Dr. Clare Merlin-Knoblich associate professor at Charlotte, Department of Counseling, has been named the North Carolina School Counselor Association (NCSCA) Counselor Educator of the Year!

Dr. Merlin-Knoblich was honored and presented with her award at the NCSCA opening conference meeting on November 9th at the Embassy Suites Convention Center in Concord. The award recognizes a counselor educator for outstanding accomplishments in teaching, mentoring and advising, which has prepared individuals for careers as effective school counseling professionals.

Dr. Merlin-Knoblich joined UNC Charlotte’s Department of Counseling in 2015. She currently serves as Director of the Master’s in Counseling Program, as well as Director of the Post-Master’s Certificate in School Counseling. She enjoys teaching Master’s school counseling courses, core counseling courses, and doctoral  internships.

Counseling professor Dania Fakhro remembers her neighbors in Syria wearing the keys to the homes they had been forced to flee around their necks. They were people displaced by conflict with roots common to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war that today leaves buildings in rubble and thousands dead. Born and raised in Syria, Fakhro witnessed refugees from the region arrive in her home country in droves seeking safety as gunshots and explosions echoed in the streets of their own many miles away. The keys they wore served as symbols of loss and hope.

“Even then I asked myself ‘What is it like to be in a different place while keeping all the memories from your country at the same time you’re just trying to live and be active in your new society?’” she said. “It really affected me to hear the stories: people witnessing the torture of family members and many other traumas. It was so much at first. There was a part of me that wanted to be the helper. At the same time, I was as confused as they were.”

Leaving home

Armed conflict arrived on Fakhro’s doorstep in 2011 when years of unrest in Syria cascaded into civil war as uprisings materialized across the Middle East in what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

“I became a refugee myself, and I witnessed many of the things that I heard about. I lost close family members and friends. I remembered all the stories that I heard before. And I found it even more complicated than I had thought,” she said.

Fakhro was forced to search for a new home. With nowhere to go, she sought safety in countries across the world, struggling to find a place to settle and finally moving to the United States in 2015.

Clearing new paths

After arriving in the United States equipped with knowledge gained from her personal experiences and a blooming passion for helping others, Fakhro completed a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Rollins College 2020 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision from the University of Central Florida.

She moved to Charlotte in August to join the UNC Charlotte Department of Counseling and is seeking connections with individuals, nonprofit organizations and providers across the city.

Throughout her time working with refugees and counselors, Fakhro has observed a disconnect that often emerges from a combination of refugees’ high levels of complex trauma and their experiences with political oppression. She recalls hearing counselors label refugees as “resistant” or “uncooperative.” But she knew there was more to the story.

“In American culture, therapists will often ask their clients something like: ‘How do you feel?’ Refugees can be suspicious of even this and it can be met with silence or superficial answers,” Fakhro said. “Where people are coming from, you might be killed for just saying your opinions. They want to know who you are as a counselor first. They want to know that you are not saying what they are saying to the government, and they won’t be persecuted.”

Rather than double-down on therapeutic approaches that aren’t connecting or simply concluding a person is unreachable, Fakhro encourages mental health professionals to focus on establishing trust and exploring strategies tailored to the population.

Read the entire story on the Cato College of Education website.

The Association of Counseling Education and Supervision has recognized the UNC Charlotte counseling master’s program with the Robert Frank Outstanding Counselor Education Program Award for its excellence in standards and innovation. The national award is given to one master’s and one doctoral program annually. The UNC Charlotte counseling doctoral program received the award in 2021.

“We pride ourselves on approaching counselor training by putting students first,” said Professor Sejal Foxx, chair of the Department of Counseling. “Faculty members understand the importance of that, and consider the well-being of our individual students with as much care as we do crafting the lessons we share in the classroom.”

The department’s commitment to multiculturalism in counseling is one of its hallmarks, and is expressed in a variety of ways. The master’s program offers a course directly focused on skills connected to multiculturalism, which are also incorporated across the curriculum. The UNC Charlotte counseling master’s program is unlike many others in its movement away from the cohort model of instruction, creating flexibility and pathways to graduation for students who work full-time or have family responsibilities. The program uses data to inform admissions practices, which supports a holistic approach that promotes diversity among its students. In 2022, 35% of master’s students were from racial and ethnic minoritized groups.

“Charlotte’s counseling master’s program is more than 50 years old, but it continues to evolve with strong faculty and engaged students,” said Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director Clare Merlin-Knoblich. “It is exciting to see how the program continues to thrive and that our innovation comes from both faculty and students, who often challenge the status quo in meaningful ways.”

Faculty members from the counseling master’s program have served as chair and vice chair of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs Board of Directors; editor of International Association of Addictions and Offender Counselors; co-editor of the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision Teaching Practice Briefs; and editorial Board Members for the Journal of Counseling and Development, the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, Counselor Education and Supervision and the Journal of Humanistic Counseling.

UNC Charlotte’s chapter of Chi Sigma Iota, the international academic honor society for counseling, is also highly engaged with the profession. Over the past 15 years, the chapter has been recognized for Outstanding Chapter, Individual Program, Entry-Level Student, and Practitioner Supervisor. Counseling students work directly within the community to create access to high-quality mental health services for thousands of people in need.

The counseling master’s program offers degrees in three specialty areas: clinical mental healthschool counseling and addictions.

The Outstanding Counselor Education Program Award was presented at the national Association for Counselor Education and Supervision conference in Denver, Colorado.