College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

New counseling professor returns to CEHD for a homecoming of sorts

November 1, 2019

by Greg Sullivan

Joining Mason’s nationally renowned Counseling and Development faculty this fall has been like coming home for Professor Sam Steen.


Dr. Sam Steen

After completing his PhD at Mason back in 2007, Steen taught in the D.C. area until his last job as faculty chair of the University of Arizona’s counseling program took him across the country.

Now that he’s back with the College of Education and Human Development, Steen said it’s nice to be in familiar surroundings. He took some time to fill us in on what it’s like to be back and working with Mason students as a full-time professor at his graduate school alma mater, along with where he sees the counseling field heading.

What’s it like being on campus again? Are there colleagues you’re most excited to see again after being away for more than a decade? Are their parts of the campus and community you look forward to visiting again?

Apart from the social aspects of moving back to Northern Virginia and my joining the faculty, my professional transition has been tremendous. The colleagues within the School of Education and within the Counseling program in particular are truly like a family.

I used to eat at one of the local restaurants across Braddock Road named Brion’s Grille, near campus, and recently I took my family out there for dinner. I also remember watching the men’s basketball team prior to Mason making its Final Four run. I look forward to watching them play again.

I played college basketball for the College of William and Mary back when the two schools used to be basketball rivals. I suspect it’ll be a lot easier to root for Mason this time around being associated with the school in this new way [Mason and William & Mary are no longer in the same athletic conference].

You’ve spent a good portion of your life in Virginia and the D.C. area. All of your degrees are from the state of Virginia and your early career started off nearby. How have the area and Mason changed, and how has the counseling field changed since you’ve been in the field?

Mason has made tremendous changes. You can see all of the construction on campus to validate this idea. Additionally, seeing the public transportation within the region being expanded has been refreshing. It’s also an indicator of the ongoing growth in Northern Virginia. More growth seemed impossible since it was already so heavily populated.

The field of school counseling continues to develop and grow, as well. The American School Counseling Association just released the fourth edition of the ASCA National Model this past summer. And in Virginia, over $12 million has been allocated for increasing the number of school counselors within public schools in an effort to reduce the student-to-school counselor ratio. ASCA recommends a 250:1 ratio, while Virginia is currently at a 385:1 ratio, and the national average ratio in the U.S. is 464:1, based on recent figures.

Our state school counseling association continues to do a herculean job at advocating for these funds and additional monies to ensure these ideals become reality within Virginia. We’re serving as a model here in the state for other states fighting similar political battles.

The Mason Counseling program’s mission focuses on social justice, multiculturalism, advocacy, leadership, and internationalism. How do these themes resonate with you personally and professionally?

The mission resonates with me overall. I’ve been intentional at remaining a practitioner-researcher to ensure the relevance of my work to the folks actually doing the practical work within the school and community trenches.

At the same time, I aim to focus on populations within school settings that are often overlooked or viewed from a deficit perspective for far too long. I volunteer at schools to implement group counseling interventions which build on the strengths of the adolescents. I also volunteer at an after-school program that I created focused on fostering college and career readiness components in elementary school using some aspects and skills that can cross over from the basketball court to the classroom and vice versa.

I believe the lessons I learned as a college athlete have served me well throughout my career.

You’ve published widely in the counseling field. Are there areas of counseling that especially interest you right now? Or any new research you’re investigating or excited about at the moment?

I am teaching a new course [“Principles and Practices in School Counseling”], which is exciting and poses a number of opportunities.

I also recently met with senior administrative faculty to explore external funding, and the opportunities in this regard were overwhelming. I’m excited about finding the next iteration of my research or niche that utilizes my talent and keeps me motivated over the next decade or two. I love coming to work here at Mason, and that is definitely a great start!

Having been a Mason student once yourself, how do you approach teaching?

I believe that my teaching philosophy was developed as a PhD student at Mason. I know that my current goals include helping prepare school counselors with strong professional identities within a field that is constantly in flux.

I rely on the students within the courses to do their part by intentionally giving them space to help co-construct what emerges in our classroom. I learned this in my “Ways of Knowing” course back in the day.

At the same time, I know that graduate school can be overwhelming, especially if you are working full time and balancing family and school responsibilities. So, I attempt to take a pulse of the course and students during the semester and adjust accordingly. Some students love the fluid structure and others remain anxious the entire semester. Regardless, I help them understand that schools are unpredictable, and learning to live and function within the ambiguity—and chaos at times—is a skillset that will serve them well.

What kind of advice do you give our counseling students now?

It has served me well to be patient with my professional development and to not compare myself to my highly skilled, gifted, and successful peers. Our society here and abroad can definitely use a myriad of practitioner-researchers because there is no shortage of need.

What I suggest is that my counseling students look at their academic backgrounds and the professional training and preparation they receive at Mason as a place to start a lifelong professional journey.