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VCU School of Education’s Special Education, Counselor Education departments to merge
Headshot of Dr. Colleen Thoma

Colleen Thoma, Ph.D.

The Department of Special Education and Disability Policy and the Department of Counselor Education at Virginia Commonwealth University will merge July 1, blending two of the School of Education’s top-tier programs to create an interdisciplinary academic environment focused on real-world learning and impact.

The two departments will merge into the new Department of Counseling and Special Education, bringing together a team of educators who are recognized as leaders in their fields, and a set of fully accredited graduate programs that are based on research, classroom and real-world experience.

“This merger provides an opportunity to enhance the interdisciplinary nature of our projects and research in counseling and special education,” said Colleen Thoma, Ph.D., chair of the new Department of Counseling and Special Education. “These programs complement each other, using a holistic approach to understanding and working with children, youth and adults, their educational needs, and their support systems. These two fields recognize the need to understand the context for a student’s education, including family life, health, emotional well-being and community resources.”

The two disciplines, Thoma said, complement one another, and together will foster a rich diversity in intellectual interests and provide new opportunities for collaboration. For example, faculty members from both departments serve on a statewide taskforce on trauma-informed care, an issue that both counselors and special educators face on a regular basis, but in different capacities. Collaboration in research will provide greater understanding of the impact of trauma on students with and without disabilities, and will help develop strategies designed to minimize that impact.

“Our goal is simple: Prepare our graduates to be leaders, ready to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Leila Christenbury, Ph.D., interim dean of the School of Education. “Our courses emphasize applicable learning, incorporating the practical tasks and situations our students will be faced with on the job.”

While the merger provides opportunities for collaboration, graduate program changes will not occur without careful consideration and input from key stakeholders. Current students will follow the same programs of study, will be advised by faculty in their discipline and will have the same clinical experiences as those who entered their program before the merger. Clinical experiences will continue to match the licensure and/or accreditation criteria as identified by the commonwealth of Virginia and the appropriate accreditation body for the respective fields.

The merger has been approved by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and goes into effect July 1.