WOU Supports Students Studying in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling with $2 Million in Grants

Aerial view of Western Oregon University campus with the tops of several brick buildings, lots of trees, a track, and rolling hills in the background
A man, woman and two children smiling at the camera
Durkhanai Haque (center) and her family.

As a child of Afghanistan immigrants and the only Deaf person in her family, Durkhanai Haque knew she wanted to work with diverse Deaf or hard of hearing international communities. It was her father’s work as a respected radiologist in their small Georgia town, and the community’s acceptance of him, that inspired her to seek out a career in social service. Haque works at the Georgia State Vocational Rehabilitation and is in her first year in the Deaf track of WOU’s Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling master’s program (RMHC).


Thanks to $2 million in grants from the Rehabilitation Service Administration (RSA) ($1 million recently awarded and $1 million awarded last year), Haque has received financial support to pursue her master’s and further her ability to work with individuals with hearing loss from different backgrounds and life experiences in securing employment.


Each of the two RSA grants provide $200,000 per year over five years to help WOU’s Research and Resource Center with Deaf* communities (RRCD) support RMHC students with their tuition, training and professional development, as well as recruitment efforts to bring in more students from underserved populations. WOU is one of the few institutions to receive both five-year grants.


The RMHC program trains people to facilitate employment, independent living, community integration, personal adjustment and more for individuals who are Deaf or have disabilities. WOU’s RMHC program is one of only four in the Pacific Northwest, has had a retention rate of nearly 100% for the past several years and 100% of the graduates have been hired within six months of completing their degree.


There is both a general track and a deaf track specialty. The general track meets in a hybrid model with Saturday face-to-face meetings at WOU:Salem (resuming when pandemic conditions allow) and online in between to meet the needs of working professionals and rural students. The deaf track is delivered in American Sign Language and has an online option to address a significant national shortage of counselors with this specialty. It’s one of only three deaf specialty programs in the country.


A smiling mother with her two smiling daughters sitting on her lap
Joyce Contreras and her daughters

Joyce Contreras, a second-year student on the general track, also received support from the RSA grant. She chose the RMHC program because of her initial interest in mental health after several years of work experience in the field prior to applying for graduate school. Contreras appreciated that RMHC’s focus on rehabilitation encompasses a diversity of populations that counselors may work with. Both women are balancing their graduate studies with working and raising children.


With the grant’s support, Contreras learned she has an interest in vocational rehabilitation and plans to pursue a career in the field. Prior to joining the RMHC program, she didn’t know what vocational rehabilitation was, but later learned vocational rehabilitation counselors do similar work as those in mental health, but more specific to employment.


“If it wasn’t for the RSA grant, I do not know how I would have made it through financially, but the support from my cohort and the RMHC staff has helped me thrive in the program,” she said. “Beginning in winter term, I will be doing my internship with the Albany and Corvallis vocational rehabilitation offices, which I look forward to because there is so much I am interested in learning from vocational rehabilitation work in helping individuals with disabilities find employment.” For her practicum, she worked with Spanish-speaking clients at the Polk Community Free Clinic.


For Haque, who learned of WOU’s program through her Georgia State Vocational Rehabilitation colleagues who are WOU alums and shared their positive experiences, the grant will help her gain more experience working in a vocational rehabilitation agency and helped her decide to stay in the field. “There is so much information for me to learn about rehabilitation and mental health counseling. More people have anxiety, stress and mental health issues that I am not fully aware of,” she said, adding, “The grant has motivated me to pursue my master’s degree in a high demand career.”


RSA scholars are required to do two years of service payback for each year of financial support in state vocational rehabilitation and qualified agencies that contract with them. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019) outlined a positive projected job outlook for 2020-23, and in Oregon, at least 40 VRC positions will need to be filled over the next three years due to retirement alone. Similar data is shown nationally, and even more so with specialty training to serve individuals who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing or DeafBlind.


Associate Professor Denise Thew Hackett, RMHC program coordinator, and Chad A. Ludwig, RRCD director, both deaf, are two of the leaders in WOU’s programs. They believe the strength of WOU’s RMHC program is generated from the ability to work closely with students to ensure that they are prepared for their internship interview process as soon as their first and second terms in the program, with their clinical coordinator, Kim Poage. Also, the RMHC program has a long and collaborative relationship with state VR and many agencies around the nation. They often bring in non-tenure track faculty who currently work in the field to teach some classes, which allows the students to expand their professional network capacity. The program faculty team, Denise Thew Hackett, Chungfan Ni, and Chien Lin, regularly assess the program to ensure that students who graduate will meet several professional accreditation standards.

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