O'Cana named counselor of the year

December 24, 2018

Public Relations

As a student, Rhonda O'Cana came to Palo Alto College to pursue her dream of becoming a counselor. Starting a private practice after graduating, O'Cana knew that if a counseling opportunity ever opened at Palo Alto College, she would be eager to return.

"Palo Alto College gave me my second chance. I see a lot of students here who are starting with a new beginning – this is their chance," said O'Cana. "You can start all over once you're in college. It's nice to be in on that piece of their journey."

O'Cana returned to the College in 2015 to lead a dedicated personal counseling office, which would be housed at the college's newly developed S.H.A.R.E. Center.

"Ms. O'Cana [arrived to the] College with a vision, incredible knowledge, passion, and most importantly, student focus," said Katherine Doss, dean of student success. "The Office of Personal Counseling has become so much more than what anyone envisioned when this journey began just three years ago, and that is solely because of Ms. O'Cana and her leadership."

O'Cana's three years of hard work paid off this fall, as she was named 2017-2018 Outstanding College Counselor at the 2018 Texas College Counseling Association (TCCA) luncheon during the Texas Counseling Association (TCA) Growth Conference.

"It's really meaningful to me because I feel like this is my calling, to be here with this population in particular," said O'Cana. "It's a special atmosphere here [at Palo Alto College], so to be commended for something that's so important to me is pretty cool."

O'Cana was selected for the award based on providing holistic approaches to student support, implementing counseling best practices, being actively engaged with professional agencies, and providing clinical supervision and training of LPC interns and graduate students.

She played a crucial role in bringing the Healthy Minds Study to the College in spring 2018, which is the national benchmark assessment of college students' mental health and wellness. O'Cana is actively working to tear down the negative perception of mental health care by visiting classrooms and hosting group sessions to make mental health a regular conversation.

"You don't have to have a mental health disorder to come talk to us. You can just come in to vent," said O'Cana, adding that she hopes the mental health programs she and her team are implementing end up "normalizing it for [students]. It doesn't necessarily have to be a diagnosis."

In addition to her efforts in mental health awareness, O'Cana has created innovative programming in collaboration with faculty, such as the program Art of Happiness. She also uses counseling techniques such as positive psychology as a sort of preventative care to help students overcome the challenges they face in school and life.

"Our students overcome tremendous obstacles just to get here. They just have this unique drive, and a lot of times they just need a little bit of encouragement," said O'Cana. "Being able to help with the little things they need at that moment is a good opportunity."

Through her advocacy and efforts, Counseling Services at Palo Alto College has grown to include new opportunities, partnerships, and most recently, an opportunity for a new second full-time counselor position. Her previous knowledge as a private-practice Licensed Professional Counselor, now coupled with her continual consultation and treatment with students, assure she is continuing to foster developmental opportunities that benefit her institution and clients. Despite all her achievements in building the program, O'Cana says she was humbled to receive the statewide award.

"I was just so humbled because I know how talented and dedicated the other counselors [in the state] are," said O'Cana. "Just to be included in that group ¬– I felt really blown away by it."

To learn more about Counseling Services at Palo Alto Colege, visit alamo.edu/pac/share.