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Saturday, December 4, 2021

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San Diego County Counselor of the Year award winners (from left) Ann Pierce, Bonnie Hayman and Cherryl Baker. San Diego County Counselor of the Year award winners (from left) Ann Pierce, Bonnie Hayman and Cherryl Baker.
 


Alumni Counselors Shine

SDSU alumni sweep the San Diego County Office of Education’s School Counselors of the Year awards.
By Michael Klitzing
 

Ann Pierce, Bonnie Hayman and Cherryl Baker work in very different settings, from elementary schools dotting San Diego County’s rugged backcountry, to an urban fine arts middle school, to a large North County high school.

But they share two notable commonalities.

For one, all three were recently named 2021 School Counselors of the Year by the San Diego County Office of Education. Now in its second year, the honor recognizes top counselors at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

The other? All three received their training in master’s programs in San Diego State University’s Department of Counseling and School Psychology.

The awards are sponsored by North Island Credit Union. Here are the stories of the three alumni:

Ann Pierce (’07)
Nearly two decades ago, Pierce found herself increasingly dismayed by the academic inequity faced by Indigenous students in eastern San Diego County. The Alpine resident was shocked by reports of massive rates of referrals and flagging academic engagement.

“The backcountry has unique challenges,” Pierce said. “I always remember thinking those kids really need support.”

On her 50th birthday, Pierce resolved to act. She soon entered SDSU’s school counseling master’s program with the express intent of becoming a counselor in the Mountain Empire Unified School District. And that’s exactly what she’s done for the past 15 years.

Working in a 650-square mile district covering three reservations and several border communities, Pierce has leveraged her SDSU education and relationships to empower students from a young age. She has worked to increase access to counselors and change institutional attitudes.

“Being able to support kids more in elementary school, before they got to high school, was a big shift,” Pierce said. “Another significant shift has been getting the school district to change its focus from, 'These kids are deficits' to 'These kids have potential.'”

SDSU has been part of making change. Since she started at Mountain Empire, Pierce has partnered with SDSU’s Native American and Indigenous Scholars Collaborative (NAISC), which trains school counselors and school psychologists to work in Indigenous communities. She has also recently teamed with Carol Robinson Zañartu, professor emerita in counseling and school psychology, on a U.S. Department of Education-funded effort that sees SDSU graduate students meeting weekly with Kumeyaay youth to address mental health needs.

“I'm excited this year because we have so many tribal members in the cohort,” said Pierce, herself a former NAISC student. “This has really brought about a lot of change for tribal youth.”

Bonnie Hayman (’87)
As the only counselor on a campus of 1,100 students, Hayman said she succeeds by ensuring all staff at La Mesa Arts Academy feel invested in mentoring students.

“Perhaps out of necessity, I involve everyone,” Hayman said. “I am always looking for students for our custodian or our librarian to mentor. When we step into that role as really nurturing these children, I think we have to allow those boundaries to blur.”

Hayman has served as a counselor in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District since 1986, dating back to her practicum field work as an SDSU master’s student. She has been at La Mesa Arts Academy since 2009, playing a leading role in the school’s transformation from a traditional middle school to a fourth through eighth grade interdisciplinary arts program.

What makes the school a success, she said, is its ability to assess the whole child.

“We see students who come to us wounded from being misunderstood or maybe not necessarily being a natural at academics,” Hayman said. “But put them on a dance floor or give them the supplies to be creative, and it just connects the learning. I love to see that authentic confidence grow.”

Hayman, who graduated from the Community Based Block (CBB) multicultural community counseling program, said she loves her role for the chance to build relationships not only with students, but with their families and their teachers. School counselors, she said, have the responsibility to empower teachers and be agents of large-scale systemic change at their school sites.

“I want to encourage students pursuing the field of school counseling to continue to advocate for our profession,” Hayman said. “It's never been needed more than now.”

Cherryl Baker (’97, ’98)
Baker offers her students a lot: advice, a sympathetic ear, even a phone for students making calls to college financial aid offices. But the most powerful thing she provides, she said, is empathy.

“I haven't experienced everything my students have been through,” said Baker, a school counselor at Mission Hills High in San Marcos since its opening in 2004. “But if we can see something in each other that we can connect on, that's so powerful. They want to be understood — to be seen.”

After all, many of Baker’s students’ experiences mirror her own. She is the daughter of immigrants from the Philippines. A military kid who moved every three years. A first-generation student without a road map to college.

Today, Baker is part of a team of six counselors who serve roughly 3,000 Mission Hills students, many of whom come from immigrant communities and military families.

“I love this job so much because I love it when a kid comes in and feels safe enough to tell you something,” she said. “That's a real honor.”

Baker graduated from SDSU’s school counseling program and CBB, the latter of which she credits for changing her perspective and professional trajectory. Still connected with her alma mater, she has supervised SDSU master’s students in their field placements for the past 15 years.

“All of it really opened my eyes to the power of an individual — in any role, but especially in education.” said Baker. “I love San Diego State for what it's done for me personally and professionally, and for what it continues to do for all of our schools.”