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Always looking for the next adventure

If you would have asked Nebraska native Brittany Pieke as a graduating high school senior if she would ever earn a master’s degree in rural Georgia, the answer would have been a resounding no.

Pieke attended the University of Nebraska to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Considering a career as a teacher, she traveled to Thailand to teach English for six months. When she returned, Pieke pursued her next passion — mental wellness and mental health education. She worked at an adult psychiatric residential nonprofit agency that offered day-programming, housing assistance for homeless, group homes, and life skills and support.

“I was fighting my destiny of being a counselor,” said Pieke.

It wasn’t until a supervisor at the nonprofit agency asked her to consider a master’s degree so that she could be eligible for promotions that she finally started to look at her options.

“It was snowing outside, and I was looking at programs that did not require the GRE because I didn’t feel like I needed the GRE to be a good counselor or teach mental health,” explained Pieke. “I saw Georgia Southern and decided to check it out in person. When I got off the plane, it was 70 degrees and I immediately thought, ‘This is nice.’”

Pieke visited the Statesboro Campus where the M.Ed. Counselor Education program is offered and met with some of the counselor education faculty. That, coupled with the opportunity to serve as a graduate assistant for the College of Education, sealed the deal, she said.

“I told myself it would be dumb not to do it,” she said. “So I went back home and said, ‘Everyone, I am going to Georgia.’”

This week, Pieke graduates from the program as a clinical mental health counselor with experience working with elementary school students at Metter Elementary and clients of all ages from her internship placement at Brave Tomorrow Counseling and Consulting in Statesboro.

Beginning this fall, she will serve as a mental health counselor at an American Indian tribal school on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota.

“I said when I first got to Georgia Southern, prior to even COVID, that there would be a movement or change in mental health in schools that’s different from assessments and scholarships,” Pieke said. “I had a feeling about it, and I wanted to advocate for that.”

Most districts in Georgia do not have mental health counselors within the schools, she explained. Rather, they employ school counselors, who are certified to assist with a broad range of healthy development among students.

“The reservation has had a very difficult time with COVID,” Pieke explained. “American Indians have the highest rate of suicides compared to all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, as well as a high rate of substance use. The community has been taught you don’t talk about mental health. It stems back to historical trauma from generations and generations. I told the school that I am not going to act like I can just fix everything. I want to give them the tools for better mental health that will be sustainable for the whole community.”

When asked if moving to another new place where she doesn’t know anyone for the third time in her life is intimidating, Pieke isn’t fazed.

“I have always been curious about other cultures, and I love to travel,” she said. “I am excited and ready to take on a new challenge. I thought I knew a lot about mental health from my previous work experience, but when I came to Georgia Southern it changed my life. I love my program, and I love all of my professors. I have had a lot of really great experiences to help me prepare.”

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