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)

From award-winning dissertation to impacting future school counselors

Johnny Phongsavath remembers walking the halls of the Fresno State Education Building in 2019, on the path to completing a graduate degree in school counseling. One of his courses that semester was “COUN 242: Seminar on Parent Education, Pupil Advocacy and Consulting,” taught by assistant professor Dr. Dominiqua Griffin. The course, Phongsavath said, opened his eyes to the importance of working with students, parents and their community.

That is exactly what Griffin hopes for. “The course goes over formal ways to engage in consultation, specifically as a school counselor,” she said. “Students also learn how to provide indirect services and partner with families or other stakeholders in the community.”

Award-Winning Dissertation

Griffin’s approach to counseling was refined in Barbados while working on her dissertation and interacting with local school counselors for nearly a year. She immersed herself in the schools across the island, with research focusing on school counseling services and understanding the role of the school counselor. 

In Barbados, 97% of the people are of African descent and it was colonized by the British until the 1960s. Griffin learned that counseling needed to be decolonized and the narrative of school counselors needed to be prioritized and centered. 

“As a result of privileging Western values and practices, school counselors’ partnerships with families, especially with poor families, focus on parent cooperation and discipline, rather than on mutuality and empowerment of parents,” said Dr. Julia Green Bryan, professor at The Pennsylvania State University and Griffin’s dissertation chair.

Griffin found that school-family-community partnerships are central aspects of Barbados school counseling and that data could help influence policy regarding counseling services for K-12 and university settings.

She obtained a Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision, with a dual title in comparative and international education, from The Pennsylvania State University. During her doctoral studies, she published a dissertation on “An Investigation of School Counseling Roles, Practices, Challenges, and Demands in Barbados: A Comparative Analysis of School Counseling Programs in Barbados.”

Her dissertation was published in 2019. This year, Griffin won the Outstanding Dissertation of the Year Award from the American Educational Research Association’s Family, School, Community Partnerships Special Interest Group. She said she was shocked when she read that she received the award from such a competitive submission pool. 

“(Griffin’s) work provided an exemplary model as it identified important factors that influence school counseling in an international context,” stated Dr. Kayon Morgan, award committee representative and assistant professor at the University of Hartford. “(Her) presentation of an ethnographic approach is nuanced and creative thereby offering significant findings for family, school, and community partnerships.”

Putting Research into Practice

Griffin said her dissertation taught her the importance of networking and capacity building. “As school counselors, we might think we are just operating by ourselves and not realize that we can reach out to the next counselor or ask for support from partners around us.” 

She teaches in Fresno State’s Counselor Education and Rehabilitation department and uses findings from her dissertation in the classroom.

“Professor Griffin taught me to reach out, not only to the student but to work with community members, parents, grandparents, teachers or whoever may be in the student’s life, and give them a voice,” said Phongsavath.

He graduated in fall 2019 with a Master’s degree in School Counseling and a Pupil Personnel Services credential. Now he is an intervention counselor at Redwood High School in Visalia and counsels 25 to 40 students a week. On a daily basis, he endeavors to help students make positive changes, whether with grades, behavior in the classroom or dealing with issues at home. 

When Griffin works with her students, she emphasizes that it’s the connections that are most important. 

“You can know the theory, but once it meets practice it looks very different,” said Griffin. “I want students to know that they can use data to advocate and to make sure they really listen to the clients and to the families as well. I want students to leave the school counseling program feeling like they can be agents of change in their communities.”

2021 Emerging Scholar – Dr. Soua Xiong

Congratulations to Dr. Soua Xiong, assistant professor in the department of Counselor Education and Rehabilitation, for being named a 2021 Emerging Scholar in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Below is a feature of Xiong that has been published in the January 2021 issue of Diverse magazine.

Written by: Sarah Wood, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education

As a child of Vietnam War refugees, Dr. Soua Xiong always wanted to make his parents proud. To do so, he sought the route of higher education in hopes of being able to financially support his family.

“[Attending college meant] that all of their sacrifices to get us here were not just for nothing,” says Xiong, assistant professor in the student affairs and college counseling program at California State University, Fresno.

Being a first-generation college student, he relied on TRIO and other federally funded programs to finish his degree.

Therefore, upon graduation, Xiong became an outreach recruiter for the College Assistance Migrant Program at Fresno State. He aimed to “pay it forward” by remaining involved in the assistance programs that had previously benefited him.

Xiong went on to serve in various academic advising and counseling positions for TRIO programs, where he worked with both high school and community college students intending to further their education.

“It has been very gratifying to see and be able to support students along their academic journey,” he says.

After 10 years in student affairs, Xiong shifted his focus to research while completing a master’s degree at Fresno State and doctorate at Claremont Graduate University joint with San Diego State University.

His ongoing research has focused on student success, engagement of male students of color and support services for underserved students and community colleges.

“My research helps to reframe and better understand the conditions that are needed in order for students to utilize the services that we claim that we have on campus,” says Xiong. “If students are not aware of it, how do we as an institution or as practitioners focus on access to information and so forth?”

Remaining close to his alma mater Fresno State, Xiong became an assistant professor in 2018. A year later, he was also named coordinator of the university’s Student Affairs and College Counseling Program.

“I love the opportunity to work directly with our students to create the change that we collectively would like to see in the program,” says Xiong.

Dr. J. Luke Wood, associate vice president for faculty diversity and inclusion and distinguished professor of education at San Diego State University, described Xiong as one of the most “hardworking, driven and passionate” people he has ever met.

“His level of impact at such an early stage in his career is really not comparable to most others in the field …,” he adds. “To see him go off to Fresno State and get a tenure-track position. And continue to do the work, even though he has an incredibly high responsibility load in terms of teaching and administrative work. Very proud of him. Very proud of the work he has done.”

Throughout his career, Xiong has participated in several fellowship programs and was the past-president of the California College Personnel Association, the California chapter of ACPA-College Student Educators International.

He has also received a number of accolades including the Hsiao-Min Wang Award at Claremont Graduate University and the Outstanding Dedication to Professional Service Award from the American College Personnel Association Coalition for Graduate Students and New Professionals.

As a Hmong faculty member, Xiong hopes to be a “role model” and “inspiration” for other underrepresented individuals or students aspiring to work at a college or university. “Oftentimes, we do not see, especially in the academy, faculty who may look like us or share similar backgrounds to us,” he says. “But there are some that are continuing to pave the way and that it is possible, even though it might seem like a long career trajectory and pathway to get to it.”

Nancy Cheng receives CCPA outstanding graduate student award

Man Sze (Nancy) Cheng is said to be able to command a room with grace. Students describe meeting her as a valuable experience that leaves them feeling empowered. For the Student Affairs and College Counseling graduate program, she is an ambassador who goes above and beyond.

It’s no surprise Cheng was chosen for the Outstanding Graduate Student award from the California College Personnel Association, a state chapter of ACPA — College Student Educators International, one of the largest student affairs professional associations in the world.

Cheng, a Hong Kong native, has positively impacted the field of student affairs at Fresno State and across California. However, she isn’t the only Fresno State student to earn recognition. Cheng and her classmate, Jose Medina III, have both been appointed to the California College Personnel Association executive leadership team as graduate representatives for 2021. In this role, they will support students across the state and increase the visibility of student affairs professionals and the role they play in higher education. “Nancy and Jose are two of our amazing student leaders within the Student Affairs and College Counseling program,” said Dr. Soua Xiong, assistant professor and program coordinator.

The organization has also awarded Xiong with the Outstanding Service to the Association award for his active participation and contributions. He is a past president of the organization and has held several other leadership roles. With more than 15 years of higher education experience as a student affairs practitioner, researcher and faculty member, his service and leadership in the student affairs profession have elevated Fresno State’s program to new heights.

Xiong became coordinator of the program in fall 2019. Since then he has created a cohort model for students with specialized coursework and helped establish a graduate student association. He further supports his students with their scholarly activities, mentoring and collaborating with them on publications, conference presentations and any assistance needed with service in professional associations. Graduating about 30 students annually, Xiong keeps busy focused on his students’ needs.

Student affairs isn’t necessarily a profession that many grow up knowing about — they usually gain awareness through personal experience. That is what happened for Cheng.

“In high school, I didn’t get the guidance I needed, and I don’t want other students to be in a similar situation,” she said.

Before Cheng came to Fresno State, she could recall multiple times when she was misguided by education professionals and how this negatively impacted her. “If I get to be in a position where other students are depending on me, I will be more hands-on.”

And that is exactly what she is doing.

Cheng enrolled in the M.S. in Counseling option in fall 2019. The program provides students with academic preparation and training to effectively address the academic, career and personal counseling needs of college students. “When I found out the program was person-centered, it got my attention,” she said.

Currently serving as president of the program’s graduate student association, Cheng advocates for the program to potential students, hosts virtual mixers allowing students to engage in team-building activities and is working on collecting data for the program’s alumni campaign.

One of her most impactful projects has been hosting the program’s first comprehensive exam review, an exam students must pass before graduating. She heard there was a need for a review that consisted of more than flashcards and study groups. So she created a hands-on review, which includes a vignette run of the exam, to better prepare these soon-to-be grads.

One of Cheng’s award nominators stated that she demonstrates outstanding contributions to the student affairs profession and always fulfills the goals she sets for herself. Cheng’s next goal is to earn her doctorate so one day she can counsel and educate others.

To learn more about the Student Affairs and College Counseling program, visit: The application deadline for fall 2021 enrollment is March 1.

Faculty Support Efforts to Better Understand the Hmong College Student Experience

Fresno State is a campus full of diversity. As an HSI and AANAPISI institution, the campus prides itself on inclusion with the mission to boldly educate and empower students for success.

Dr. Soua Xiong

Dr. Soua Xiong is dedicated to just that. As an assistant professor in the department of Counselor Education and Rehabilitation, his research focuses on institutional practices that contribute to positive outcomes for historically underrepresented and underserved student populations in higher education, particularly Hmong students.

Xiong is passionate about how Fresno State and the Kremen School of Education and Human Development can further support this population. With over 1,300 Hmong students enrolled this fall, 135 in the Kremen School, Xiong has been actively engaged in efforts to advance our understanding of the experiences and needs of Hmong students at Fresno State.

He contributed to the report, “The Role of Institutional Data: A Focus on Hmong American Student Success”. The report focused on how institutional research and data can be used to better understand Hmong student experiences and outcomes at Fresno State.

Following the release of this report, Xiong moderated a panel discussion on Advancing Student Success in Their Own Words: Insights and Reflections from Hmong Students. This event was in collaboration with the Asian Pacific Islander Programs and Services of the Cross Cultural and Gender Center at Fresno State.

Hmong students are engaged in many events across campus. Just last week, Xiong moderated a discussion focused on Navigating Higher Education: The Hmong Women’s Perspective. The event was comprised of three panelists, Mai See Vang, Lisa Vang, and Pa Vang, all Hmong women enrolled in the Student Affairs and College Counseling graduate program. The event was attended by more than 40 Fresno State faculty, staff, students, and community members.

”The purpose of bringing these panels together was to provide Hmong students an opportunity to share their lived experiences, unique challenges, and recommendations on how Fresno State can better support them,” said Xiong.

It is events like these that help to amplify and elevate the voices of Hmong students so that their needs can be heard and addressed.

Along with being graduate students, the three panelists are also research assistants for the Xiong Research Group. He created a team of students to help increase research that informs how we work with Hmong students. They are currently engaged in a study to identify practices from multiple perspectives (e.g., student, staff, faculty) that have been effective in serving Hmong students. Xiong aims to use this research to build the capacity of Fresno State faculty, staff, and educators at other higher education institutions in supporting Hmong students.

Professor dedicates career to advocating for people ‘on the outside’

Dr. Jenelle Pitt remembers sitting with her classmates one day in high school as everyone shared news about which colleges they had applied or been accepted to. She was in AP English at the time, and she proudly announced she had been accepted to the University of California, Berkeley. But just as her moment of pride began, she said, one of her peers responded, “Oh, they are just trying to fill their quota.”

That moment stuck with Pitt, whose parents were born in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, a southern island in the Caribbean. Pitt and her brother were born in Toronto, Canada before the family moved to Los Angeles when she was 3 years old.

Today, Pitt is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counselor Education and Rehabilitation at Fresno State. She has dedicated her career and personal time to advocating for people “on the outside.”

Pitt said she has spent her life navigating the challenges of being on the outside. Still, she thrived academically from a young age and went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Riverside and her master’s in rehabilitation counseling and Ph.D. in rehabilitation counselor education from Michigan State University.

At Fresno State, Pitt works with students who want to be counselors of all sorts — school/college counselors; marriage, child and family counselors; and rehabilitation and mental health counselors. She helps students understand how to assist individuals with disabilities and understand issues related to development, abuse and identity.

“With rehabilitation counseling, it is very much about people who are different, and this push against what is ‘normal,’ what might be considered abnormal,” Pitt said. “And as you layer on different social identities, disabilities, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and language, you might very quickly find yourself on the outside.”

Advocating in Fresno

Pitt has served on the City of Fresno’s Disability Advisory Commission since 2010, applying her knowledge and expertise in areas that directly impact the community.

The commission reports directly to the mayor of Fresno and provides recommendations and advice on city policies and procedures. “There are a lot of places in Fresno where the infrastructure isn’t where it needs to be,” Pitt said. “There have been a lot of opportunities to give input prior to things rolling out, like with the FresGo app, reconstruction with the Fresno airport and service animal areas.”

Pitt has served as chair, vice chair and now as commissioner, providing over a decade of service to the community.

“The disability community is already very intersectional, you have youth with disabilities, adults with disabilities, seniors with disabilities. Everybody is coming to the community with a specific race or ethnicity, so it really is an intersection,” Pitt said. “I feel that when I am advocating, it’s not just for the disability community but it’s an intersection of difference that tends to be oftentimes marginalized.”

Pitt also serves on the Fresno Unified School District African American Academic Acceleration Task Force. The task force works to find solutions on how to accelerate academic improvements for African American students.

Last year, the task force found that Fresno Unified’s African American students were in a state of emergency and called for immediate action. The African American suspension rate was twice as high as other student groups, test scores were not accelerating at the pace of other students, and the task force found issues in the district culture. For Pitt, this hit home. At the time, her 7-year-old son was enrolled in a Fresno Unified school.

“All children need to have access to quality features and to have opportunities and access to high levels of preparation,” Pitt said.

‘Things That Matter’

Earlier this year, Pitt received an email informing her that the Central California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce were awarding her with the Things That Matter award. Not knowing she had been nominated, Pitt was shocked.

The award recognizes outstanding business professionals who exemplify mastery, leadership and knowledge. “Your commitment to the community and selflessness both in your profession and in your contributions to the community have proven this,” said Tara Lynn Gray, president and CEO of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce.

Supporting Students

Along with being an associate professor, chair of a department, city commissioner, task force member and a mother, she still finds time to support Fresno State students outside of the classroom.

Pitt partners with the Fresno State Services for Students with Disabilities office and helps students find resources to assist them with their educational journey. She is able to apply her knowledge to situations and follows up with students at different stages of their journeys.

However, students don’t have to have a disability for Pitt to help guide them down the right path.

“I think about a lot of the students I’ve had the opportunity to advise, where they identify as black, Latino/Latina, Hmong, and just everything they are doing to make it to campus, to show up to class,” Pitt said. “It might not be that they have a disability or they have a diagnosis, but they need space to process. So being able to connect them with the Student Health and Counseling Center, maybe they just need someone to listen, someone to come up with some strategies when they go back home.”

Pitt has had to navigate different spaces from childhood to now and she echoes how important it is to have support. Pitt states that she is “passionate about things being different, period.”

Mother Decides to Author Bilingual Children’s Book to Fill Void

(Written by: Phylisha Chaidez, media, communications and journalism student)

Many mothers read to their young children — Perla Solorio writes for hers as well.

Combining her job as a school counselor, her role as a mother and her admiration for the Spanish language, Solorio created her company, Libros For Small Hands. The company focuses on promoting early biliteracy, increasing parent engagement and fostering college readiness for young children.

“I loved reading books, but I never thought I’d be writing a book,” Solorio said.

libros-181x177She wanted to pay homage to Fresno State and showcase her love for the University in her first book, “Fresno State: First Words/Primeras Palabras,” which was released in October. This book is the first installment in a series of bilingual, college readiness children’s books Solorio plans to release. The book takes readers on a tour of the Fresno State campus using introductory words.

“I thought it would be very special for me to create something that is personalized with Fresno State, like taking a tour of different areas here on the campus,” Solorio said. “Sometimes we don’t start talking to our kids about the University or college until high school or junior high. It could be early as ages 0 to 3. We can get really creative about it.”

Growing up, Solorio always strived for her best and was academically driven. She recalled when she was younger she would grow impatient on the weekends or holidays wanting school to start again.

“I’d be that student that I’d come home and do my homework, you know, read in my spare time,” Solorio said. “I’ve always loved school.”

As the second oldest sibling in a family of nine and a first-generation college graduate, Solorio did not initially know the proper steps to access higher education. She didn’t know the first thing about applying for college or how her family was going to be able to afford it.

“It was a little scary because financially I was like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to pay for college. Maybe we’re going to get to this point, but how are we going to pay for it?’” Solorio said.

Solorio credits her counselor at Avenal High School for helping her navigate the college application process, as well as the scholarships she received at Fresno State. Her counselor inspired her so much that she wanted to go into the counseling profession.

Solorio earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s in school counseling from Fresno State. She described the professors and her fellow colleagues in her cohort as her family. “It really just goes beyond going to school, getting your degree and leaving. It really was a place I can call home,” she said.

Solorio is now counseling at the same middle school she graduated from, helping students who are in the same shoes she once wore. “I went through the same classrooms or hallways and being able to be an advocate for them, as well, that’s very powerful and very meaningful to be there with our community,” Solorio said.

While reading stories to her 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son, Solorio discovered the lack of availability in bilingual children’s books and decided to create her own.

After a two-year process of creating Libros For Small Hands, Solorio first book is beginning to impact the community. The book prompted some parents she knows of to take their families on a physical tour of the campus.

“Families have allowed us into their home,” Solorio said. “That’s really neat to be able to connect, not only with the reading but bringing them to the actual campus and getting a feel of being here at Fresno State that has been pretty awesome to see.”

Solorio’s daughter gets excited every time they visit the campus. “Hearing my daughter say, ‘Mom, can we read? Podemos leer, Fresno State?’ I never imagined my little 3-year old speaking higher ed.,” Solorio said.