UH Hilo’s graduate program in counseling psychology is now accessible to off-island students via distance learning technology

  • In a new hybrid system, students in the counseling psychology graduate program who live on Hawai‘i Island receive their classroom learning in a more traditional way, while students on neighbor islands now have access through a videoconferencing system.
  • Coordinators of the program hope the new system helps increase much-needed mental health clinicians across the state.  

By Leah SherwoodPhotos by Raiatea Arcuri.

Group of about 20 people stand for photo.
Psychology professors Bryan Kim (second row, far left), Charmaine Higa-McMillan (center front), Sunyoung Kim (center right in blue), and Steve Herman (back row, far right) stand with graduate students enrolled in the UH Hilo counseling psychology program, Oct. 1, 2019.

Pursuing a master of arts in counseling psychology at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is now possible for students living on other islands in the state thanks to the addition of a new distance learning component to the program. In a new hybrid system, students in the counseling psychology graduate program who live on Hawai‘i Island receive their classroom learning in a more traditional way, while students on neighbor islands now have access through a videoconferencing system. The system is provided via the Hawai‘i Interactive Television System or HITS, an interactive video service found throughout the 10-campus UH System that delivers distance learning courses within the state of Hawai‘i.

Charmaine Higa-McMillan, professor of psychology at UH Hilo, says the goal of the new hybrid program is to provide a pathway for students throughout the state who are seeking professional development to build careers in the mental health profession in Hawai‘i. “We really want to train students who want to stay in Hawai‘i after earning their degree,” she says.

Bryan Kim
Bryan Kim

Bryan Kim, professor of psychology and director of the counseling psychology program says UH Hilo is the only public institution in Hawai‘i to provide this type of hybrid degree.

“I think that students on the neighbor islands are appreciative that the [distance] program is offered because in the past I had inquiries about a distance education component from potential students and I had to tell them no, you have to move to Hilo,” Kim says. “Of course, they can’t because they have families or other commitments or it is too costly to move to Hilo. We overcame all these barriers with the videoconferencing technology that UH already had.”

The program

The first year of the two-year program focuses on theory, classroom instruction, and role-playing. This is followed by an internship and practicum component where students are placed in a community organization to gain practical experience providing mental health services to clients. To pass this component, students must log 300 direct hours of counseling time under the supervision of a licensed practitioner. Remote students also visit the Hilo campus twice a year for intensive weekend sessions.

Charmaine Higa-McMillan
Charmaine Higa-McMillan

The revamped program, currently in its second year, is balancing two cohorts across the state of Hawai‘i simultaneously. Students from the 2018 cohort are now satisfying their internship and practicum hours. This is the first time the program is placing students in training facilities on neighboring islands.

Higa-McMillan serves as the field placement coordinator for the degree’s practicum requirement. She says her role is to serve as a matchmaker between potential practicum sites in the community and the students. She has expanded the list of available training sites by developing new community partnerships on neighboring islands, thereby providing more options for students to fulfill their degree requirements. These sites include the YWCA of Kaua‘i, I Ola Lāhui, and the UH Mānoa Counseling and Student Development Center on O‘ahu.

Access for all

Lauren Harrington, a second-year student in the program, is completing her practicum while living on O‘ahu. She is based out of UH Mānoa but enrolled as a UH Hilo student.

“My interest in supporting the entire family grew after teaching special education,” she says. “I wanted to earn my licensure as a parent-child interaction therapist, but to do so you must hold a clinical license. I came across the two-year master’s program for counseling psychology through UH Hilo, which leads you to licensure as a licensed mental health counselor.”

Harrington is completing her practicum on O‘ahu at I Ola Lāhui, a private non-profit agency.

“I sought them out because they gear their services towards rural communities,” she says. “I taught special education for four years, and during that time I developed a passion for working with low-income populations in rural areas. As I was learning more about I Ola Lāhui, I came across a video on their website where the executive director says ‘I have two hands, how can I help,’ and that statement aligned so deeply with my personal goals that I knew I wanted to be placed at this agency.”

Because of its hybrid design, the graduate program is still accessible to students living on Hawai‘i Island. Isaiah Lincoln, a veteran of the United States Army, went straight into the program after completing his psychology degree at UH Hilo. While he was an undergraduate, he worked at the Hilo Vet Center on a work-study award. Now in his first year of the graduate program, he says likes the interactivity with others in his cohort and the diverse backgrounds of the faculty.

Class looks up at two large video screens where outer island members of the class are able to be part of the classroom experience.
The videoconferencing technology gives outer island students access to the counseling psychology degree and gives Hawai‘i Island students the chance to interact with peers from other islands.

“It’s nice to be able to interact with people from other islands,” says Lincoln, who was born and raised on Hawai‘i Island. “I also think it is a good opportunity to see how teleconferencing could be used in a therapeutic setting.”

Lincoln is ultimately interested in assisting individuals with transitions, whether that is working with veterans making the transition back to civilian life or assisting high school students make the transition to college.

The need

Higa-McMillan says there are a number of students who have completed their undergraduate psychology degree and counseling psychology master’s degree at UH Hilo, and are now employed in the community.

“A few of our students have stayed on at their [practicum] placements and become employed at that placement to gain their additional hours toward their licensure,” she says. “And some have stayed on and are now supervising practicum students from our program.”

A report from 2019 by Mental Health America states that only 28.2 percent of youth with severe major depressive episode received consistent mental health treatment, and more than 10 million adults reported an unmet need for mental health care. “Behavioral health has been identified as a key area for improvement across the state, particularly in Hawai‘i’s rural areas,” says Higa-McMillan. “More mental health clinicians are sorely needed.”

Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business administration with a concentration in finance at UH Hilo.