(Pictured from left to right: Griffin Nielson-Smith, 2020 MFP Master's Fellow; Sofia Jasani, 2019 MFP Master's Fellow; Ángela V. Vásquez, 2020 MFP Master's Fellow)
This year’s Bridging the Gap Symposium proved to be unlike any before it. What began in 2015 as an annual event for awardees of the NBCC Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) has grown over the last five years to become a multi-day event offering a variety of networking, learning, and capacity-building opportunities for counseling students, educators, and other leaders within the counseling profession. The plan for the 2020 Symposium, originally set to be held in Washington, D.C., in May, became a fleeting memory as the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic became a more tangible reality in mid-March.
Knowing that an in-person event would not be safe, responsible, or even permissible in May, the NBCC Foundation staff quickly began developing and executing a “Plan B.” With many other conferences around the country cancelling their events, the NBCC Foundation staff set out to create a virtual experience that still provided an interactive learning space as well as opportunities for attendees to connect digitally with one another.
This “Plan B” became the 2020 Bridging the Gap Digital Experience and included contracting with and learning to navigate brand new technological platforms. It also meant contacting keynote speakers and over 40 volunteer presenters who had spent many hours planning and crafting their presentations to see if they could quickly adapt their work to be suitable for an online platform.
Thankfully, the theme of this year’s event, “Family Matters,” rang true with a collective of professionals committed to delivering research, best practices, and evidence-based findings addressing topics crucial to issues affecting a diverse makeup of family units.
A few of the topics explored included: intimate partner violence; infertility and reproductive loss; serving immigrant, refugee, and undocumented families; counseling South Asian families; working with military families; and exploring historical issues impacting modern Black families.
Many presentations at this year’s event also addressed the ongoing struggles of communities and individuals who face oppression, systemic racism, prejudice, and many other forms of discrimination every day, including Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ individuals.
The first of two inspiring keynotes was delivered by Rwenshaun Miller, a therapist, speaker, and social entrepreneur who, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, founded Eustress, Inc., a nonprofit that focuses on raising mental health awareness through conversation and activities to break the stigma associated with mental illness in Black and Brown communities. His address, “Can’t Heal What You Don’t Reveal,” included a deep dive into his own mental health journey as well as an exploration and conversation around the role of Black social systems and intergenerational trauma as they relate to challenges faced by minority communities.
The second keynote came from MFP Alumna Dr. Ajita Robinson. Dr. Robinson’s “The Cost of Making It: The Intersection of Success and Survival” shared her path from being a first-generation trauma survivor and first-generation poverty disruptor to becoming a CEO earning seven figures. She also touched on the challenges she faced as a Black student navigating the world of White institutions throughout her educational journey toward earning her PhD. A record 46% of this year’s presenters were current NBCC Foundation Scholars, MFP Fellows, or alumni from both programs.
As Symposium has expanded its reach over the last five years, it still holds a sacred space of connection and peer support for counselors-in-training and those new to the profession. The multi-day event typically serves as a beginning chapter for newly seated MFP Fellows as they meet each other for the first time in person. It is also a place for goodbyes and “see you soons" for the prior year’s fellows who are wrapping up their year of the program, many of whom are graduating and stepping out into the profession solo for the first time.
Though this in-person and interconnected experience was thwarted for many because of the inability to travel and meet each other, fellows fully embraced the challenge and utilized it to connect in new ways. Griffin Nielson-Smith, a 2020 master’s-level fellow who is a first-year counseling student at Portland State University, shared, “I was apprehensive about the platform for the Symposium, but I managed to message almost every person and got virtually connected with so many folks. It only makes me more eager to meet them in person!” Nielson-Smith and many of her fellow MFP cohort members used the virtual platform and a variety of other social media outlets to connect, network, and experience “micro-interactions” with each other and other professionals in the counseling profession.
As uncertainties surrounding the pandemic remain, plans are already in motion for the 2021 Bridging the Gap Symposium, no matter the platform. The call for presenters for next year’s event will open in the next few months, and an announcement about the 2021 event theme is forthcoming.
While staff are hopeful to hold an in-person event to give the current fellows a chance to meet in person and provide networking opportunities for alumni and others in the profession, flexibility and everyone’s safety remain in the forefront of the planning process. In the meantime, creative virtual connectivity will help navigate these newly formed relationships.