Caldwell University: An Adjunct’s Story

Karen Cook, NCC, LPC, Ed.D., has a long and varied career. While teaching in New Jersey public schools, she earned an MA in Counselor Education at Kean University, before going to post-graduate study at Fairfield University.

While continuing master’s work at Rider University, she earned her National Counseling Certification and Licensure before pursuing her Ed.D. at Creighton University, while serving as an adjunct instructor and adjunct administrator at Caldwell University for the last several years.

The Beginnings of a Lifelong Educator

Dr. Karen Cook explains that she was originally a Piano Performance major, but her practical-minded father said she needed to “do something with it,” so she went into teaching and counseling as well, which set her on a lifelong path of teaching and counseling. In 2012, some political changes made New Jersey less “teacher-friendly,” Cook shares, so the forecast for a future in the public schools looked bleak as she realized-even with her master’s degree and over thirty years of teaching experience-that her salary would be reduced when her responsibilities would remain the same; thus, Cook looked into early retirement and began her doctoral work at Creighton for the next phase of her life.

While a single mother working on her master’s, Cook also became an Licensed Professional Counselor and began her own counseling company. At Caldwell, Cook is an adjunct with the Department of Counseling and Psychology, where she has taught Marriage and Family Therapy, Counseling Practicum and Internship, Legal and Ethical Issues in Counseling, Introduction to School Counseling, and Counseling Children and Adolescents. In addition to her teaching duties, she also serves as Clinical Coordinator of School Counseling Interns.

Her pedagogical approach to every class is to tailor and adapt each syllabus to the needs of the group in front of her. To that end, at mid-term, she checks in with students to see what they need that they haven’t yet learned.She views herself as a discussion facilitator, and encourages student presentations with peer feedback-but quality feedback, which requires practice and training. Additionally, she stresses that she “tries to look at the person-not the student.”

Whether in the classroom or assisting students in defending their comprehensive exams, she focuses on being “challenging but welcoming.” In short, she wants to offer a “forward-giving spirit while asking them to toe the line.” Being focused on each individual student being heard and appreciated fits perfectly with Caldwell’s approach to students. In fact, what Cook most appreciates at Caldwell is the “stigma-free environment” fostered there, which places a high value on inclusivity and diversity in student backgrounds.

A Wealth of Expertise

Associate Professor Dr. Thomson J. Ling, Chair of the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Caldwell, notes that Cook brings “a wealth of expertise” with her, having served for decades as a school counselor while simultaneously running her own private practice. Ling notes, “These two areas of expertise dovetail perfectly into Caldwell’s Graduate Programs in Counseling which prepares future mental health counselors, school counselors, and art therapists.” Ling also shares his admiration for Cook’s passionate approach to her work and her skill in sharing her expertise with her students. He notes that one of the most admirable qualities of hers-and one she shares with other adjunct lecturers in their department-is that she is adept at connecting the course material to real-world experiences in such a way that “learning comes alive for students.”

Over the years she has worked at Caldwell, Ling believes Cook has quickly grown into a valuable member of their department, in part because their department’s approach to adjunct lecturers views them as “integrated members of our teaching staff”-a role that Cook fully embraces by going far beyond just teaching classes and prompting her to serve as a professional contact for alumni and current students, mentoring those young people long after they have completed a course with her.

Sister Catherine Waters, OP, PhD is the Coordinator of Graduate Programs in Counseling at Caldwell and has worked closely with Cook over the years. Waters notes, “She has, quite simply, been a gift to us.” She shares that Cook is not only strikingly generous with her time but “fired with energy for the mission”-which makes her an excellent role model for future counselors.

Among the many different courses Cook has taught for them, Waters states that students all share similar experiences, finding Cook prepared, interesting, and smart. Adding that she knows she can rely on excellence in all of Cook’s work, Waters explains that Cook has “shown herself to be knowledgeable, prepared, and has been well received by the students.” In other words, Waters adds, Cook has been an asset to the program in that she has devoted her time- inside and outside of the classroom-to ensure student success, while volunteering as well to help with aspects of program development.

A Magical Way of Sparking Engagement

Cook’s colleagues are not the only ones to notice and appreciate her devotion to her students and to the program in general. Former Caldwell student Laura Dispenzere, currently a counselor at a group home for adolescent females while she works toward a position in school counseling, was taught by Cook in two of her gradate classes and now considers Cook not only a mentor but also a good friend. Dispenzere shares, “Dr. Cook has inspired me to work my hardest to be the best school counselor (as well as mental health counselor). Dispenzere believes Cook’s experience is evident in her teaching, in both the way she taught and in the skillful way she integrated practical experiences into the group discussions. These lessons, she adds, are not only going to help guide the choices she makes in her future profession, but will also assist her in framing important life decisions-and she believes her peers would state the same.

As one of Cook’s students, Dispenzere was impressed by Cook’s level of devotion to all of her students, whether she was providing individual feedback, facilitating group discussions, or engaged in one-on-one talks about whatever a student might be facing at the moment. Dispenzere recalls being genuinely inspired by Cook’s approach to teaching and her students. “She gave her students her all,” she adds.

Melissa Nelson, who is a current postmaster’s student at Caldwell, shares that Cook’s classes are “incredibly engaging” because she tailors her assignments and syllabi to each group of students and their needs and because she “puts her heart into her work.” Even in a post-master’s level class filled with students who are already exhausted-having worked full days before arriving to the night class-Nelson notes that Cook has a “magical way of getting everyone to communicate” and a special talent for “helping people find their voices.”

“We Don’t Do It For the Pay”

Though many might be surprised by the level of devotion demonstrated by an educator receiving adjunct-level compensation, Cook shrugs off that concern. “We don’t do it for the pay,” she explains. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that no educators are drawn to the field by the promise of a life without financial struggles; many educators, instead, are drawn to teaching as a life calling-as a purpose they are meant to fill. She adds, “Money is secondary, to say the least.”

As she reflects on the importance of education and mentoring students, Cook recalls how profoundly citizens of New Jersey were affected by the events of 9/11, and how “the sentiments of that day still influence our thoughts and actions each September.” When this past September, a trash crashed in the nearby suburb of Hoboken, New Jersey, those feelings they were already experiencing each September were compounded. As she was sorting through the chaos of the day, she decided they should convene as a class; she recalls thinking, “I need to model how to have that conversation with people.” Now, years later, she still firmly believes educators have an integral role in modeling these healthy behaviors and facilitating these conversations for students-just as educators helped to model her. She concludes, “I feel a sense of responsibility in continuing that.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.