Vonnie Ho has travelled a winding road in her pursuit to becoming a counsellor, juggling family expectations and changing courses. Working part-time in the hospitality industry whilst studying a Bachelor of Business exposed Vonnie to a diverse range of individuals and hearing her colleagues and customers past experiences, traumas, and family history ultimately affirmed her decision to become a counsellor. Vonnie decided to commit to this dream in 2019 when she commenced her Master of Counselling at Excelsia College. Fast forward to May 2022 and she enjoyed graduating with her cohort at Wesley Mission Conference Centre!
Vonnie was attracted to Excelsia because she wanted to learn counselling theory not only from a clinical world view, but also a Christian world view. ‘The diversity of the community in Excelsia College gives us the opportunity to make friends and connections with students within not only the counselling school but also other schools. At the same time, the small classes allowed us to build strong relationships with our peers. The staff members such as student support and the chaplain organise a lot of college activities, chapel services and Bible studies which create a caring and supportive environment for the student’s learning in college.’ As a Christian, Vonnie enjoyed getting involved in the College’s Bible study and also answering questions from her classmates who were exploring Christianity. ‘I felt very encouraged by my peers and also enjoyed the time to pray together and reading God’s Word,’ she explains.
During her time at Excelsia, Vonnie was trained with different counselling skills, had placement experience in the field and received one-on-one confidential counselling on campus as part of her course. ‘This gave me a great opportunity to foster my personal growth as a counsellor.’ Now, Vonnie is juggling different jobs and exploring her future career in counselling within a variety of different work contexts. This includes working with immigrants, using her multilingual abilities to relate to clients in English, Chinese and Malay, as well as working in one of the biggest psychiatric hospitals in Australia, with an Employee Assistance Program company and also running her own private practice.
One of Vonnie’s favourite quotes is by Henri J. M. Nouwen which says, ‘Be surprised by joy, be surprised by the little flower that shows its beauty in the midst of a barren desert, and be surprised by the immense healing power that keeps bursting forth like springs of freshwater from the depth of our pain.’ Vonnie explains, ‘I trust that each and every experience of our life shapes us for who we are and they are all different gifts of God. Sometimes we may have difficult feelings around, and that’s how it makes us human, the experiences in joy and trials walking with God.’ Vonnie values the importance of therapeutic relationships and in providing a safe space where individuals feel heard and supported with life’s challenges.
Studying during the beginning of the pandemic was both challenging and unsettling as classes moved online and students and staff didn’t know when they would be back on campus. Despite this, Excelsia College aimed to provide practical support to staff and students doing it particularly tough, something Vonnie is grateful for. ‘Even though we were unable to meet physically, I could still see how the staff and students were willing to support one another. The students also came up with a food donation drive for their friends who were financially struggling. I remember how a lot of our lecturers checked in with us, knowing that some of the students were struggling, which still warms my heart to this day.’
Part of Excelsia College’s values are to exemplify the life of Christ in our commitments, actions and in our relationships, and it is this community which Vonnie describes as ‘Christlike, inclusive and authentic’. Vonnie is reminded of God’s faithfulness, both in the good times and the bad times, also reflected through her favourite Bible verse Romans 8:28 which says, ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ This verse reminds me again of how God is faithful to each and every one of us, whether in good times or bad times. We can trust that God still loves us even if living in difficult times or uncertainties.’ Vonnie is now able to integrate her faith into her work as a counsellor and offers faith-based services to clients.
If you want to study counselling from a Christian perspective in a nurturing, supportive environment, why not explore our Graduate Diploma of Counselling and Master of Counselling? Alternative pathways are available if you do not have the required study.
Anthea Agoratsios graduated from Excelsia College in 2021 with a Master of Counselling, having previously completed her undergraduate studies with a Bachelor of Dramatic Art (majoring in Performance) in 2017. ‘I always knew after I completed my drama degree that I wanted to pursue counselling and specialise in working with actors and other creatives on a therapeutic level. The Master of Counselling offered by Excelsia covered a wide range of therapeutic modalities that aligned with the kind of therapy style I wanted to pursue. I felt a degree like this one would be a great starting point for me,’ Anthea explains.
Over her seven years spent at Excelsia, Anthea has seen the community grow and change as the College has expanded and diversified in its course offerings. Despite the changes, she has noticed the consistent love and support within the student community. ‘Excelsia is welcoming, diverse, and creative; I fell in love with the warmth and hospitality of the community atmosphere. The students I have met during my studies have left a lasting and special impact on my life; the memories I have made are ones that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Through Excelsia I have met my chosen family and for that I will be forever grateful,’ she says.
Life can be scary and uncertain at times, especially during seasons of change such as completing your studies and moving into your chosen career, however Anthea feels that the student community at Excelsia has supported her in this transition. ‘No matter how uncertain things may seem, there will always be a support network rallying behind you while you complete the transition. Additionally, the importance of hard work, dedication and resilience when striving to achieve your ambitions has been reinforced countless times.’
Anthea has many highlights and defining moments from her seven years spent at Excelsia College, however a defining theme she has noticed is her personal and professional growth. ‘Both counselling and acting training require a great deal of introspection and, for me personally, that has led to an immense amount of transformation. I can sometimes hardly recognise the girl that started at Excelsia seven years ago and I am extremely proud of the woman I’ve become,’ says Anthea.
After finishing her studies at the end of last year, Anthea took some well-deserved time off to travel. Now, she is working as a clinic coordinator at a healthcare clinic whilst continuing to aspire towards her goals to becoming a counsellor.
We are proud to have inspiring graduates such as Anthea who embody the College’s values of hard work and a desire to grow not only intellectually but also emotionally. We can’t wait to see what God has in store for Anthea as she uses her knowledge gained to assist actors and creatives. If you want to be transformed, why not explore what Excelsia College can offer you? With courses in counselling, social work, education, creative and performing arts and business, you will be extended in ways you never thought possible.
Enquire with us today by visiting https://excelsia.edu.au/
In an article in The Conversation (McArthur et al., 2021), factors such as ‘strict stay-at-home orders, repeated opening and closures of schools, social distancing from peers and other supports, limited or no access to sport and extracurricular activities, and many missed milestones such as graduation’ have all been cited as having a detrimental effect on youth mental health due to COVID-19. Dion Khlentzos, Senior Lecturer in Counselling at Excelsia College shares his thoughts about this concerning issue and the role that counsellors can play in a child’s life.
‘Young people in Australia have had it tough over the last two years. A press release from Camp Australia (2022) has documented the alarming rise in youth mental health problems since the start of the pandemic, with parents and school principals indicating their concerns about their children’s mental and physical health during this time. Particular concern was expressed by parents in the states with the longest lockdowns: Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT. Children and teens have had much less opportunity than previously to experience the joy of connecting with other young people over these last couple of years.
In some cases, professional help may be required to help improve a young person’s mental health. In these cases, the parents may choose to seek counselling for their children. Counsellors can work with the parents, the child, or the whole family to make a well-rounded assessment of the young person’s mental health and overall functioning, followed by some counselling sessions to help provide awareness of the specific issues that may be hindering the young person’s healthy functioning,’ Dr Khlentzos explains.
If you are interested in being trained as a counsellor within a Christian world view, Excelsia College’s Master of Counselling course covers a wide range of issues relevant to working with people of all ages. Subjects include Counselling Theories and Models; Approaches to Mental Health; Relational Dynamics; Trauma, Grief and Loss; Group Process: Theory and Practice; Development and Diversity; and other relevant areas, including elective units such as Introduction to Counselling Children and Young People and Introduction to Family Systems and Couples. The Master of Counselling is accredited by the major national counselling bodies PACFA and ACA and gives students the opportunity to put their skills into practice through one of our counselling placements.
Camp Australia. (2022, March 22). Supporting children’s wellbeing critical to safeguard the next generation’s mental health. Camp Australia. campaustralia.com.au/blog/supporting-children-s-wellbeing-critical-to-safeguard-the-next-generation-s-mental-health
McArthur, B. A., Racine, N., & Madigan, S. (2021, August 10). Child and youth mental health problems have doubled during COVID-19. The Conversation. theconversation.com/child-and-youth-mental-health-problems-have-doubled-during-covid-19-162750
The flow on effects of COVID-19 have been harmful. As a result of lockdown restrictions, family relationships have been more strained than ever before, unemployment, depression and anxiety have increased and, consequently, rates of domestic abuse and violence have skyrocketed. In July this year, the Australian Institute of Criminology revealed that almost 10 per cent of Australian women in a relationship had experienced domestic violence during the COVID-19 crisis (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2021, in Power, 2021). ‘COVID doesn’t make an abuser … But COVID exacerbates it. It gives them more tools, more chances to control you. The abuser says, “You can’t go out; you’re not going anywhere”, and the government also is saying, “You have to stay in” (Kluger, 2021). Calls to the New South Wales Lifeline helpline have risen by 27 per cent since the Sydney lockdown began last year (Power, 2021).
For students and staff of Excelsia College, the Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment (SASH) task force is on site to deal with issues of assault, with support officers trained in recognising cases where students may report being assaulted. One of the support officers is Dr Dion Khlentzos, Senior Lecturer in Counselling at Excelsia College. Dr Khlentzos is writing two papers concurrently on domestic violence, one with his former PhD research supervisor from Western Sydney University, on fathers in recovery from addictions. As part of his research, Dr Khlentzos ran an emotion-focused parenting program with the Salvation Army. There, he heard men’s stories and realised violence during childhood was a common theme. The men’s violent behaviour was repeated in their own families and a number of the men admitted to having been violent at some level in their intimate partner relationships. ‘These men had been mandated to do a rehab program with the Salvation Army or Odyssey House. Sometimes they had the choice of going to jail or doing the rehab program and one of the things that really motivated them to do rehab was their relationships with their children,’ Dr Khlentzos explains. ‘That’s why we thought a parenting program for them as they recover from addictions could be really helpful for them to engage better with their children when they come back out. Part of the recovery process is becoming more emotionally stable, less addicted to alcohol and more aware of other people, so they are less likely to offend again.’ As the Salvation Army is set within a Christian world view, a number of the offenders also spoke about a renewed relationship with God as they recovered.
The research revealed a lot of surprising truths to Dr Khlentzos, including that the men were more emotionally engaged and aware than he had expected. ‘I thought they would switch off a bit when talking about emotions and feel like it’s too sensitive or un-manly – a lot of them coming out of addictions and from impoverished backgrounds– but they were actually pretty engaged and realised they did have to get better at emotionally connecting with their children as well as engaging in shared activities with them,’ says Dr Khlentzos. He sees his work as aligning with his Christian faith which supports truth, love, and compassion. ‘What that does is grounds me in terms of not going off chasing after theories that have very little evidence because it might be a personal interest but being as honest as possible about the research and looking at both sides of the argument…and conveying that to my students.’
‘Excelsia’s counselling courses are incredibly relevant to our current times and explore themes of domestic violence within various units. For example, in the unit Relational Dynamics, couple relationships are discussed and there’s a lecture on domestic violence. In the unit Development and Diversity, women’s issues and gender in domestic violence is explored, and lastly in the unit Ethics, individuals’ ethical responsibilities as counsellors in responding to domestic violence is explored,’ says Dr Khlentzos. As part of their course, Master of Counselling students must complete 100 hours of working with clients face to face outside of COVID-19 times. This is across clinics, organisations and placement organisations. Students also must undergo their own therapy with the College’s counsellors. Using this knowledge attained throughout their studies, Excelsia counselling students can run support groups for people with various addictions and mental health issues, provide women’s crisis counselling support, and work in a local church or private institution.
If you have a heart for social justice or for supporting marginalised groups, why not consider a Graduate Certificate in Counselling or Master of Counselling? The Certificate and Master are available to students who have completed an undergraduate degree in a related field like social work and psychology. Both courses are accredited by Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) and the Australian Counselling Association (ACA).
If you feel you need support, Excelsia College’s Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment (SASH) policy and procedure are available to Excelsia’s staff and students. If you need to report an incident at the College, please go to https://excelsia.wufoo.com/forms/sexual-assaultsexual-harassment/
The following support services are available if you need to speak to a qualified professional:
- Lifeline (13 11 14)
- Beyond Blue (1300 224 636)
- Domestic Violence Line (1800 65 64 63)
Australian Institute of Criminology. (2021). The prevalence of domestic violence among women during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Australian Institute of Criminology. https://www.aic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-07/sb28_prevalence_of_domestic_violence_among_women_during_covid-19_pandemic.pdf✎ EditSign
Kennedy, E. (2020, December 1). The worst year: domestic violence soars in Australia during Covid-19. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/dec/01/the-worst-year-domestic-violence-soars-in-australia-during-covid-19
Kluger, J. (2021, February 3). Domestic violence is a pandemic within the COVID-19 pandemic. Time Magazine. https://time.com/5928539/domestic-violence-covid-19/
Power, J. (2021, July 14). ‘It’s like someone’s cancer has come back’: Lifeline calls spike during lockdown. Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/it-s-like-someone-s-cancer-has-come-back-lifeline-calls-spike-during-lockdown-20210714-p589n7.html
When Priyanka Reddy Allu first stepped foot on Excelsia College’s campus grounds in July 2018, she distinctly remembers having no idea where she was and which way she needed to go. ‘I remember on my first day of orientation, I was so clueless and someone saw me and said, are you okay, is everything fine?’ Like most first-year students, she had no idea how to locate her classroom. Thankfully in a matter of minutes, she’d received a helping hand and found her counselling class. It was that moment that sticks out in Priyanka’s mind as she describes Excelsia College as a place that instantly felt like home.
Making the massive leap from India, Australia’s high quality of education is what first attracted Priyanka to our shores. ‘From the beginning I started looking for courses in Australia. Going through the counselling course description at Excelsia, I was very much interested because it’s not just basics they teach you, but it was the fact that there were more practical units that really drew my attention,’ Priyanka explains. It wasn’t, however, an easy transition for Priyanka to assimilate into a completely new culture and she felt very out of place at the start, homesick and not sure how long she would last in Australia. ‘I was going down mentally, not adjusting to the environment, the house and people; it was a great struggle.’ Priyanka also came with her own cultural expectations and judgements about how people were going to treat her. ‘I wondered who was going to sit with me, but this course proved to me that this was the wrong thinking. We have a very culturally diverse class and that really helped a lot to make me feel comfortable. There’s a lot of peer support and shared group experiences and that was something valuable to the course,’ Priyanka notes.
Back home in India, Priyanka had completed her Bachelor’s in Fashion Technology, combining her passion for painting and exploring different clothing styles. She worked for two years in the field but underwent her own life challenges when she struggled with depression. It was the caring support of a counsellor that acted as the catalyst for Priyanka’s completely new career direction. ‘I just remember the first time I took counselling and the experience that I had, how I was able to connect to my counsellor. The kind of compassion she was providing me and her being open-minded really moved me. Immediately I realised there are enough designers in the world, and I need to get into counselling to help someone else,’ Priyanka explains. She then made the switch to studying a Diploma in Counselling in India and worked for one year in schools and colleges.
Whilst the Diploma in India helped provide Priyanka with a foretaste to counselling, she doesn’t feel like it scratched the surface on what she studied in her Master course. This became evident when she went for her interview at St Vincent’s Hospital and was able to confidently answer all the questions. ‘That’s when I realised that Excelsia College prepared me so well and whatever I shared with them during the interview was enough for them to train me. Looking back, I can confidently say it exceeded my expectations. I feel complete after doing this course, I’m not lacking anything.’ As part of their rigorous training, students are required to undergo 200 hours of counselling and 100 hours of practicum. The last unit students complete is about counselling and their personal experience with clients. ‘I picked up a lot of tricks to compartmentalise and do a lot of self-care as well,’ said Priyanka.
‘I liked the practical work and being able to talk about our own experiences and practise the theories we’ve just learned. Also, the lecturers sharing their own personal experiences were really helpful all round,’ Priyanka explains. ‘It’s not a job where it’s like, here’s this part of theory and this is what you need to do. Every day is constantly rewarding because there’s different clients and theories that we need to apply and different kinds of approaches. It’s very brain stimulating and constant learning and that’s what I love,’ Priyanka said.
Creating a women’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation program is what Priyanka envisaged herself doing when she first decided to take this course; nearly three years on, her dreams are becoming a reality. Following her graduation in November 2020, the Master of Counselling alumnus has been working at St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst. Since her practicum in women’s rehabilitation, and after joining the alcohol and drug department of the Mental Health Unit, Priyanka has provided counselling services and created group programs in mindfulness. ‘I was providing individual counselling, sitting with them, giving them support, listening to them and building their trust. I also created group programs on awareness and adapting to change and developing tolerance.’ Priyanka feared she wouldn’t connect with her clients, especially when many of her clients weren’t from the same cultural background. Thankfully it was a positive experience for her, and Priyanka was able to build a rapport with her clients over time, seeing them come up in different places.
Although it has been a challenging two-year journey, Priyanka has felt supported by Excelsia the whole way through. ‘I remember starting my practical during the beginning of lockdown. I joined one place and within two weeks it was closed. I had even moved to another house and bought a car to travel because it was very far from me, located on the outskirts of Sydney. Thankfully I was still able to do my three practicums – one at Excelsia and the others externally – and I was getting the right support and finishing on time due to my visa requirements. Priyanka remembers Bobby Abraham, Chief Admissions, Global Engagement and Partnerships as the first person who made her feel welcome, as well as the School Administrative Coordinator who helped answer questions regarding documents, courses, and enrolments. ‘The College doesn’t let you struggle on your own. There’s proper guidance that comes throughout the journey and there’s always someone who’s ready to help, no wonder what time it is,’ said Priyanka.
Priyanka also noticed the genuine care of the Excelsia teaching staff, something she wasn’t accustomed to. ‘The lecturers made me feel at home and I stopped missing my family…I think that’s very important for students coming from overseas. It was more like a family: comfortable, welcoming, supportive in all ways, not just educationally, and they would always follow up to see if we had good places to live and whether we had part-time jobs…I’ve never experienced such things in India. The lecturers there are super strict; you can’t even call them by their names, you must address them as teacher.’ Excelsia is proud to be an interdenominational Christian-based community and accepting of all cultures and backgrounds. ‘The classes started with prayer to have a safe environment and closed in prayer. Although I’m not Christian, I could feel that energy in the class that it was a very safe space,’ Priyanka says.
Since joining the Excelsia community, Priyanka has developed not only her professional identity but evolved as a whole person. ‘Excelsia definitely helped prepare me to look at things in a non-judgemental way and with an open mind. A lot of self-work and healing has really helped me to become a better person and better understand relationships. I also used to hold negative thoughts but now I’m able to turn them into positive ones and that’s really changing the way I view the relationships I have and the people I surround myself with,’ she says. Priyanka also noticed a contrast between Excelsia’s counselling course and learning structure when she spoke to students from the capstone unit in the practicum, and the knowledge they acquired was very theoretical and they had to do stuff on their own without support. ‘That’s when I knew that I’ve taken so much from this course and the College.’
It doesn’t look like it’s the end of the road when it comes to further studies for Priyanka. ‘I’m planning on studying criminology in the future but for the next 6 to 12 months, I’ll be getting trained in opioid treatment. It’s something very new, and it’s challenging to do the mediation and understand the kind of drugs involved. I want to take part in DBT groups (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy), create more group programs, and see how these can be useful to treat alcohol and drug issues.’
Priyanka’s advice to anyone contemplating studying counselling is to start whenever you want to. ‘Whether you’re twenty, thirty, sixty or even ninety years old, you can not only make a difference in others’ lives, but you can also change your world view as you learn to better understand not only yourself but also others.’ We can’t wait to see where Priyanka ends up and we’re thrilled to have been a part of her journey.
To find out more about our counselling courses, please visit our Counselling School page: