From Troubled Kid to Gifted Counselor
October 26, 2016
Holly Thompson M.Ed. ’09
On her first day as a school counselor at Rowe Middle School in North Clackamas County, Oregon, Holly Thompson met a defiant seventh grader who would soon become one of her favorite students.
He walked into her office facing expulsion after arguing with teachers and yelling at the new principal, who’d asked him to remove his marijuana-themed socks.
“We clicked instantly,” says Thompson, who was named Oregon’s 2015 School Counselor of the Year in January. “I learned that his mother struggled with drug addiction and he’d bounced around the foster care system for four years without any real relationships.”
Thompson took the 13-year-old under her wing, connecting with his caseworkers and foster mother, getting him tested for learning differences, and even helping him shop for school clothes. After a brief suspension, he was back at school, flourishing in special education classes with zero behavior problems. “He realized the principal and I had gone to bat for him, and he was a different kid when he returned,” she says.
Thompson’s own difficult background prepared her well for such encounters. She grew up in a troubled family in Gresham, Oregon. Her parents battled alcohol and drug addiction, and her father spent time in jail. They often sent her to live with relatives and eventually kicked her out of the house during her last two years of high school. “I stayed with friends until their parents objected, and then I lived in my car,” she says.
At school, counselors didn’t encourage Thompson or provide a safety net. But fortunately, a social studies teacher stepped in as her advocate. He encouraged her to attend college, arranged campus tours, and guided her through the application process—resulting in a full scholarship to Eastern Oregon University.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, she decided to pursue graduate work in school counseling. She chose Lewis & Clark’s Graduate School of Education and Counseling due to its stellar reputation. She still consults weekly with her first Lewis & Clark instructor, Gene Eakin, an early champion of her professional growth.
“At Lewis & Clark, I learned to advocate for myself and for my students—and to set clear boundaries,” says Thompson. “It’s important to educate teachers, administrators, and other colleagues about the counselor’s role as a leader and change maker.”
Next year, Thompson will introduce weekly dialectic behavior therapy, part of a curriculum package she purchased with her own funds. “We have over 900 middle school students at Rowe and a high rate of attrition linked to poverty, addiction, suicidal tendencies, and other trauma in the community,” she says. “The new program features solid lessons that will train kids to manage their emotions before they enter high school.”
With a penchant for tenacity and leadership, Thompson continues to challenge herself through professional development opportunities. She was recently elected president of the Oregon School Counselor Association, and she’s currently working on her doctoral thesis at Oregon State University.
“I have no trouble going to bat for students whose personal environments hinder their growth,” she says. “I feel absolutely confident when I tell them ‘If I can succeed, so can you.’”
—by Pattie Pace