Five questions for Leann Morgan

Award-winning educator shares passion for career counseling with students

Leann Morgan
Leann Morgan

Leann Morgan explains that she is a counselor first and an educator second.

“I became an educator because I believed in counseling so much that I wanted to teach the next generation in order to reach many more clients and students than I could on my own,” said the associate professor, Counseling and Human Services, at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. “That’s how I teach. I believe in paying attention to evolving best practices in the field and encourage my students to go out and influence kids to be healthy – mentally, spiritually and academically – and help them find what they’re passionate about in life.”

Morgan’s decision to become a counselor, in part, grew from her own life experiences. She felt she received little direction about careers in high school: “The counselor said just go to college, everything will be great.”

A Chicago native, Morgan shows her baseball loyalty.
A Chicago native, Morgan shows her baseball loyalty.

After graduating from Purdue University with a degree in communication and working in Chicago, she realized she wanted more from her career. She went back to her high school counselor who, she remembers, put his feet up on his desk and said, “Why don’t you become a school counselor; it’s been a pretty good gig for me.”

“I wanted to do something meaningful and help people, but I didn’t receive a lot of meaningful career guidance. Although it was well-intentioned, if I had received better career preparation in high school and during my undergraduate years, I may have figured out earlier that something in the helping professions was my calling and maybe I would have spent less time and money in the process,” she said.

She enrolled at DePaul University, where she earned her master’s degree in human services and counseling with an emphasis on mental health counseling. She then spent four years working in Wyoming with adolescents struggling with substance-abuse issues. Her career path then led her back to Chicago, her hometown, where she worked with children who were wards of the state.

“That was meaningful work for me because my father had grown up in the foster-care system in Chicago, and I understood that these special kids really needed someone to help them and mentor them.”

By then, she felt she had obtained enough experience to become a counselor educator and enrolled in the University of Northern Colorado’s doctoral program in counselor education and supervision. During that time, she worked at the Larimer Center for Mental Health in Fort Collins and had the opportunity to provide outreach service to students at Conrad Ball Middle School in Loveland.

Her first experience with counseling in schools was eye-opening.

“I thought it was chaotic. It was a lot different than having a case load of kids who had been identified as struggling with particular issues; in the school, I was trying to figure out, in a mass of kids, which ones needed help and how to address those needs.”

That’s when her focus began to change to working systemically. She accepted a position at a Loveland high school and became a licensed school counselor and school-to-career coordinator. For the past 16 years, she has been “fighting the good fight in terms of trying to bring relevant career exploration, guidance and development to kids, starting from kindergarten or even pre-K all the way through post-secondary and beyond.”

She accepted a position at UCCS in 2012.

“The majority of courses I teach are career-counseling-related. I’m really lucky that I get to do what I love to do every day.”

Outside of work, she spends time with her husband, Ben, and 10-year-old twins, one a budding chef and the other an avid baker.

“Ben has been one of those people who helped make my professional goals attainable. When we first talked about getting married, he was active duty Army and I was finishing my doctoral work and engaged in the process of interviewing for jobs all over the country. He said, ‘I know you have worked hard for years to get this opportunity, and I want you to take the job that you want (wherever that may be) and we will make it work out.’ That was the moment I knew he truly had my best interests in mind and that he was certainly a keeper. Throughout the last 12-plus years, he has continued to support my work in every way, which has allowed me be effective in both roles, parent and professor.”

1.You recently received the UCCS Outstanding Teacher Award and former students say they are trying to model their own careers in the same way that you approach and live yours. What is your teaching philosophy and has it evolved over the years?

Morgan receiving her teaching award -- and a student's sentiment.
Morgan receiving her teaching award -- and a student's sentiment.

I employ an apprenticeship model in my teaching. I convey to my students that we are on this journey together, and I will meet them where they are and help to fill in the gaps when necessary.

I try to diversify my pedagogy. If I sense students are confused during a lecture, I’ll try a different approach: try to restate what I want them to learn in a different way, bring up a You Tube video, draw on the board or do an activity to make a point. I try to make coming to class relevant for them.

My role is to train my students to become my colleagues someday, and I want them to become such good counselors that I would be happy to have them work at my kids’ school and be my kids’ school counselor.

2.You researched and drafted standards for college and career preparedness for the Colorado Department of Education. What are the standards based on and what are some of those standards?

This began with a state mandate that every student in the ninth grade had to have an Individual Career and Academic Plan (ICAP). In the Thompson School District in 2001, we already were doing that. When the mandate was issued, there were a lot of school counselors that looked at it as just one more thing they had to do and didn’t see the relevance. I believed it was an opportunity to provide students with more meaningful, purposeful career counseling than what they may have been getting (or not) in schools. By developing a set of quality indicators for school counselors to use as a guide, it seemed more likely they would buy into the concepts of ICAP.

In partnership with the Colorado Department of Education, a colleague and I drafted these quality indicators so school counselors could understand how to meet students’ postsecondary needs. The Colorado ICAP Quality Indicators are: self-awareness, career awareness, postsecondary awareness, postsecondary options, environmental expectations, academic planning, employability skills and financial literacy.

3.You recently developed a concurrent enrollment course focused on careers. What will the course teach students? What other university projects are you involved with?

I’m a huge advocate of concurrent enrollment courses so that high school students can get basic college courses out of the way while in high school. It’s less expensive for them and they tend to finish college sooner.

I just developed a concurrent enrollment high school class that is a version of the undergraduate career planning course I created at UCCS in 2013. The undergraduate course has been very popular, so I’m hoping for similar interest in this new course as well. The high school concurrent enrollment course is called Career Exploration and Postsecondary Planning and will be offered for the first time this fall. It was designed for high school juniors and seniors and will provide an opportunity to explore their likes and dislikes related to work, while considering their postsecondary options.

The course objectives are specifically designed to align with the high school ICAP, so I’m hoping school counselors will use it as a resource for their students. At the end of the 16-week course, those high school students will have a good overview of why they should pursue postsecondary education, what that might look like for them, and how they will pay for it. Figuring out options for affordable education is key.

I’m a fan of the gap year if students need it and if they take advantage of that time. John Krumboltz’s theory of happenstance says that continually working to improve yourself and putting one foot in front of the other toward a broader goal puts you in a prime position when an opportunity presents itself to you, whatever that opportunity for success might be. I truly believe that.

I’m also passionate about advocating for women’s issues at CU and have been serving as chair and co-chair for the Faculty Council’s Women’s Committee over the past several years. We’ve been looking into improving equity across campuses because we still have a pay gap for full-time faculty. Regent Jack Kroll has talked to us about his passion for helping non-tenure-track faculty. There are a larger number of women who fall into this category, and we’re interested in looking at how non-tenure-track faculty could have greater access to faculty benefits, including the cost of opening up the housing benefit to non-tenure-track faculty. It’s a process, but we’ve been involved in the conversations that led to the pilot tuition benefit program and are confident that continued improvements are possible.

4.What are some of your other research efforts and what were the impacts?

In 2014, I worked with the Colorado Department of Education to update its dropout prevention best-practices guide. Dropout prevention is something I worked on when I did clinical mental health work with adolescents. I was able to look at the current state of resources available to school professionals, and advocate for students using a career counseling lens. I’ve already mentioned that I am a big fan of concurrent enrollment courses, which also help to keep students interested in school, and I support credit recovery and online high school programs to encourage students to persist toward high school completion. My role was really to research and provide the current best practices from sources around the country, which included the latest in early warning systems to alert teachers and parents when a student is in trouble of failing. As with most things in life, early detection leads to better outcomes.

I felt good about the finished product, and CDE is still using it today.

I will be applying for my first sabbatical in the fall and hope to take that time to research how school counselors are addressing the career counseling needs of displaced (refugee) youth. Specifically, the impact, self-efficacy and awareness of gender issues related to career opportunities and choice of displaced youth. For instance, there may be young women who came from a country where they may not have had a lot of career opportunities because of familial pressure or culture norms. In that case, being displaced to another country may impact their career self-efficacy or opportunities in a positive way. On the other hand, you might have teens whose families had a certain amount of wealth in their home country, but after being displaced, they face economic hardships that impact their self-efficacy or career opportunities in a potentially negative way. Ultimately, I’d like this research to be helpful to school counselors who are working with displaced youth and face tough challenges in providing them with support as they navigate and develop new cultural norms in relation to their budding career interests.

5.What are your favorite memories from your time at CU?

Morgan at the Pantheon in Rome.
Morgan at the Pantheon in Rome.

A favorite memory for me was during my second year at UCCS when I attended the Academic Management Institute (AMI) as one of our two campus representatives. I found that I enjoyed being part of group of university women and learned so much about what was happening in Colorado academia.

It was after an AMI meeting when I connected with my first CU mentor, Dr. Melinda Piket-May. They say that mentorship can’t be forced and needs to happen organically. I would agree. She’s an engineer and I’m a counselor … we are an unlikely pair, but she has been instrumental in helping me figure out what I truly wanted out of my career in academia. She encouraged my involvement with CU Faculty Council and has provided support and guidance over the years that I value and trust. She helped me find my voice and be a part of the larger CU community. I am grateful to have so many amazing CU women in my life right now.

Another was at the campus ceremony this spring where I was awarded the Outstanding Teaching Award. The chair of the awards committee presented me with a bumper sticker that read, ‘I (heart) Dr. Morgan,’ which I guess was pulled from one of the student comments on my FCQ (faculty course questionnaire). I thought it was a really fun gesture. It’s always nice to be recognized for the things that you do just because you love to do them.

Tagged with: