Like many college seniors with graduation in sight, Melissa Monago wasn’t entirely certain about her next steps.
She graduated from the UNC School of Education’s Human Development and Family Studies program in May 2020 with a strong foundation of working with children and families. She had interned with UNC Health, supporting families with children in the NICU and providing them with mindfulness practices to navigate trying times.
Monago had also worked in a preschool for a year and a half, and had coached a swim team, helping young swimmers find events they excelled in, fostering their strengths, and then cheering them on.
“I asked myself, ‘What did I love about those jobs? What are things that I would want in a future career?’,” she said. “All these little bits and pieces… there’s this skill that I learned here and this skill that I learned there… being a positive role model for students and being a support system, being able to teach and being in a school, supporting students’ mental health…
“I’ll get to do all of those things as a school counselor.”
Monago (’20 B.A.Ed., ’21 M.Ed.), who graduated from the School Counseling program in 2021, embraced those skills and strengths, excelling in her coursework and in a school-based, year-long counseling internship — in which she even took on additional duties to help the middle school students she worked with. For that excellence, she was recognized as an outstanding school counseling graduate.
‘A crash course in flexibility’
When Monago thinks back to her classes at Carolina, she said she consistently returns to an idea encountered in an undergraduate course taught by counseling faculty member Dana Griffin, Ph.D.: It only takes one positive, strong, and caring relationship with an adult to really make a difference in a child’s life.
“That’s something that I have carried with me through my internship and through this year,” Monago said.
Monago spent the majority of the school year meeting virtually with students at Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill. Each had different needs. And when schools returned to in-person learning in March, she said she adapted to meet students where they were.
She communicated with some of her students over chat. Some students, she said, needed to sit down with her and talk.
“I had to work very intentionally to foster relationships through a computer screen,” she said. “This year reinforced that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to school counseling and that there are no boundaries to the efforts that we will have to put in to reach students and create relationships with them.
“[The year] was a crash course in flexibility, but I came away with a lot of skills.”
The “crash course” didn’t stop at student needs. When the school’s sixth grade counselor retired in the middle of the year, Monago stepped up. She took on a greater workload to keep sixth graders, teachers, and families connected at a critical time. And when an interim counselor arrived, she helped to onboard them.
“It was a bit of a trial by fire,” she said. “But I was flattered to receive that opportunity.”
Monago is quick to point out that some of her fellow school counseling students stepped into more responsibility because of remote schooling.
“We’ve had to navigate a difficult year. Some of my cohort members had to step in as really skilled interns.”
The first step in her counseling career
When Monago steps into her first job as a school counselor this fall, she said she’s excited to connect students with the right support and with the right people who can make a huge and lasting difference in their lives.
This fall, she will take everything learned in the school counseling and HDFS programs to a Durham charter middle school specializing in STEM. She’s not certain what the year will bring, but that’s what excites her.
“This is really only the beginning of my learning, and that’s what I’m looking forward to next year. I hope to always take in new information and perspectives and grow as a school counselor so that I can really best serve my students in a way that meets their needs.”