For some students of Western Oregon University, they find the university to be more than the home of their college years – they end up making their career on campus. Dr. Julia Smith, assistant professor of rehabilitation counselor education and this year’s Mario and Alma Pastega Award for Excellence in Teaching recipient, was one such student.
Smith earned her master’s in rehabilitation counselor education at WOU in 1978, then came back six years later to begin working as the coordinator of Disabled Student Services. Currently the coordinator for the Rehabilitation Counseling program, she’s the first exclusively graduate faculty to receive this award. Smith has kept herself busy over the years on top of her duties at WOU as she’s had her own private practice for over 20 years, counseling both Deaf and hearing clients.
She first learned that she wanted to work in rehabilitation counseling while earning her undergraduate degree. It was during this period that Smith had a personal experience where she totally lost her hearing from illness for three weeks. “I had never thought of that kind of disability until I had that experience. And right after that, I started being curious about what it is like to be Deaf in the world.” She began studying American Sign Language and that led her to switch her major to psychology.
When she began teaching, she wasn’t sure it was the best fit for her. “At first I didn’t think I was going to be able to be a teacher because I thought there was too much diversity in a classroom. I wondered how I would be able teach with all these different people.” But she found a good balance between using her clinical skills and teaching. “I was a good mental health counselor, so loving my work is what made it possible and exciting for me to teach this subject,” she said.
Smith especially enjoys working with graduate students. She appreciates their motivation and that the students understand the classes taught at WOU are full of practical information they’ll use on the job. “I am passionate about training good counselors to go out and work with clients who have disabilities. I am really dedicated to teaching to the best of my ability those things I’ve learned over the years that will be helpful to students as they enter the professional field.”
Dr. Chungfan Ni, a colleague in the Rehabilitation Counselor Education program, and Kim Poage, a former graduate student of Smith’s and current colleague in the program, nominated her for this award. “The field of rehabilitation counseling is about working in collaboration with individuals who are Deaf or have disabilities on their goals, barriers, and dreams. Often this includes looking at employment as well as individual and societal barriers facing people with disabilities. Julia is passionate about being present with others, whether it is a client, student, guest speaker, or community partner. Anyone who steps into her office and sits down, and knows that he or she will be heard in a way that is truly listening,” they wrote in their nomination. Ni and Poage also credit Smith’s dedication to the program in helping it achieve a 96 percent job placement rate for graduates.MARIO AND ALMA PASTEGA