MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — The Tennessee Department of Education recently brought on Tiffany Wilson, professional school counseling coordinator for MTSU’s College of Education, as the school counseling consultant for its just under $14 million grant project to retain and recruit mental health professionals into high-needs, rural school districts across the state.
“I felt excited,” Wilson said about being asked to join the project. “I’m a product of rural education, so to be able to give back to the rural communities is a full circle moment. Typically, rural communities have limited access to mental health resources. This grant will help mitigate barriers by providing additional mental health access and resources.”
The Rural Access to Interventions in School Environments project, more commonly known as Project RAISE, will use the federally provided funds over five years to increase school-based mental health personnel in 40 Tennessee school districts, identified as rural and underserved, by recruiting future school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers into its internship program. Interns make a two-year commitment to work in one of these rural districts in exchange for an up to $40,000 stipend, and the first cohort of about 25 interns will start this fall.
April Ebbinger, director of psychological and behavioral supports for the state, landed the grant and recruited Wilson after the two women met while working on other initiatives, and Ebbinger was impressed by Wilson’s level of expertise and brilliance, she said.
“We also identified MTSU as one of three Tennessee universities who have school mental health professional programs that could help with recruitment and retention of our candidates, so that made Tiffany an even more natural fit,” Ebbinger said.
MTSU’s College of Education also served as host, free of charge, for the project’s summer meeting on Thursday, July 20, which featured a full day of presentations, activities, refreshments, prize drawings and more to get candidates ready for the start of their program.
“We wanted something centralized,” said Ebbinger about using MTSU as the host. “The dean and all of leadership have just been so gracious and welcoming to partner with us as we’ve kicked off these initiatives. The goal was, to the greatest extent possible, to use these grant funds to directly impact students…. MTSU offering up facilities at no cost other than food and refreshments has allowed us to do so more effectively. It’s truly such a wonderful partnership.”
Ebbinger recommended those interested in being part of Project RAISE’s internship program visit their website at https://tinyurl.com/35s7y38f.
Wilson said this project is so important because the shortage of mental health professionals in schools across the state grew even more severe during the pandemic.
“The number of students experiencing mental health issues and seeking mental health support was already consistently increasing,” said the East Bend, North Carolina, native. “Then the pandemic caused this mental health bubble to erupt.”
Wilson said the American School Counselor Association recommends the school counselor to student ratio be 250-to-1, but the average ratio in Tennessee elementary schools is 350-to-1 and in middle and high schools 500-to-1. With the added shortage of classroom teachers, schools have even resorted to using counselors to bridge those gaps, further exacerbating school counselors feeling stretched too thin, discontented and burned-out.
MTSU’s own Professional School Counseling Program, a 61-hour graduate degree, provides students with a diverse and hands-on education to equip them to succeed and support them in the modern-day education system, Wilson said.
“We believe the infusion of diversity, trauma-informed knowledge and wellness is imperative to train highly qualified and effective professional counselors who are also comfortable with providing services to anyone seeking mental health support,” Wilson said. “Our students are provided the opportunity to work and train at our Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, and the majority of our students are employed prior to graduating from our program.”
To learn more about MTSU’s school counseling program opportunities, visit the website at https://www.mtsu.edu/programs/professional-counseling-eds/.