Graduates, faculty member making a difference as school counselors in Alaska

On the outskirts of civilization in Alaska, three counselors with Grand Valley connections are building a network of support for children in a rural school district.

Graduates Nicole Lyke and Joseph Hausler and associate professor Shawn Bultsma are helping to construct an elementary level counseling program for the Kenai Peninsula School District. 

The trio comprise half of the district’s elementary school counselors serving more than 4,500 students covering the district’s 25,600 square miles — an area about the size of West Virginia and larger than 10 U.S. states.

“There is a lot of freedom to pave your own way here,” said Lyke, who graduated with a master’s in school counseling in 2014 and was the first of the three to settle in the area. “We advocate for what we want and what we need. We have a small school counselor cohort and while we are hundreds of miles apart, we support one another.”

Faculty member Shawn Bultsma and graduate Nicole Lyke smile for a photo along Cook Inlet in Alaska.
Faculty member Shawn Bultsma and graduate Nicole Lyke pose for a photo along Cook Inlet in Alaska.
Image Credit: Courtesy

Lyke’s husband grew up in Anchorage and the draw of job offers following graduation was enough for her to head north. She initially joined the district as a counselor for a middle/high school before jumping at the opportunity to build the elementary counseling program, she said.

Three schools are part of her rotation, one of which is only accessible by plane.

“Poverty, isolation and barriers to accessing mental health support are some of the challenges,” said Lyke. “Some of our families heat their homes with only wood while some don’t have running water.”

Bultsma joined the district after speaking with Lyke. Bultsma, who was one of Lyke’s professors during her graduate studies, took an unpaid leave of absence from Grand Valley and headed to Alaska.

“It’s been so exciting and full of adventure for all of us,” said Bultsma. 

Bultsma said he brought Hausler onto the team after he graduated from the school counseling program last year.

“I had never heard of Kenai, Alaska, until Shawn mentioned it to me,” said Hausler, who’s four schools in Homer, Alaska, are two hours from Bultsma and Lyke. “Having a shared mission, vision and philosophy surrounding the school counseling with my GVSU colleagues has been really useful for any sort of consultation I am in need of, as well as easy sharing of resources and ideas with my colleagues.”

Faculty member Shawn Bultsma and graduate Joseph Hausler smile for a photo overlooking Kachemak Bay in Alaska.
Faculty member Shawn Bultsma and graduate Joseph Hausler pose for a photo overlooking Kachemak Bay in Alaska.
Image Credit: Courtesy

“Having Shawn’s skills, experience and expertise during this critical point, where we have an opportunity to show the district that elementary school counselors are not ‘extra,’ but essential, it is everything,” said Lyke. “I tell people it’s the best professional development you could wish for, having someone alongside to coach you.”

The three aren’t the only people with Grand Valley roots in the area, Bultsma said. Gregory Haas, son of President Emeritus Thomas J. Haas, operates Stoney Creek Brewhouse in Seward.

And, Christina Stuive, a 2000 graduate and a member of Bultsma’s doctoral cohort at Western Michigan University, is professor of counseling at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus in Soldotna. 

“It’s been fun for me to see the Laker Effect at work in the Kenai Peninsula,” said Bultsma. “Joey and Nicole are amazing school counselors, and the impact they are creating is everything we hope from our school counseling grads.”