NLU’s Christina K. Nolan Wins School Counselor Educator of the Year Award
In recognition of her key role in school counselor training, NLU professor Christina K. Nolan, Ed.D., was recently honored as School Counselor Educator of the Year by the Illinois School Counselor Association (ISCA) .
Nolan, assistant professor of counseling and human services at the Chicago campus, received the award at the ISCA’s annual meeting in April.
With a deep commitment to social justice and equity, Nolan has challenged a new generation of school-counselors-in-training to not only improve their skills but to go deeper by questioning their motives while realizing their place in the greater framework of education.
“As we send them out, that’s our message,” Nolan said in an interview. “That we expect you to be exemplary, and it’s for the children.”
It’s a philosophy that’s guided Nolan from her early days in the classroom to her position today at NLU.
Road to NLU
Nolan’s career has been marked by a quest for greater challenges and a greater role in shaping the educational system. It’s taken her to urban, suburban, public and private settings, from primary school to higher ed.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Nolan started out as an elementary school teacher in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, moving up the age range when she felt the need for a new challenge and — she laughingly joked — grew tired of tying first-graders’ shoes.
While working as a reading specialist at a suburban junior high school, she first began to wonder what happened to children who didn’t have their needs met in the school system.
This led Nolan to counseling. She earned a master’s in counseling in a community track and worked with children and adolescents in a clinical setting outside of the school environment. (She is a licensed clinical professional counselor.) But she ultimately felt the pull back toward her roots. “[School systems] is always what tugs at my heart,” Nolan said.
She added a school counseling certification (Type 73) and went to work as a high school counselor. During this time she also taught at a community college and began to increase her involvement in the Illinois Counseling Association, ISCA and the American School Counselor Association at the leadership level — knowing that she wanted to be at the table as systemic policy initiatives were developed and implemented.
Nolan said she was always interested in how counselors can become agents of change. A move to higher education seemed the next logical step.
“To me, moving to National Louis meant I have an opportunity to seed many ways of moving exemplary school counselors into the system,” Nolan said.
She came to NLU in 2006 and these days teaches multiple core courses such as Professional Practice and Ethics, Practicum and Internship at the Chicago campus while coordinating internship placement for NLU student counselors — a role she very much takes to heart.
“I am passionate about creating opportunities for my graduate-level counseling students to really prepare, to examine, to explore, to challenge themselves,” Nolan said.
She is particularly proud of an initiative she began five years ago with CPS school counselor leadership and regional university counselor educators: the CPS Counselor Educator (CPS/CE) Collaborative. Their mission is to help higher education programs better understand the needs of an urban school system while communicating what school counselor preparation programs require from CPS in supervising their school-counselors-in-training.
Nolan believes the initiative has created change in the relationship between CPS and colleges like NLU. The CPS/CE Collaborative has even started a research team task force to study the effects of the increased dialogue and the questions that arise: Do those students now employed by CPS demonstrate higher levels of competency in their school counselor positions? Do those students from programs in the collaborative take on more leadership roles? How do students who graduate from programs in the collaborative influence student academic, social, emotional and career domains?
This big-picture thinking is emblematic of Nolan’s time at NLU. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Nolan was nominated for the ISCA award by her colleague, Elaine V. Kies, Ed.D., assistant professor of counseling and human services. After a long career as a school counselor herself, Kies was struck by Nolan’s wider perspective.
“When I came to this new position, I was very impressed with her ability to see the global scheme of all school counseling, not just at one school,” Kies said.
Kies added that Nolan always stresses best practices — not what’s easiest — for any situation confronting a student counselor. She sets the bar high for herself first, Kies said, and expects students and co-workers to do the same, which fosters a culture of achievement.
Students notice this too. China Hill, who is pursuing her master’s in counseling with a school counseling track, said exposure to Nolan’s standards at the start of her studies was essential to setting a tone for everything that’s followed.
But Nolan isn’t all tough love, Hill said. It was her personal touch during Hill’s interview process for the counseling program that stood out.
“One of the reasons that I came here is because of our conversation,” Hill said. “Because she just seemed very much in tune with my concerns.”
Hill had an acceptance from another program as well, but Nolan’s willingness to be available by phone or email after their initial conversation tipped the scale. Hill went with NLU and is now a grad assistant.
Nolan is touched by the kind words of students and colleagues. And although she said she’s honored to receive the ISCA award, she downplayed her individual part in winning it.
“The reality is that this is an award that is just realized through a team, through the recognition that none of us alone makes this difference, so I wish we could just hang this in the hall for everyone,” she said.
During the interview, Nolan stressed the importance of that teamwork, saying she and Kies make up two halves of the same person. And she repeatedly called out hellos to students passing by her office like they were old friends.
There’s a positive energy coming from the NLU counseling program, and Nolan said it’s fueled by the close interaction between students and faculty. The program in Chicago currently has six cohorts of graduate students, and every faculty member knows every student, discussing them in meetings each week.
Nolan has seen the results. When she places NLU student counselors at school sites, the school system ends up wanting more of them. She’s even had schools call her to see if any student counselors were left to place at their sites.
The teamwork, mentorship and standards that feed this culture of achievement all lead back to one philosophy. To best sum it up, Nolan took a framed picture from her wall that held an inscription she wrote — a gift to some recent graduates:
“Wonderment. To think that possibly there is someone out there in the future, that’s been waiting for someone just like you, so that they can tell their story, and that will make all the difference in the world.”