Nationally Relevant Research Positions UNO to Meet Surging Demand for Health Counseling
By Robyn Murray
Abby Bjornsen-Ramig, Ph.D., runs her hand along the shiny surface of a laminate reception desk. Her fingers land on a cream-colored ceramic container filled with mints. Those are for clients — and like everything in this softly lit space, they were carefully chosen. The comfortable couches, the culturally inclusive artwork on the walls, HGTV playing softly in the waiting area and the faint aroma of cinnamon coffee in the air have all been designed to create a serene, inviting setting where clients feel relaxed and welcome.
Bjornsen-Ramig, associate professor and clinical training director in the counseling department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is giving a tour of the newly renovated Community Counseling Clinic on the first floor of Roskens Hall. The thoughtfully decorated space represents how far the program has come. Students and community members can visit the office and receive counseling services from advanced graduate students in one of the comfortably furnished private therapy rooms, which are fully equipped with subtle audio and video recording equipment for supervisory purposes.
Some of the people who have made this progress possible are part of the tour Bjornsen-Ramig is leading: Marti Rosen-Atherton and John Atherton, two counseling icons in Omaha; and Jack and Stephanie Koraleski, UNO alumni and longtime friends and colleagues of the Athertons.
“When we were here, we had to hold counseling sessions in big classrooms, working off those rickety wooden desks,” Rosen-Atherton said. “This is so much better.”
A living legacy of service
The Athertons dedicated much of their careers to counseling at UNO. They taught in the counseling department for nearly three decades after receiving their degrees at the university; and Rosen-Atherton served as director of what is now UNO Counseling and Psychological Services from 2003 to 2012. Stephanie Koraleski studied under Rosen-Atherton as a graduate assistant at UNO before serving the community as a licensed psychologist.
First founded in 1977, UNO’s Community Counseling Clinic has evolved tremendously since those early days. But in recent years, the clinic and overall department have progressed even more rapidly. The growth is partly due to an accelerating demand for counseling services brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and an easing of the stigma around mental health. But it is also due to the department’s rising-star faculty and the national attention they’ve garnered from their research. The rise has been so pronounced that UNO is currently able to admit only 60% of the applicants qualified to study in the counseling department.
“I’ve seen it go in a really great direction in terms of student interest, program rigor, clinic expansion, community partnerships, faculty research and applications for external and internal funding,” said Bjornsen-Ramig, who began her faculty career at UNO in 2012. She received the Alumni Outstanding Teaching Award in 2021, has published numerous articles and book chapters and presents her research annually at local, regional and national professional conferences.
“I think we are more on the map of the college and of the university than we were previously, so it’s been a really exciting time to be part of this team,” she said.
Elevating the department through research that matters
Bjornsen-Ramig says elevating the reputation — and ultimately the footprint — of the counseling department is aided tremendously by faculty who conduct nationally relevant research. Bjornsen-Ramig’s research focuses on career development and the impact of work on personal and professional wellness. During the pandemic, as the traditional workplace was upended, Bjornsen-Ramig became a regular feature in local media.
“I am passionate about that area of study because of its centrality in everyone’s life,” Bjornsen-Ramig said. “Everybody either works or they’re looking for work. They don’t like their job, they’re underemployed or unemployed, they’re being bullied at work. I think it’s a really important area of study, and it intersects beautifully with wellness and counseling.”
While Bjornsen-Ramig represents the future of UNO counseling, her professorship was made possible by the living legacies of the past.
Bjornsen-Ramig holds the Marti & John Atherton Clinical Mental Health Counseling Professorship, which was provided in honor of the Athertons through generous gifts from the Koraleskis as well as numerous friends and colleagues who were impacted by the Athertons’ work in counseling. The gift represents a line of investment and continuity from community stakeholders who care deeply about counseling at UNO, the people it helps — and the future it must rise to meet.
“I really want to do them proud and to be able to make great strides in their honor,” Bjornsen-Ramig said. “We’re in a really good place now as a faculty to kind of explode out of the gates.”