When you boil it down, counseling is all about one thing: helping people. That was the principle that the Counseling program here at the Oregon State University College of Education was founded over 100 years ago. Now, all these years later, dedicated faculty like Cass Dykeman keep that principle alive and well.

Cass has a long history with education himself; he went to school for counseling for two years at the University of Virginia, and before that was a counselor at schools around Washington State. For the past 20 years, he’s been with the College of Education as a professor and resource for the future generations of counselors.

One of his current projects is focused on the area of Corpus Linguistics, a form of the study of language that utilizes chunks of real-world text to look for patterns and meanings. Currently, he’s seeing millennial students get invested in the project in an interesting way. “Students want to research where they live, and for many students, that was online,” Cass said. “So we’ve been looking at personality and mental health issues online.” The examples he gave were from pro-self-harm forums and sites where people with depression can share their struggles with one another.

Cass also had a lot to say about the history of OSU’s counseling program and what makes it so unique compared to other programs around the country. The program is over 100 years old, seeing its start around the beginning of World War I. “We [as counselors] are always there in response to a national crisis,” Cass said of the significance of counseling in Oregon. “The program grew during both World Wars because it needed to. Now, with all the cultural and economic shifts, it is the counselor’s job to be there to help people work through it all.” The program also is the only one in the country that requires a manuscript-style dissertation. This is in order to better prepare students for the future; according to Cass, “these manuscripts are intended for print in academic journals, and are common in the hard sciences. By requiring these manuscripts, students instantly have a document that is meant to be published, so they get a jump start on their career.”

Cass also spoke of the changes he wanted to see come to the College of Education. First, he spoke of the new OSU Portland Center; “In 1932, the College of Education would take monday night trips up to Lincoln High School in Portland Oregon to teach there. Now, with the Portland Center offering College of Education classes, it’s something of a return to our roots.”

Cass also recounted a memory of his, from around a decade ago. “I was lecturing on a new topic, and this was around the time that smartphones and google had become more prominent tools. So this student googles my lecture topic and starts to ask very specific, insightful questions into the topic I wasn’t prepared for. I realized that I had been replaced by google in the role of ‘conveyer of knowledge,’ but if I wasn’t the conveyer of knowledge, than what should I be? I began to change my approach to teaching to reflect that and keep myself relevant as a human resource in the more knowledgeable world. Having to continually change your teaching style is part of what keeps the job fun and fresh!”

And it should be fun, Cass noted. “The most important thing you need as a teacher is that you have to love to teach and you have to love your students. If you don’t love what you’re doing, your students will pick up on that right away.” This carries over to being a counselor as well as an educator. “There are plenty of personalities that make for a good counselor. You just need an intrinsic love for people who are struggling; skills, we can train, but that empathy is mandatory.” 

Cass hopes to continue to teach and help the College of Education grow for years to come. Recently, he was awarded the Outstanding Educator Award from the Western Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (WACES). He made clear that education does not exist in a vacuum. “This award serves as an affirmation that we’re doing something right in the program. We’re on the right track, and though we’re always adjusting to keep it that way, it’s good to see that what we’re doing is making a difference.” That’s his goal for the future, too; to keep changing so the college can continue to teach students in new, efficient an exciting ways. “It’s like a puzzle! It’s a fun challenge that’s so worth it.” Cass is also the top advisor in the College of Education and the 4th highest in OSU history, having advised 37 dissertations in his time at OSU. About this achievement, he said “I feel lucky to teach at OSU for this university draws the highest quality of doctoral students. My advisees and I are helping to shape the cutting edge of quantitative research design in Counselor Education.”

Keri Pilgrim-Ricker smiling and waving as she addresses a gymnasium of students.
Keri Pilgrim-Ricker

So often a common thread emerges amongst teachers: I didn’t know I wanted to teach until it was right in front of me. Of course, this is not always the case. Some people know from middle school (or even earlier) that their careers and lives will be bound to teaching in some respect or another. Others, like 2019 Oregon Teacher of the Year recipient Keri Pilgrim-Ricker, discover their profession through a passion and a need to inspire that passion in others.

“I fell in love with ecology,” she says of her time as an undergraduate, “It’s research and inquiry driven and it’s always asking questions about how things interact.” She wanted to be immersed in science, she wanted to ask the questions, yet she didn’t want to constrain her focus – and that is when she found teaching.

“Teaching,” Pilgrim-Ricker says, “has filled that niche for me, in that there is still this crazy intersectionality of variables, but the variables are now [my] students and their lives and their contexts.”

In pursuing her passion, in acquiring knowledge and experience, and finally in utilizing this expertise and turning it into curriculum, Pilgrim-Ricker never feels limited. “I still get to tell rich stories about science and I still get to be able to use inquiry skills to be able to figure out how to best serve my students.”

Now, as Oregon Teacher of the Year, she perceives her challenges in a new light, a bigger and even brighter light. Pilgrim-Ricker says of her honor, “I quickly realized that this award isn’t really so much an award but a position, and it’s been phenomenally eye-opening to be able to connect with other state educators of the year, to create this cohort, to be able to explore the difference in education systems and policies from state-to-state.” This was her chance to not only be inspired but also to inspire, this time on a whole new level. She sees the award as an opportunity to use her skills and influence to change the way we look at education and how we support students.

“I think education is a way of empowering voice. Not only does it inform how you say and what you say, but you have this unique ability as an educator to bring forward confidence in your students to help them see themselves as problem solvers and to conquer complex tasks and challenging moments in their lives.”  

Pilgrim-Ricker received her undergraduate degrees in biology and animal science from Fresno State, she went on to Perdue to obtain her masters. After graduating and trying to figure out her next step, she started to realize the importance and excitement of not only her own education but of educating future generations. A friend suggested she look into the Masters in Science Education program at Oregon State. “I drove out to Corvallis,” she says, “everybody was friendly and it was amazing and you could walk and bike everywhere.” Suddenly, everything fit together – the program, the school, the space. For Pilgrim-Ricker, Oregon State fit like a snug pair of rain boots.

“If you are going to become an educator, especially a content area specialist, go learn educational pedagogy in a place that really knows your content because it really frames your context.” Oregon State boasts of a College of Education, whose innovative programs and distinguished faculty are celebrated nation-wide. Combining that with the College of Science, a highly respected and cutting-edge school which draws researchers and students from around the globe, this is a university worth choosing, particularly when anticipating a career in content specialization.

Pilgrim-Ricker has remained in Oregon, currently a Career and Technical Education occupations health teacher at Churchill High School in Eugene. In this position, she uses her Master’s in Science Education to lead her students through an inventive and groundbreaking curriculum in the fields of anatomy and physiology. Still this isn’t enough. Pilgrim-Ricker knows that success, true success, is a network of teamwork.

“We need to create environments for [teachers] that are as rich and collaborative and supportive as we create for our kids” she urges. “We deserve that. We need that to be sustained. And our kids will give some of that back in return, but you need passionate adults who will hold space with you, who will be there to recognize when you are having a hard day and empathize.”

Keri Pilgrim-Ricker’s methods are unique and demanding, they make the student become an active partner in their education. They make teachers push themselves and challenges norms. As she says, “Curriculum is constant. Standards are constants. The only thing that is dynamic in education is you.”

A school is so much more than a building, it’s a space, it’s a body of students but it’s also a body of teachers. Be involved. Be engaged. Be there for each other.

Follow Pilgrim-Ricker on twitter: @keriotoy19

By Jenna Patten, Writing Student Employee, College of Education