Six alumni return to their Rehabilitation Services roots to raise aspirations for graduate school.

By Marc Glass / November 2019

Well-liked as she is, Nicole Achey ’07 knows the limits of her sway over students.

Despite being an alumna of UMF, a graduate of the program in which she now teaches, and a Ph.D. candidate, Achey knows hers might not be the most compelling voice when it comes to encouraging her Rehabilitation Services students to consider graduate school.

Nicole Achey

Nicole Achey ’07, Lecturer in Rehabilitation Services at UMF and convener of the REH alumni graduate student panel. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

But Achey knows that younger alumni — those only a year or two out of UMF and either in or just out of graduate school — make for more accessible, credible role models.

Thus, in early November, Achey invited six recent Rehabilitation Services graduates to her sections of REH 380, Seminar in Professionalism, to help current students understand “how to navigate the world of graduate school and adult, professional employment.”

The goal, says Achey, is to provide current students with “anticipatory socialization” of graduate school. In other words, the panel presentations allow current students to hear the guest speakers’ narratives and realize, “If they can do it, I can do it, too.”

A first-generation-to-college student, Achey believes first-person testimonials about hurdles cleared and challenges overcome can be transformative for students who are long on talent, but perhaps lacking confidence.

“I remember when I was a student, Karen (Barrett ’91) said to me, ‘Why don’t you think about going to graduate school?’” says Achey of her former professor and now faculty colleague. “She saw in me potential that I didn’t yet see and gave me permission to consider a different future for myself.”

Karen Barrett

The alumni graduate student panel presentation became an even more joyful homecoming reunion when longtime Professor of Rehabilitation Services Karen Barrett ’91 (center) paid her group of former students a surprise visit. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

Achey, who went on to earn a master’s at the University of Northern Colorado and become a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor, is now working on completing her doctoral degree in Human Development at the University of Maine.

“Because I never thought I would earn a Ph.D., I know how valuable it is, as a student, to have someone come into your life and tell you that you can do it,” says Achey. “That’s why I bring recent graduates back to the classroom — to inspire and give courage to current students.”

Among the six alumni Achey invited to speak with REH 380 students in early November was Colby Leathers-Pouliot ’19, who is pursuing a master’s in counselor education with a concentration in school counseling at the University of Southern Maine. Leathers-Pouliot says returning to her alma mater to encourage current students to aim for graduate school was a “full-circle experience” of gratitude.

Colby Leathers-Pouliot

USM master’s candidates Colby Leathers-Pouliot ’19 (left) and Mariah Ellis ’19 gave up a day of study to share wit and wisdom with REH majors at UMF. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

 “On my drive to and from campus, I thought about how thankful I am to have the opportunity to come back, to talk about my program, and to see some of the people — Karen, Nicole, and (UMF career and graduate school advisor) Steve Davis — who helped me get to where I am now,” she says. “What I hope is that the students we presented to do the same thing when they graduate — give back to this incredible program and university.”

Also at USM, where she’s pursuing a master’s in clinical rehabilitation counseling, Mariah Ellis ’19 says she gave up a precious day of study “simply because Nicole asked me to.”

“I was honored that she thought I was in a position to make a meaningful contribution to her class,” says Ellis. “I am always willing to help students navigate the realities of the academic and professional world. Transitioning to a career or graduate school isn’t easy, and I am forever grateful for the people who helped me along my path. I hope I can do the same for others.”

Carissa Pocaro ’17, who completed her master’s in rehabilitation counseling at Northern Illinois University in May and is now an employment specialist at Maine Medical Center in Portland, took a day off from work for similar reasons as well as to strengthen her chosen profession.

Carissa Pocaro

Maine Medical Center Employment Specialist Carissa Pocarro ’17. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

“I truly wish everyone could have the opportunity to witness the power and impact of the work rehabilitation counselors do,” says Pocaro. “When clients see us they are often at their lowest point. They need someone to provide them with the resources necessary to obtain the job they have always wanted, as well as hope and encouragement. Once a client starts believing in themselves and seeing all the strengths you’ve seen all along, it’s an incredible thing to witness.”

Hailey Atkinson ’17, who graduated from the University of Northern Colorado Rehabilitation Counseling masters program in May and is now a vocational rehabilitation counselor with Maine’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, returned to her alma mater to pay it forward in return for what her professors provided her.

Hailey Atkinson

State Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Hailey Atkinson ’17 (Photo by Marc Glass.)

“UMF molded me into the working professional I am today, and I have Nicole and Karen to thank for that,” says Atkinson. “It was only two years ago that I was admitted to the University of Northern Colorado and had no idea what to expect. I think it’s important for current students to hear alumni perspectives and receive real information about the graduate programs they’re interested in. I hope that I eased the anxiety of the students I spoke to.”

Speaking for the group, Pocaro said she would be back any time Achey asked.

“I will never get tired of visiting UMF,” she says. “If it wasn’t for the faculty here, I wouldn’t have found the field that I am so passionate about. Coming home to share my perspective and experiences with students is the least I can do.”

Rehabilitation Services students listen intently to the panel of alumni in graduate school.

Students in Nicole Achey’s section of REH 305, Group Process In Human Service, listen appreciatively to the alumni panelists. (Photo by Ryan Mastrangelo.)

Spencer Trenoweth

Spencer Trenoweth ’17, a master’s candidate in Rehabilitation Counseling at USM, makes a point to Nicole Achey’s students. (Photo by Marc Glass.)

Jessica Morgan

Neither yet in nor out of graduate school, Jessica Morgan ’18 discussed her process of applying to master’s programs in counseling. (Photo by Marc Glass.)