID-19 shutdown was announced. Countless tearful goodbyes were said in the warm, familiar halls of the center as a deep weight of dread and uncertainty settled over everyone. Their deeply-rooted passion to heal mental health and guide individuals back to a sense of wholeness was temporarily put on hold. 

For nearly three months the counseling center was shut down as it scrambled to convert everything to a digital format, causing a tremendous upheaval for both the staff and the students in the M.S. in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling program

Individuals, children, couples and families in the Central Valley rely on the counseling center for mental health services. In addition to Fresno State graduate students, who use the center as a training facility for highly structured and intensely supervised training to fulfill degree and licensure requirements.

The financial impact to the center was devastating as they were unable to accept online payment transactions during the initial stages of the shutdown. Even before the pandemic, the counseling center was already on a minimal budget due to their tremendously discounted session rates, allowing services to meet the needs of marginalized and underserved populations in the community.

Traditional private practice sessions normally range anywhere from $120-$250 an hour. The median payment that the Fresno Family Counseling Center receives is $20 per session, a figure that drops to $5 per session based on the financial status of the client.

The counseling center impacts a remarkably vast region of clients, stretching as far north as the Oregon border and as far south as the San Diego desert, amounting to 115,000 square miles worth of individuals who access their services from a range of 17 different counties in California. For over 35 years, the counseling center has addressed the mental health needs of countless individuals, making immense strides in the name of progress. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic posed numerous difficulties, the counseling center did not let these obstacles deter them. They adapted to the new environment by resuming sessions via Telehealth, an online counseling service. This new implementation increased their number of clients at a staggering rate. Convenience and accessibility were two main factors which manifested themselves with the advent of Telehealth. 

Dr. Christopher Lucey

Dr. Christopher Lucey, the director of the center who specializes in crisis intervention and a Fresno State professor, addresses some of the more beneficial aspects which have arisen thanks to Telehealth. 

“A positive that can be found in the conversion to Telehealth is that rural communities who have experienced a lack of access to mental health in the past, whether due to transportation issues or other isolation-related barriers, can now have their needs met via the internet,” said Lucey, beaming with pride. 

Telehealth has helped the counseling center broaden its geographic reach, especially in areas where mental health services are nonexistent. It offers a new level of convenience and accessibility, especially for those with busy schedules who find it difficult to set aside time for their mental health. It also provides peace of mind for those who struggle with extreme anxiety and for whom planning a long commute behind the wheel of a car would be detrimental. 

The M.S. in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling program has also found creative ways to acclimatize to the changing times. The State of California has allowed students to meet their licensure requirements for the Board of Behavioral Sciences through Telehealth due to the impact of the pandemic. There has been an increase in the amount of students enrolling in the program with the onset of online learning. Graduates of the program are highly sought after with nearly 100% of graduates finding employment within six months if they are actively looking for a job. The program is among only one of four accredited institutions in California that provide this specific type of training. 

Amber Hernandez

Amber Hernandez, a student in the Marriage, Family and Child Counseling graduate program, who will be graduating at the end of this semester, talks about her experience throughout the online conversion. 

“There were a lot of concerns going around with us students as to how we were going to accumulate our hours, how we we’re going to meet with clients, how COVID-19 was going to affect the quality of the services we we’re providing,” Amber explains, remembering back to the inception of the pandemic. 

“Our previous clinical director, Maira Martinez Hernandez, did an amazing job at facilitating everything for us through the training. Since we weren’t allowed to be at the office, she stayed there and held everything together. Dr. Lucey also played a huge part in making sure that the students were still able to accumulate their hours and access the support they needed.”

Through the counseling program, Hernandez has discovered her love of working with children. After initially entering graduate school, she had planned to focus primarily on Latinx families since she herself is both bilingual and first generation. However, she found an even deeper connection through seeing the level of rapport that can be built with children by observing how open and honest they become when they feel that they can trust someone. 

She describes how when one of her sessions was at an end, her child client was reluctant to leave because he was afraid of hurting her feelings. Hernandez explains how it is precious moments like these that feed her soul. 

“The Fresno Family Counseling Center has been a true blessing to my growth and to my graduate experience. I’ve always heard good things about the center, but now, being able to experience it first-hand and be trained by Dr. Lucey and many of the other wonderful therapists there has brought to life how much of an asset the Fresno Family Counseling Center really is, not only for Fresno State, but for the entire community,” said Hernandez. 

The expansion which the counseling center has undergone from its initial inception until now is tremendous in retrospect. When Lucey took over in 2006, the center was performing a total of 426 sessions a year. That number has now risen to over 45,000 in the last five years. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, or age, the individuals who attend sessions through the center show significant recorded improvement. Telehealth has only accelerated that improvement, allowing individuals to schedule sessions more frequently and from the comfort of their own home. 

The counseling program recently finished a site-visit with its national accrediting body; Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs and left a favorable testimonial regarding the counseling center:  

“The Fresno Family Counseling Center is a crown jewel not only for the MFCC program, but the department as a whole. From students to the CSU-Fresno’s President, the Fresno Family Counseling Center is seen as an exemplar of a community-based training center providing exceptional clinical services to the Fresno community. The center serves as a valued bridge between the university and the community.” 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a creative writing student in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development)

Internship Spotlight: Cristofer Araujo

Cristofer Araujo

Cristofer Araujo is currently interning both at the Fresno State Kremen School of Education and Human development, as well as at Fresno City College with the Dream Center, while also pursuing his masters in Student Affairs and College Counseling (SACC) which he will be receiving in spring of 2022. Cristofer’s internship at Kremen has prepared him in a variety of ways by allowing him to work directly with students, integrating what he has learned in the classroom into his academic sessions, as well as gaining the experience he’ll need when he finishes his master’s degree and begins searching for employment.

He has been learning new programs such as PeopleSoft and Bulldog Connect, while also gaining crucial social skills. He enjoys making students feel validated by acknowledging what the student needs in order to provide them with the full assistance they require to get back on track with their academics and find balance in all aspects of life. Providing friendly customer service to each of the students that he contacts is one of the specialized approaches that Cristofer has acquired during his internship. Making every meeting approachable by establishing professional student relationships is something he prides himself on. 

One of the highlights of his internship at Kremen is being able to network with other professionals in his field and feeling welcomed by the academic community as they continue to treat him as a true professional. One of his favorite memories while interning was the first day he walked into the office. The staff warmly embraced him and welcomed him onto their team, involving Cristofer in all of their events and allowing him to connect with each of the members.

While interning, he also learned more about organizations such as the Student Support Network, discovering the numerous tools they provide for students who struggle with time management, exam anxiety, while also offering ways a student can achieve balance in their life.

Cristofer has also acquired many interpersonal communication skills during his internship, learning in great detail all of the procedures that students must perform in order to reach a specific point in their academic career, such as which forms to fill out and how to do so. He is now able to explain topics more thoroughly and create new ways to interact with students who may have a difficult time understanding particular procedures. The overall tone of his internship at Kremen is friendly, professional, inclusive and inviting, allowing his natural talents to grow and develop. 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a Creative Writing student employed by the Kremen School of Education and Human Development .)

The Divergent Publication Award for Excellence in Literacy in a Digital Age Research

Dr. David Low and Dr. Earl Aguilera of the Kremen School of Education and Human Development at Fresno State, were both recently recognized as 2023 recipients of the Divergent Publication Award for Excellence in Literacy in a Digital Age Research. This award recognizes the most outstanding publications during the past two years that bring to the forefront the importance and impact of this work, given by the Initiative for Literacy in a Digital Age.

The Initiative for Literacy in a Digital Age, established in 2014, recognizes the importance of literacy in a digital age, those who diverge from traditional pedagogies and research approaches, and the indelible contributions of educators and scholars who have dedicated their careers to the theoretical and practical study of 21st century literacies. 

“We received a record number of nominees for the 2023 class. The educators, librarians, community organizers, college and career leaders, and students honored by this recognition are paving the way for equity, diversity, inclusivity, and access to texts and tools for all learners.”

Dr. Shelbie Witte, founding director of the Initiative.
Pedagogies: An International Journal (Taylor & Francis)

Dr. Low’s publication award is for a 2021 article titled “Youth Identities and Affinities on the Move: Using a Transliteracies Framework to Critique Digital Dichotomies,” which he co-authored with Sarah Rapp, a UCSC doctoral student and incoming faculty member at Sonoma State University. The article was published in Pedagogies: An International Journal (Taylor & Francis) and argues that oppositional framings of digitality do not adequately convey the creativity, permeability, messiness, and movement of youth literacies in practice. The authors used a transliteracies framework to examine youths’ textual production and identity mediation across physical and virtual domains, focusing on student participation in affinity spaces.

Dr. Aguilera’s publication award is for co-editing a Special Issue of Pedagogies: An International Journal titled “Critical Literacies in a Digital Age” in 2021 with Dr. Jessica Zacher Pandya, Dean of the School of Education at CSU Dominguez Hills. In this Special Issue, Drs. Aguilera and Pandya curated a number of research studies that together examined the resurgent social, political, cultural, and economic tension – in part facilitated by emerging information and communication technologies – which underscore the need to cultivate new forms of critical literacy in our digital age. Drs. Aguilera and Pandya framed their Special Issue around the following question:

In an educational context increasingly marked by volatility and uncertainty, but also connection and creative potential, in what ways might a focus on CDL inform pedagogical theory and practice?

Drs. Low and Aguilera, among other 2023 honorees, will be sharing their work as part of the Literacy in a Digital Age lecture series in April 2023.

Demonstrating Innovation in the Classroom

Kathleen Giannandrea is an instructional coach at Rosy High School in the Sanger Unified School District, where she has now held a position for over 26 years. She performed a 5 year stint for the Fresno County Office of Education, working with AVID, a program which imparted upon her many useful teaching skills. Giannandrea was fortunate to have multiple pathways which continuously brought her back to Fresno State. 

She transferred from College of The Sequoias with her associates degree before eventually earning her bachelor’s and obtaining her teaching credentials from Fresno State in 1994. After completing her work with the Fresno County Office of Education and returning to her teaching position at Rosy High School, Giannandrea discovered that her department was offering support for instructors who wanted to pursue master’s degrees. Fresno State had partnered with Giannandrea’s distinct, in the hopes of helping elementary, junior high, and High School teachers complete their higher education goals. The program allowed professors to travel to the office on campus and provide instruction there instead of forcing the busy teachers to commute all the way to Fresno State. In 2018, Giannandrea graduated with her master’s degree in education, with a reading language arts focus, after studying with the cohort for two and a half years. She was one of only seven High School teachers who were able to successfully complete the program. 

While pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Fresno State, Giannandrea was a full time employee at the Visalia Times Delta working 38 to 40 hours a week in a newspaper system while also commuting to Fresno on the daily. Struggling to balance all areas of her life, Giannandrea learned that if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it work. Her only remaining parent had passed shortly before she transferred from College of The Sequoias to Fresno State and she unfortunately was not able to navigate the financial aid system in place at the time, so instead, she paid out of pocket for her entire education. Giannandrea remembers the constant sleepless nights she would experience while working toward her first degree. She did not have the traditional college experience in the sense that she didn’t live in the dorms or attend student parties, something that Giannandrea is grateful for since she believes it fit her personality and allowed her to focus more on her studies. 

Giannandrea’s journey toward her master’s degree is even more vivid in her mind and came with its share of lessons, as well. One of the first things she learned is that expectations and beliefs held by professors in higher education are much different than those harbored by K-12th public education professionals. Giannandrea began learning about critical literacy concepts while also being taught inventive, research-based methods to capture the attention of students and encourage them to read and write in a real-world context. After coming back to Rosy High school, she found that it was exceptionally difficult to implement her learning since many of the faculty members were still so entrenched in the traditional methods of teaching that had been used since the late 1800’s. Giannandrea was slowly able to meld what she learned during her master’s program with her in-class curriculum, demonstrating new and innovative teaching methods to her other coworkers. Another lesson that Giannandrea learned is that research remains vital even after one has completed their education. She is currently the department chair and a full-time instructional coach for the English Language Arts department at Rosy High School. Giannandrea is part of a professional learning community where she asks what goals or learning outcomes parents have for their children and then researches ways to help her students connect more with their coursework. She participated in a project based on youth participatory action research where she helped students learn how to become competent researchers, both in the classroom and in their personal lives. 

Over the years, Giannandrea has won numerous awards and medals for her academic achievements, both as a student and as an educator, but the accomplishment which she is most proud of is her ability to aid other educators, something that her master’s degree helped come to fruition. Thanks to Fresno State and their creation of a remote master’s cohort program, Giannandrea was able to obtain a wealth of leadership experience which helped to prepare her for her position as an instructional leader. She learned the importance of documenting change, as well as how to develop systems to support student learning. Having mentors in the master’s program also benefited Giannandrea tremendously, since there were many instances when she came across a situation where she was uncertain how to proceed. She was fortunate to stay in touch with her professors, since whenever she encountered a predicament, Giannandrea would simply email them and receive a solution by the end of the day. Giannandrea is forever grateful for the relationships she built with her colleagues and the immense support she continues to receive from Fresno State. 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a Creative Writing student employed by the Kremen School of Education and Human Development .)

Honing One’s Craft: A Commitment to Education

In the fall of 2002, Jesus Renteria arrived at Fresno State after enrolling in a bachelor’s program for English education, with a double major in Chicano Latino studies. Renteria graduated in 2006 and then one year later, in 2007, obtained his teaching credentials. While at Fresno State, Renteria learned many valuable lessons such as how to communicate effectively and speak up for himself when he was confused about a project or an assignment. He learned to advocate for his own education and to make sure his academic needs were met. 

Something Renteria is most proud of is the fact that he was able to start teaching immediately after earning his credentials. He began instruction for the Hanford school district in 2007 and is now in his fifteenth year of teaching. Adapting to the role of a teacher has afforded Renteria many leadership opportunities such as being the ELD lead for the Reading Intervention program. He has also learned to work with several specific bodies of students and has adapted to the common core standards, being able to successfully apply them in his classroom. 

Fresno State aided Renteria in many ways along his journey, one of the biggest influences being the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project. He would constantly get emails to attend workshops that helped writers with their craft. In 2016, Renteria began regularly attending some of these workshops, something that helped him grow and flourish as a teacher. Once he became more involved, Renteria was invited to attend the San Joaquin Valley Writing Summer Institute. After completing the course in 2018, Renteria became part of the Writing Project at Fresno State and was able to connect with other educators from all over the country. He has been able to collaborate with them on different strategies for how to work with ELD students and also brainstorm varying methods to help students cope with the pandemic, inventing new ways to ease the transition to online learning. The Writing Project helped Renteria learn how to teach English in a way that is more accessible to students and more engaging, helping build his confidence as he gradually pursues more online workshops and Zoom book study programs. He is grateful for all the assistance the Kremen school has given to him and how they continue to support teachers of color, especially those who are first generation. 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a Creative Writing student employed by the Kremen School of Education and Human Development .)

Instilling Independence and Autonomy in the Next Generation

Shail Lopez-Ortiz is the current director of the Wayfinders program at the Kremen School of Education and Human Development. Her journey to Fresno State is a long and tumultuous one. In 1994, Ortiz and her husband moved to the United States from Johannesburg, South Africa. She had just completed her bachelor’s degree at the time she got married, and naturally, wanted to continue her education in the U.S. so her goal was to move to another large city that would provide her with the academic opportunities she needed. She was hoping that they would be able to secure a home in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, but instead, her husband found a job in Fresno. She was very disappointed because at the time, the Central Valley offered little in the way of metropolitan amenities and consisted mostly of dust and farming land. Upon hearing that Fresno offered a university, Ortiz felt a beacon of hope ignite her, excited at the prospect of continuing her studies. 

After reviewing Fresno State’s degree catalog and speaking with several academic advisors, Ortiz discovered that the university offered several degrees that she was interested in. With the help of college faculty, she was able to successfully enroll in a master’s program. The biggest lesson that Ortiz learned at Fresno State is that if you are willing to put in the hard work, if you show a positive attitude and have a good work ethic, then doors will automatically open up for you. Ortiz remembers that as an immigrant freshly transposed in American society, she did have to work exceptionally hard to learn the culture and the way that Americans conducted themselves, but having a positive attitude and a good personality paid off exceptionally well. She remembers several instructors coming up to her and offering internships and job opportunities in her field the first couple of semesters while she was at Fresno State. 

Ortiz’s journey since graduating has been very momentous and propelled by her goal-driven personality. Right after graduation, one of Ortiz’s instructors approached her, offering her a job at the Rehabilitation Counseling Evaluation Center, an organization that no longer exists at Fresno State. Within a few months of working, Ortiz was instantly promoted to the director of the program. Through that position, she was able to secure several contracts with Fresno County that allowed her program to start working with individuals on welfare. The name of the program became “Welfare to work”. Ortiz explains how certain parts of the program survived and are now being run by specific individuals almost twenty years later, something she is very proud of. Because of the leadership experience she garnered, Ortiz became a business owner shortly after and has been running multiple businesses for the past fifteen years. Concurrently, for the last nine years, Ortiz has also been running the Wayfinders program at Fresno State, a pilot-program that has been running on a four million dollar grant. They are the only program on a CSU campus that serves their specific clientele, however, Ortiz is leading a movement to inspire all CSU campuses to adopt a program similar to hers. 

Since starting her journey at Fresno State, Ortiz realized her passion for working with individuals with intellectual disabilities. After obtaining her Rehabilitation Counseling master’s degree, she never thought that she would be leading a program dedicated to helping the developmentally challenged live normal, healthy lives in society. Ortiz recommends Fresno State as the perfect college for those looking to find one-on-one help in a small, personal setting that focuses on their strengths and passions. Fresno State has offered Ortiz numerous opportunities throughout her career and continues to support the work she does to this day. 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a Creative Writing student employed by the Kremen School of Education and Human Development .)

From Hardship to Leadership: A Story of Success

Felipe Mercado is currently the coordinator for Clinical Practice as well as a professor in residence at the Madera Unified School District. One of the things that Mercado thinks about time and time again, is how accidental his ending up at Fresno State was. While in high school, Mercado was classified as homeless and went to juvenile hall multiple times, before dropping out of school altogether for approximately three years. When he arrived at community college, he had the drive to learn, but still struggled as a student. Two and a half years into his general education degree, he got called into the student counselors office and asked if he had ever considered transferring his credits to a four-year university. In the back of his mind he had always considered the option but never felt that he had the skills or potential to be accepted at a university. This accidental experience of trying to be a good student is what led him to enroll in Fresno State, after he realized he had all the qualifications they were looking for. 

One of the most valuable lessons Mercado learned while at Fresno State was to look inside himself, at who he truly was as a person. When he initially arrived as a student, he realized that he harbored a lot of biases and insecurities, such as “I don’t think my industry is going to like me”, or “I don’t think I’ll fit in with these groups of people”. After studying for a semester or so, however, Mercado realized that he needed connections and relationships to thrive. Once he put his biases aside, he began to become more open with people, and slowly started to build those connections he was looking for. 

Mercado’s first major accomplishment since immersing himself with the Fresno State community was graduating with his Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree and eventually, Doctorate degree. During his Master’s program, Mercado struggled to support his child using Section Eight housing since he had not been able to build a credit score at the time. After graduating with his Master’s, his life improved drastically, as he was able to obtain health insurance and start building a credit score. He went into social work for quite a while after graduating, and during that time, his brother was murdered at gunpoint. This tragic life experience encouraged him to make something more of his life, and so he went back to school to attain his Doctorate, applying the wisdom and life experiences he had accumulated toward his education. Since attaining his third degree, he has filled the role as counselor, vice-principal, principal and now coordinator. He is grateful that Fresno State has provided him with a platform to grow and feels that his position as a coordinator has really helped him mentor students and allow them to reach their full potential. 

Fresno State has helped Mercado obtain his current position by providing immense support and providing him with individuals who were there for him every step of the way. Whenever he needed assistance with research or creating a difficult project, there was always a staff member available to help guide the process. He feels that Kremen and Fresno State in general helped uncover his true passions and brought out his excitement through the world of education. He doesn’t feel that he would have formed his level of advocacy and expertise without their continuous support. 

(Written by Audra Burwell, a Creative Writing student employed by the Kremen School of Education and Human Development .)