Clinical Mental Health Instructor Dr. Damion Cummins: A Faculty Q&A
Dr. Damion Cummins found his passion for counseling during his recovery from a life-altering sports injury. Now he teaches students in Southern New Hampshire University's master's in clinical mental health counseling so they can begin careers counseling others.
We asked Dr. Cummins to share his thoughts about teaching, the importance of education and more as part of SNHU's Faculty Spotlight series.
Tell us a little bit about your professional background.
I have taught in counselor education for over 10 years. My experience has ranged from brick and mortar to hybrid and online universities. During my time in counselor education, I have been a clinical director, program director and core faculty.
What led you to academics, and in particular, SNHU?
My journey to SNHU was by a stroke of luck and support from a friend. Before coming on as a faculty member at SNHU, I was working at a university that was closing down my program and satellite campus. A friend sent me an email with a potential job opening in the psychology program at SNHU. After applying, I was contacted about a new program in the making that I might be better suited for, which turned out to be the online counseling program. I eagerly jumped at the chance and got the job.
I am proud to say that I have been with the SNHU counseling program since its inception. Of all my experiences as a counselor educator for the past 10 years, this has been the most rewarding, supportive and enjoyable position I have ever had.
What drew you to this field of study? What keeps you excited about it?
My journey in becoming a counselor educator began from a tragedy at the age of 15 on Sept. 23, 1992. On that date, I was in a traumatic football accident that left me paralyzed and wheelchair dependent. Through several surgeries, hospital and rehabilitation stays, and lots of mental, emotional and physical challenges, I was left questioning many things. One thing, in particular, was how could I, as someone with a physical disability, contribute to society? Then, I was introduced to the amazing world of mental health.
After lots of help from mental health specialists in rehabbing my mindset and finding ways to adapt to my new life, I regained a sense of life and purpose. With this new purpose, I wanted to give back to others as best I could. After graduating from high school, I decided to pursue my bachelor's in psychology. From there, my love for everything mental health-related began! I wanted more and applied to my local university for the master's counseling program. As my master's in counseling was almost over, I wanted to gain my doctorate in counselor education because I saw it as the best way to reach and help the most people. This way, I could help teach those that help others.
I have often been asked if I could change how my accident happened and not have a physical disability, would I do it? It has taken a long time to come to this conclusion, but I would not change anything because of all the people and students I have been able to help from that one traumatic and life-changing experience. Through the years of teaching, I have not lost my excitement or passion for counselor education. Working with students that have the same passion and drive that I had when I first started my counseling program helps keep me excited about what I do.
What do you find rewarding in your position as full-time faculty?
One of my biggest rewards as a full-time faculty is getting the opportunity to work with students as they enter the program and see them at the end with a renewed sense of accomplishment and pride in graduating. I enjoy speaking with students as they near the end of the program and hear stories of sacrifices they made to complete their degree. It’s humbling and an honor to be a part of students’ learning experience and helping them see their true potential as they work through the program.
Can you think of a particularly impactful or eye-opening moment as a faculty member?
It is hard to describe one particular impactful or eye-opening moment. However, anytime I receive an email from a former student that has graduated and is working in the field and talks about the impact I had in their professional life, it fuels my love and drive for what I do.
What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing their counseling degree? How can people stand out in this field?
For people interested in pursuing a counseling degree, there are two fundamental ingredients needed: a healthy sense of self and active self-care skills, which entail the actions to reach optimal physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
Counseling clients and helping them express emotions that sometimes even they aren’t aware of can be very difficult for a counselor to process, especially if they don’t have good self-awareness and self-care skills. Working with clients and their emotions can cause emotional stress and lead to burnout. Therefore, I like to teach students to help others, but also “know thyself.” Self-awareness provides individuals with the ability to recognize and regulate thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
Along with this, self-care skills are essential for taking care of everyday needs to be able to help others. Setting healthy boundaries personally and professionally contributes to good self-care skills. I work with many students that have difficulty setting healthy boundaries and saying “no” to others without feeling guilty. I like to use the analogy of what we see in the instructions we receive in flight manuals about putting the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others. Without taking care of ourselves, we will not be able to counsel clients to our best ability.
One way for people to stand out in the counseling field is to never stop learning. There is no pinnacle reached that provides total competency in counseling. It is a continual journey and learning process that evolves and is ever-changing.
What, if anything, did you not expect from your career path?
I honestly did not expect my career to be as rewarding as it has become. Being a counselor educator is not what I do; it is who I am. When I have people ask what kind of work I do, it feels weird because being a counselor educator is so ingrained in who I am and what I love. It does seem it is not a job or form of work to me. I really enjoy and live by the quote, “Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”
What do most people not understand about working in the counseling field?
I believe there is a misconception about the counseling field and what counselors do. Many people think that counseling is about giving advice or solving their problems. Because you are a good listener and give good advice to friends and family does not make you a good counselor. Also, there is no “magic pill” or Harry Potter wand that can be tapped and take away a client’s problems. It’s about building a strong therapeutic relationship with the clients, walking (or in my case rolling) in the client’s shoes, and being attentively present during the time with them. This can help produce change and assist clients in recognizing their true potential and strengths to overcome issues.
How have you found ways to effectively connect with students online?
I believe the best way to connect with students online is to take an invested interest in and care about them succeeding. This means thinking of them as more than just a student. It’s about seeing them as an individual person and as our future in the counseling profession.
I work to understand and support students and let them know they are more than a face or name on my screen. I reach out to them by phone or video meeting if I think they need additional support or find them struggling. Though I continually work at it, I try to let students know I care about them and believe in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
When I’m not working, I want to spend time with my family. My two boys are active in sports and extracurricular activities, which my wife and I thoroughly enjoy watching. If it’s sunny and warm out, you’ll catch me at a lake or beach soaking up the sun. I also like trying new experiences. This year I tried my hand at making homemade jerky and hot sauce. My wife and I also allowed our oldest son to play an instrument in the school band. Some experiences come out better than others.
What is one (or two) books every student in the counseling program should read?
"Man’s Search for Meaning," by Viktor E. Frankl is one of my favorite books that I encourage all students to read. This is a tragic real-life story about the author going through Nazi concentration camps and coming out on the other side with a renewed sense of purpose in life. He did all of this by finding meaning in his pain and everything he went through. This is so relatable to many clients and their struggles with hopelessness and seeking meaning and purpose in life.
Why is education important to society as well as to you personally?
I find education to be an essential part of being a productive and contributing human in our society today. Education is the springboard for many of the great ideas and accomplishments we have today. Having an educated society helps to make decisions that influence our daily lives and future. To me personally, as a counselor educator, without an education, we are just winging it. This does not sit well with me and also contributes to why I do what I do.
Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.
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