Dr. Gary Peterson is the Director of Graduate Counseling and Graduate Education at Concordia University.

He brings thirty-six years of public school experience to our Graduate Education programs and unique perspective on education. We sat down with Gary to get a better understanding of his background, what being a counseling student at Concordia is like and what opportunities there are for prospective students. You can watch a video summary of our conversation or read the full transcript below.

My name is Gary Peterson, I’m the director of graduate counseling and graduate education at Concordia University.


Q: What is your academic background?

A:I have my bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s degree in educational psychology, a special certificate in administrative leadership, and my doctorate in education.


Q: What brought you to Concordia?

A: I think the key thing was an opportunity to share some of my gifts.  I have a number of years experience as an administrator in a school system, as well as a counseling background. I had retired from thirty-six years in public schools, and someone contacted me regarding the position; when I talked with them it appeared to be a good match in terms of my interests, strengths, and gifts that I been given by God.


Q: What kinds of students attend Concordia?

A: Well, we have a number of students in our program who are really committed to service; they want to make a difference in the lives of the clients and/or students, and families that they serve. They come with that passion, you can hear it in their voice, you can hear it in the questions that they ask in the classroom. They have a strong focus on service and fulfilling the mission. Really what Concordia is all about is service. Many of them come with a Christian background and appreciate the opportunity to share their faith.


Q: How does Concordia help students understand the idea of calling/vocation?

A:There’s a couple of different ways we try to do it in the program, obviously through our discussions…but one of the key focuses for our program is helping students understand that their not just getting a master’s degree, but that they’re developing themselves as counselors for service to others. So that discussion is kind of an on-going, continual discussion. In classes it’s really our focus, because it’s not about just finishing here, it’s about taking that first step in their ongoing professional development so that they can continue to grow and continue to add different types of skill sets to make a bigger difference for those that they’re serving.


Q: What’s unique about our counseling program here as compared to counseling programs elsewhere?

A: What I hear from students, and why a lot of them choose Concordia, is that they see we really are student-centered, and that we have a focus on providing an array of options for them. Many of our students are working professionals, working full-time in an agency, or a school, and they are very interested in growing, but they’re busy all day long; as a result, they look for flexible options. So, when we can deliver the program at cohort sites here in Mequon or online, students find it very convenient; we try to align our classes so that they all start at the same time. For example, if a student is in a cohort, there might be an eight-week section that he can’t take with the cohort, he could join an online cohort that is taking the exact same class, and not really miss a beat. That happens sometimes, for students, life happens, things happen with their family, or with their job, and they can’t really go to a location, so they’ll take an online course. Other times, they’ll come to some of our sites, we have a couple classes that they’re required to do face-to-face, and they find it very convenient to take those during the school year. We do offer for some of our online students the opportunity to take individual and group counseling during the summer, but some can’t do that, so they take advantage of all the different options we have.


Q: For those who are thinking about going into counseling, what are some of the key characteristics counselors should have?

A: Well first of all, I think they have to have a service oriented heart, and really care about people and trying to assist them, whether its clients, or families, or individual students. In trying to support whatever issues are going on, so it’s not really about what they think and believe, but trying to help whoever they’re assisting. Being able to unpack what’s going on in their lives and been able to look for possible choices that might improve their situation or solve an issue that they might be experiencing. Obviously we’re trying to address all their needs, their social needs, their psychological needs, and their spiritual needs. Many times a counselor in our program has an opportunity, because we do have some Christian counseling coursework, where they can actually integrate faith, discuss how they might assist someone of faith, and address a faith issue. We see that sometimes forgiveness is a key problem that some individuals are facing when going through counseling, forgiving themselves, or forgiving others, and this causes problems for them. If they can feel the grace of God, and forgiveness through the discussion and thinking about that, it can help them move forward.


Q: What are the differences between Christian counseling and secular counseling?

A: A lot of our students will work in more the secular environment, but if a faith issue comes up and they’ve had some of our training, and some of the course work that we provide, it gives them the opportunity to understand that scripture might inform some of their decision making. They can connect their client with some scriptural verses or connect them with an outside resource like a pastor, or deaconess, or somebody else that might assist them in reconciling some of those faith issues. We teach a consultation class which is designed around trying to make sure that we get the right resources for those that were serving, and so I would think our program would look for those resources where other programs may not think about that resource that would help somebody with their faith. That’s probably a key difference.


Q: How do students in your program get guidance throughout the program how does that work online?

A: There are a number different ways; obviously we make sure that they understand that they can get resource assistance from both myself, as director, as well as doctor Jan Heinitz, our associate director, through calling us or meeting with us when we’re on campus. We have a great resource in the Office of Continuing and Distance Education, where students can talk with different individuals within that group who provide support for classes and things like that. I don’t think students find it difficult to get what they need in a relatively short period of time. We try to pride ourselves in getting back to students quickly, and making sure that we’re assisting them moving through the process. The other thing we do is we try to provide a lot of 24-hour access pieces like in our forms repository where students can access information on the program 24/7, and if that raises additional questions then they can come in for any type of advising that they might need, either from myself, or Dr. Heinitz.


Q: If you could tell prospective students one thing about Concordia what would you tell them?

A: First of all, I think our students feel as though they are treated, and worked with, as individuals. We try to look at the individual needs as learners, try to provide as much support as we can if there are some issues that they’re experiencing, but also work through who they are as a person and how they’re trying to do the program. We’ll spend a lot of time just listening and asking them what they need, and what they want, and from there try to help them in terms of their development. I think the other piece is that we also receive a lot of contact from our graduates who might need support in licensing, or who are wondering if they can come back and finish another part of our program. Some finished the school program and want to do the professional program, or do substance abuse counseling. So we will try to provide that type of guidance and support anywhere along the line.


Q: What are the different types of counseling Concordia offers?

A: We train school counselors, we’re a licensed program through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and students who go through that track would be licensed pre-k through 12, as a school counselor; and would work more in a preventative nature. School counselors work with all students, trying to help all students achieve academic success; so they’re working with all families, all students, more of in a preventative nature. Some of our students are looking more at work in a clinic, or hospital, or some type of an agency, and they would be more in the professional track. They would also potentially provide support for psychologists or psychiatrists who are recommending counseling for the individual. They would earn a professional counselor license and would get a trainee license once they complete our program. Many who have gone the professional route are finding that they want to get their substance abuse counselor license as well, and so they’ll work with us and take a couple additional credits on top of that professional counseling license. So they’re licensed both as LPC and training, as well as SACT, substance abuse counselor in training. They need to get additional hours beyond our schooling, three-thousand hours, but we give them the foundation where they can get their training licensing, and continue their development as professional counselors as well as substance abuse counselors.


Q: What do you see as the future for the counseling program/ education in general?

A: Well, we continue to see families and individuals needing support in all different kinds of things. We have a very complex society and lot of issues, and we try to provide counseling support and services whether it’s in a school or professional environment and try to assist individuals working through life’s issues so that they can be successful in whatever their endeavors might be. Obviously with our Christian focus we would also try and see if there’s an opportunity for faith to assist them with dealing with the complex life that many are experiencing in this ever-changing, technological world.


Q: Why is counseling a passion of yours?

A: I’m service-oriented, and I think that by providing assistance in service as a director I am doing counseling every day, I’m working with students and listening to faculty I’m also the director of graduate education programs overall. I spend a lot of time with directors, I see my function as really being counseling functions, listening, supporting, and helping people make decisions. It’s a rewarding position. Being in a Christian University, which is very mission-driven, I appreciate daily chapel and all the experiences I have is a faculty member as well.


Q: Can you give an overview of all of the entire graduate education programs? What is going to attract a student to one of our programs?  

A: I think that faith-based concept is really in all of our programs, and we try to live the mission of the university as we deliver programs to students, and when we hire instructors we look to see that they’re Christian in their background, and know that they have the freedom and the opportunity to share their faith with their students. Whether it’s in a counseling, or education administration, or literacy course, many of our professors like to ask before they start class if they can pray with their class, or if they can hear some prayer requests.  And I think that’s helpful too, recognizing that it’s not just about the course work, but the personal support that students may need as well.

— This story is written by Kali Thiel, director of university communications for Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. She may be reached at kali.thiel@cuw.edu or 262-243-2149.

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