Ed.D. Program Equips Student to Lead With Care in Midst of Chaos
by Ellie Walburg (B.S. ’17)
"Leadership in hostile, fast-paced environments requires a mindset of thriving on chaos, yet the beautiful thing about this program is its emphasis on caring for people within this chaos," Ed.D. student Dennis Chitwood said.
For Chitwood, pursuing his doctoral degree at Cornerstone University's Professional & Graduate Studies division came as an unexpected journey but has shaped the direction of how he desires to serve and reach those he serves at his counseling center.
At his Bridges of West Michigan center, Chitwood works with counselors who serve a population of high-risk youth facing serious and challenging circumstances. The field of counseling is not an easy path, and Chitwood has witnessed the effects of the strain of these counselors who stand in the gap between the community and clients. "Feelings of disenfranchisement are common themes, along with burnout and secondary traumatic stress in those who address multiple cases involving deep trauma," he said.
Such a passion brought him to focus on the topic of secondary traumatic stress for his doctoral capstone course. "This capstone project is getting me in touch with cutting edge research literature and driving me deeper into those issues that proliferate secondary traumatic stress and that which mitigate the symptoms so that I can provide more effective supervision for clinicians who service the needs of these youth," he said.
Chitwood's focus comes through seeing the value and respect of those he serves, both counselors and clients.
"The human element of this work, in combination with some of the greatest challenges in working with the deepest trauma, places counselors in the firing line when addressing their clients' needs," he said. "We need to be advocating for the counselors who are adversely and permanently impacted by this work so we as clinical supervisors and directors will know how to intervene and care for these clinicians."
The path Chitwood travels in accomplishing this research project is not a lonely one. Throughout his program, Chitwood has been supported and encouraged by those around him. In addition to the support from his wife, Ingrid (B.A. ’81) and his family, he has also journeyed this doctoral path with his fellow cohort members who understand the work and are there to support him.
"The comradery and encouragement of others in our cohort have kept me motivated," he said. "We take care of each other and are sure to call and encourage when we see a fellow student get discouraged."
His capstone project work is rooted in the course work he has excelled in over the past two years. The practical literature, discussions and other assignments assigned in the curriculum provide an opportunity for practical application.
"I said that if I had to wait until I'm done getting the degree to benefit from this, then this isn't the program for me," he said. "I want to be learning and applying what I'm learning. It was so fun to bring it back to the workplace."
Courses on topics like leadership and human resources were especially pertinent in his role of directing his counseling center.
"A theme that's played over and over again is that effective supervision of counselors demonstrates genuine care, concern and intervention in a way that genuinely cares for them. This mitigates the impact of secondary traumatic stress," he said. "I knew that intuitively in working with people, but until I had the resources to back up what I knew with hard evidence and research, it's just my opinion. Now, I'm more confident with the backing of the program."
Following the completion of his capstone project, Chitwood anticipates growing his counseling agency and ministry as he expands it to meet the needs of surrounding areas.
"This is a calling—a life trajectory—and to do anything else would not have purpose or meaning for me," he said. "As long as God gives me the breath and strength, I plan to keep working and serving in some capacity."
Chitwood intends to complete and defend his dissertation on the experience of secondary traumatic stress for professional counselors who address the needs of teens who are ordered into residential treatment for sexual offenses in the spring of 2020.