“Natural Helper” uses experiences in the field to train next generation of counselors
"For as long as I can remember, I have been a ‘natural helper,’ said Gerard Lawson M.S. ’96, an associate professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech. "As an undergraduate and early in my professional career, I envisioned helping people who were struggling with mental illnesses or life’s stressors. But I also knew that in the professional world, I would need more than just good instincts."
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech, Lawson worked in child protective services in Southside Virginia. While working for the juvenile court in Cumberland County, he enrolled in Longwood University and earned his master’s degree in education with a concentration in community and college counseling.
His work in community mental health settings allowed him to provide counseling to adolescents and families involved with the court system. He ultimately earned his licensed professional counselor credential for Virginia and then his doctorate from the College of William and Mary.
Now a tenured professor at Virginia Tech and the program leader for the university’s counselor education program, Lawson’s work centers on teaching, research and outreach.
"Teaching new counselors is my favorite part of the job," he said. "I remember thinking when I was at Longwood that my instructors brought such a wonderful combination of practical experience, structure for learning and positive energy to their teaching. I hope I'm able to do the same for my students, drawing on my experience in the field and the training I have received along the way."
In addition to adding depth to his teaching, Lawson’s experience on the ground directly relates to his research and outreach work. His research, which has been published in several leading counseling journals, includes strategies for counselors to be effective with their clients and disaster mental health. Lawson has served as the president of the Virginia Counselors Association, a group of 1,200 counselors across Virginia, and president of the national Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. He has also chaired two different task forces for the American Counseling Association, one on counselor wellness and the other on crisis response planning.
His work in disaster and crisis mental health proved valuable during the response and recovery to the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. As a disaster mental health volunteer with the American Red Cross since 2001, Lawson used his training and experience to support students, faculty, staff and families in the aftermath of the shootings.
"It was the hardest and most important work I've ever done," he said. "It can feel like there is so little you can do to help someone who has just lost a child or colleague, but I’d like to think that the work that my colleagues and I did helped in some small measure. It was incredibly gratifying to be part of that effort and even more so when students or family members who have returned to the campus come up and thank me or another counselor for the work we have done."
Lawson continues to be involved in the ongoing recovery efforts at Virginia Tech, writing the new disaster mental health protocol for the university and coordinating the counseling resources for the annual Day of Remembrance on the anniversary each year. Because the shooting at Virginia Tech was unique at the time, Lawson provides assistance to other universities and schools that experience similar tragedies.
"This is obviously not work that I ever thought I would be doing, but it is very gratifying to know that the experiences that I have had, and the perspective that I can share, will help to make someone else’s burden a little lighter," he said. "Becoming a counselor is a calling – not just a job choice, and it’s a field that continues to evolve."
Lawson was recently recognized by the Virginia Counselors Association for his meritorious service to the counseling profession. The organization was founded by longtime Longwood supporter and namesake of the Cook-Cole College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. John R. Cook ’52.
In many ways, receiving the John R. Cook Award has made Lawson’s educational and professional career come full circle.
"It's always nice to have your work recognized by your peers, but the fact that this award is in John Cook’s name made it one of the highest honors I have ever received," he said.