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Josh Smith: Counseling Within Community

Josh Smith in the hallway of Western High School

Josh Smith ’04, ’07 has built his career around helping others succeed. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people,” he says. “I’ve always had an interest in how people think and why people do what they do.”

As an undergraduate student at Spring Arbor University, Smith, a Springport, Michigan, native who commuted to campus, found his place in the education department, where he studied to teach history and psychology at the secondary level. After graduating in 2004, Smith began his career as a high school teacher, staying close to home by taking positions at Will Carleton Academy in Hillsdale, Michigan, where he spent his first year, and Northwest High School in Jackson, Michigan, where he spent the next three.

Although Smith enjoyed teaching, he aspired to take on a different role within the high school setting — one in which he could offer more personalized guidance to students. He decided to return to SAU to earn his Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC).

Going back to school can be challenging, especially for someone working full-time as a high school teacher. Smith dedicated three years of Monday nights to the MAC program — and considers it one of the best career moves he could have made.

“I loved the MAC program,” says Smith. “I left those three years feeling ready to begin counseling, to help people and to enter that next stage of life.”

“[The MAC] classroom was a very practical environment. It was more than just looking at textbooks and listening to lectures. Our professors would put us in situations that would challenge us, but also give us the real-world experience of being a counselor.”

After completing his master’s degree in 2007, Smith began work as a school counselor at Western High School in Parma, Michigan. He has now served in this role for over 13 years. It’s his full-time job — but it isn’t the only way he has engaged with his community through counseling. 

Smith enjoyed his experience in the MAC program so much that he later considered it a privilege to return to the program for a few years as an adjunct instructor, helping to lead others through the courses that changed his career. “After going out into the real world, I was able to come back and do some teaching in the program, which was a lot of fun,” he says.

Smith found another opportunity to educate other counselors through the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN), an extension of the Michigan Department of Education that trains hundreds of school counselors each year to help them prepare students to pursue their college and career goals after high school. Smith spent four years working with MCAN, helping to equip school counselors across the state with information and resources they could use to help students find post-graduation success.

Smith tries to emulate Christ by empowering the people around him to go out and help others. 

Within the Jackson community, Smith has served for three of the last six years as president of the Jackson Counseling Association, which unites local school counselors and counseling agencies for mutual support.

Additionally, Smith serves alongside SAU alumnae Terri Tchorzynski ’10 and Elizabeth Kanagawa ’06, ’11 on the Governing Board for the Michigan School Counselor Association.

“God has given me some unique opportunities,” says Smith. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to use them to be a light.”

Smith dedicates time during his evenings and weekends to serve as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) for people of all ages and walks of life at A Healing Place in Jackson. By working at a private practice, Smith can help others address a breadth of challenges and situations. “I really like the variety of people that I get to work with and the ways in which I get to see people helped through their different struggles,” says Smith.

As a counselor, Smith has seen and helped others through numerous difficult situations that he had never been exposed to or encountered before going into counseling. He’s often reminded of how hopeless many people feel in our fallen world. Although his work is rooted in his faith, Smith knows that because of the setting of his work, he can’t always “just come right out with it” and offer Christ to his clients and students. Instead, Smith aims to be a consistent and stable presence in the lives of those around him.

“The goal would be that my faith would provide an opportunity to showcase a sense of strength and security that can only come from Christ,” says Smith. “Hopefully, co-workers and people that I come in contact with will see the peace, will see the joy, will see Christ in me.”

Smith does all of his work for the glory of God and seeks to be a strong Christian witness within his community. “As Christians, we hope that we’re shining lights in our neighborhoods and communities,” he says.

In 2020, Smith answered Governor Whitmer’s call for applications to her COVID-19 Return to Learn Advisory Council, which was to work alongside the governor in charting a path forward for K-12 students in Michigan during the pandemic. Smith was selected from among 18,000 applicants. “They told us in the first meeting that there was a better chance of getting into Harvard than there was of getting on that committee,” he says.

The committee was comprised of 27 professionals from across the state of Michigan. They were superintendents, principals, board members, doctors, athletic directors, parents, senators and counselors. As the only school counselor on the committee, Smith represented the student-aged population as a mental health expert.

The Return to Learn Advisory Council worked urgently to develop a plan for Michigan’s students and schools. All of their meetings were virtual. Smith served on a subcommittee focused on the general mental health and wellbeing of students. Together, he and other subcommittee members created a universal screening that teachers and schools could use to identify which students needed extra help and counseling during the pandemic. They spent a lot of time discussing which questions to ask and how to equip teachers to evaluate their students’ mental health. Eventually, they set up a modified version of the University of Michigan TRAILS program by which every student in the state of Michigan could receive an evaluation.

Smith has seen firsthand the incredible amount of mental stress that COVID has placed on students and teachers. “It has brought to light some cultural and societal issues that we have as a nation, state and community,” he says. “It has brought to the forefront the need for good parenting and good family networks and structures.”

Smith’s work on the Return to Learn Advisory Council led to his selection for the governor’s 2021 Student Recovery Advisory Council, which was designed to further help Michigan students who had been impacted by the pandemic. On this diverse council, Smith serves as a representative of mental health experts in Michigan.

Over the last several years, Smith has pressed forward in his counseling work even as he has faced significant personal challenges. In 2014, Smith, a husband and father of four, received some upsetting news. “The cancer diagnosis was a complete shock,” he said. “I was 32. I was healthy. But I noticed that something wasn’t quite right.” Smith visited his doctor’s office for a physical exam soon after he noticed that something was amiss. The exam went well, but his doctor recommended he get an ultrasound. Within three days of his ultrasound, Smith was in surgery. He had been diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Though all of the cancer in Smith’s body had been removed during surgery, a routine scan eight months later revealed that the cancer had spread. This time, Smith would need to undergo chemotherapy. The treatment successfully eliminated his cancer but caused life-threatening lung toxicity in the process. Smith was able to recover, hoping to put the experience behind him.

In 2018, four years after his initial cancer diagnosis, Smith went to the emergency room as he encountered significant stomach pain. The doctor discovered a tumor in Smith’s colon. Within three days, Smith was again in surgery. Part of his colon was removed, and he spent five days at the hospital. Although the surgery went well, Smith still had to undergo several more rounds of chemotherapy.

As of today, Smith is cancer-free. “I honestly feel like there’s been a tremendous amount of blessing as a result,” says Smith.

“There was a sense of peace when I was going insane on the inside. There was a strange peace that I had in knowing that God is in control, and the Holy Spirit is living inside of me and Jesus Christ is right there with me, too.”

During his journey with cancer, Smith has learned a lot — and experienced God in new ways. Having been through his own personal valley, he feels better equipped to help others through their struggles and anxieties.

Smith himself has received counseling to help him work through his cancer-related anxiety. “Every time I have an ache or a pain, or something just doesn’t feel right, I’m pretty sure I’ve got cancer again,” he says. “It definitely tests your faith, but it strengthens it at the same time.”

Smith is thankful that his cancer was caught early each time, and that his treatment was highly effective in stopping its spread. “I can say God is good because my cancer is gone, the treatment worked and they caught it early, but the reality is that God is good and God is faithful, even if it had turned out badly,” he says.

“I would never wish it to happen, but because it did happen, I have opportunities like this to share and hopefully witness in ways I couldn’t have before.”