Emily Merton says her high school counselor in Jacksonville was the kind of dedicated professional who ensured students didn’t fall through the cracks. It was a Title I school, and many of her classmates were economically disadvantaged. If they went to college, they would likely be the first in their families to do so, says the Florida Gulf Coast University graduate student and swimming and diving team member.
“She was amazing,” Merton recalls. “She made sure people had opportunities and applied for college. She really inspired me to help others.”
That positive example is part of the reason Merton decided years ago she wanted to become a school counselor and is now pursuing a master’s in counseling at FGCU. On the negative side, she says that “amazing” high school counselor followed “not-so-great experiences” with elementary and middle school counselors.
By the time she was in third grade, Merton says, her mother recognized signs of attention deficit disorder in her daughter and sought help in the school system. Some of her teachers recognized it, too. But because Merton was doing relatively well academically, her counselor didn’t see the need for extra assistance, she says.
“We weren’t finding the help we needed,” she says. “Going through that horrible experience at a really young age was eye opening. I saw what a difference good counseling can make.”
Passionate about mental health
Collegiate athletics requires dedication and discipline to stay afloat while balancing long hours of practice and travel with internships and increasingly challenging coursework.
The drive Merton demonstrates in achieving a 4.0 GPA despite all her commitments parallels the passion she feels about becoming the kind of counselor her high school counselor was.
“We need to make school counseling better and help people understand what we do more,” she says. “I’m passionate about mental health and reaching a wider audience, helping people understand what school counseling is.”
Part of it is counseling special populations, a recent course still rippling in Merton’s mind as she chats enthusiastically about her chosen field and topics such as diversity and inclusivity. A project for the class involved cultural immersion. Merton paired up with a Filipino American peer, and they compared life experiences growing up.
“I’m mixed racially, and he was mixed culturally,” Merton says. “We both struggled a bit to find a way to fit in and identify. Everyone has different struggles. Working toward accepting all cultures and celebrating everyone and everywhere people come from is important for mental health.”
Shortage of counselors
School counselors typically choose psychology or early childhood development for their undergraduate degrees, Merton says. She chose communication with a political science minor instead for a strategic reason. She believes knowledge of public relations and how government and public policy play into school systems will help her spread awareness of the need for more and better counselors and mental health services in schools.
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor to 250 students, but only 14% of U.S. districts met that standard in the 2020-21 school year, according to a report published last year in the newspaper Education Week. Merton says she has seen ratios as high as 1 to 500 or 1 to 600 in schools she has researched.
“We have many conversations in class about how there’s such a need for school counselors,” she says.
Merton has seen the need firsthand. During an undergraduate internship, she researched awareness and perceptions of counseling and mental health services among Duval County Public Schools students. She listened to focus groups and learned many students didn’t know who their school counselors were or how they could help them. Merton developed a program and strategies to increase awareness about the mental health resources available in each district school.
Living her faith
As a graduate assistant in FGCU’s Prevention & Wellness Services, Merton has helped educate peers in emotional, social, financial, physical, spiritual and other forms of health. This year, in addition to counseling field work in area schools, she will serve as a wellness coach helping other FGCU students set goals and achieve wellness in whatever health area they choose.
Merton’s pursuit of spiritual well-being led her to the Gulf Coast Wesley Foundation at FGCU, a mission of the United Methodist Church. Its pastor, Christine Holden, also teaches courses on contemplative practices and spirituality as an adjunct. The two have collaborated on spirituality themed programming and training for peer educators on spiritual topics.
“Emily is so committed to using the skills and talents she has to make the world a more loving and generous place,” Holden says. “I really love that she lives her faith in an integrated way – it’s not just a Sunday thing. She’s always looking for pathways to use what she’s learning for the sake of making the world better and not just for her own end.
“She is a poster child for what I hope the university wants to produce in its students.”
FGCU Basketball stars still shine in the off-season! Last week, 100 Boys and Girls Club kids were led by Coaches Pat Chambers and Karl Smesko and taught drills by players as part of a summer program. Read more below! 🏀🦅 #WingsUp #FGCUBasketball #DunkCity https://t.co/LXLWk3oSDX— Florida Gulf Coast University (@fgcu) July 27, 2023