After graduating from Franklin and Marshall College, where she earned a bachelor’s in English, Julie Buser enrolled in Princeton Theological Seminary. During seminary, she completed training as a chaplain at Somerset Medical Center, where she worked in an inpatient program for individuals with eating disorders.
These individuals opened up to Buser. She felt honored that they would trust her with their painful stories. The one-on-one connections fulfilled her, and the experience set her on a new path. After she graduated with a master’s in divinity, she sought a second master’s, in counseling, from Wake Forest University. She later earned a doctorate in counselor education at Syracuse University, where she also worked as a college counselor and once again faced young people struggling with disordered eating and body image concerns. Buser wrote her dissertation on the ways in which spirituality helps or hinders those suffering from such problems.
Compassion is practically a prerequisite to becoming a counselor, and Buser — now an associate professor in the Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling at Rider, where she’s worked since 2010 — plunges students into the hard work of self-reflection even before they enter the University’s master’s program in school or clinical mental health counseling. She asks prospective students to reflect on their lives during the interview process, making some of them squirm.
The work continues in Buser’s classroom. Teaching students the skills to be present and empathic and attuned to the needs of others while silencing their own is not easy. But it is rewarding. Buser gets to know the students very well, and witnessing their growth is one of the great joys of her career.
In addition to being a professor, Buser holds several clinical certifications and has experience in clinical work. She was a college counselor at Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges and at Le Moyne College. She also worked in private practice at Ivyland Counseling Center and currently as a wellness coach at Cardiff Health.
What are the most important characteristics of a good counselor?
Above all, as I often talk about in my classes, a good counselor has the ability to build a strong therapeutic relationship with a client. To do this, counselors need to communicate empathy to a client — to try, as best they can, to convey that they are working to understand the client’s reality. There is convincing research that the specific theory or techniques that a counselor uses are less important — overall — than issues such as empathy in counseling. Change occurs within the context of an empathic counseling relationship. To build this relationship well, counselors also have to be very self-aware. We all have unfinished business in our own lives that can unintentionally get in the way of good counseling. Counselors do not have to be perfect — no one is 100 percent without struggles and problems—but good counselors know what those issues are and are able to keep them from hindering counseling work. That is the key reason why our program at Rider — from the admission interview on — focuses on self-reflection.
Who has had the greatest influence on your approach to counseling?
Carl Rogers. Any student of counseling will (or should!) immediately recognize that name. He is credited with founding the person-centered counseling approach — a humanistic approach wherein the counselor is attuned to developing an accepting, nonjudgmental, empathic counseling atmosphere for the client. In this approach, the counselor believes very strongly in the innate resources and capabilities of the client; the counselor’s role is to help clients access these strengths and encourage clients’ natural tendency toward growth and health. I remember being immediately drawn to this notion of inherent client strengths and the inordinate importance of creating an accepting, compassionate therapeutic space. Life can be difficult, filled with external evaluations and rife with judgment. As Rogers suggested, counseling can be this unique space where the client feels accepted, understood and cared for.
In what ways can a life coach help someone in their daily life?
Life coaching, or wellness coaching, is a relatively new mental health profession. It focuses on personal struggles that are, in a sense, normative struggles. Coaches do not deal with diagnosable mental health disorders. Clients guide the goal-setting and the session foci. This is not an expert model where the coach ‘tells’ the client what to do and how to ‘fix’ life concerns. It is a very collaborative model, with the coach and client working together to set goals, unpack life difficulties and brainstorm solutions. This process, ideally, is empowering to clients and helps them deal with issues such as life-work balance, body image concerns, career confusion, parenting struggles and relationship difficulties.
Do you think counseling will become more or less important in the future?
Well, I am clearly biased, as counseling is what I teach for a living, but I do believe that counseling will be increasingly valuable in the future. I think some of the stigma of counseling is diminishing; I believe there should be no shame in seeking out counseling for help with life’s problems. We do not feel shame in going to the doctor when we are physically sick, but there is still a sense that mental health struggles are viewed differently. I think that will continue to shift in the future.
What kind of student were you in college?
Studious and focused are the first two words that come to mind. I always enjoyed being a student—which is probably why I kept on getting degrees after my bachelor’s (even though my family wondered when I would actually stop going to school and get a job!). I was fortunate, in college, to work closely with several professors—on independent research, a literary magazine, and teaching. As a college student, those were amazing opportunities and are still reminders of why a small college/university setting can be so valuable and unique. At a larger institution, I would likely not have had those multiple opportunities to work closely with professors. Those opportunities really increased my confidence and, as I reflect on it, likely set me on a course to want to engage in that kind of work—teaching and researching—as my career. At Rider, I feel that I am able to continue—on the other side—the working relationships that were so formative to me as a student. I have been able to get to know students well in the classroom, mentor students in research, and co-publish and co-present with students.
What sets Rider’s program apart from its competitors?
Rider was the first counseling program in the nation to create a coaching certificate (which fulfills academic requirement for the board-certified coach credential) as part of its master’s programs. Students complete our master’s in school or clinical mental health counseling and, without any extra coursework, also fulfill academic requirements to be a board-certified coach. This example speaks to the unique element of our program I want to highlight: as professors in the counseling program, we are continually working to add value to this master’s degree in counseling. We want students to graduate with as many career options as possible (and with as little extra coursework above and beyond the master’s degree as possible). In addition to the coaching certificate, students can complete academic requirements for the Licensed Clinical Alcohol and Drug Counselor credential and the Student Assistance Coordinator credential with little to no additional coursework. We know it is a significant commitment on many levels to seek a master’s degree, and we want students to have multiple options for career paths when they graduate.