Finding the Helpers

Since losing her father when she was a young girl, Kimberlee Ratliff vowed to help others find hope in challenging times. Now, as a clinical assistant professor in Puget Sound’s Master of Education in counseling program and a marathon runner, she coaches future counselors by building personal connections and encouraging self-reflection.

Q: As a counselor, you’ve worked with hurricane victims and military families. What is rewarding about helping people through tragic situations?
A: My father died by suicide when I was 5 years old and, although I could not process the significance at such a young age, it sparked my interest in mental health. Although situations can be heartbreaking, and the stories of clients often involve suffering, witnessing resilience during the most difficult times is incredibly rewarding. Being invited into their world during that time is something I don’t take for granted.

Q: Not only have you worked professionally in military communities, but you have personally navigated that lifestyle. What is it like working with that population? 
A: Being a military kid since the age of 8 and a spouse for 21 years, I had the opportunity to experience a transient lifestyle, deployments, and career challenges. As a counselor, I found it crucial to connect military families to resources and support groups. That was in addition to providing group counseling for their children. One of the most incredible experiences of my career came while working as a school counselor just outside Fort Bragg, N.C., during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many of the parents of my students were deployed shortly thereafter, so I immediately initiated group counseling for those students. That entire year, my focus was on meeting the needs of children and families thrust into a sudden wartime situation.

Q: How do you bring these professional experiences into the classroom?  
A: I approach teaching similarly to counseling and start with building a relationship. I enjoy mentoring and partnering with students as they prepare for presenting, publishing, or implementing ideas from the classroom in their future work as counselors. My “go-to” strategies are role-play exercises, group work, cultural-immersion projects, case-study analysis, and inviting guest speakers. The activities are meant to be engaging, but the most important part is the students’ personal reflections.

Q: What do you do for fun outside of the classroom? Do any personal hobbies or passions cross over into your teaching?
A: Until the pandemic halted most events, I was chipping away at my goal to run a half marathon in
every state. I’ve completed 30 states and four full marathons, including the New York Marathon in 2017. I use training as a metaphor for graduate school and relate our roles to a runner (student) training to reach the finish line and a coach (professor) cheering them along the way. I also enjoy hiking with my family and tidepooling along the coast, and have plans to incorporate nature into my teaching, as it’s a valuable tool in self-care and wellness.  

Q; How have you changed your approach to teaching this year?
A: As a former program director of an online counseling program for almost 10 years, I feel fortunate that I had a slight advantage in this regard. On the other hand, I had prepared several activities for face-to-face learning that suddenly needed to be re-envisioned. Creativity is a must in online teaching, and I have found Zoom’s breakout rooms to be helpful in redesigning group work and counseling role plays, which are common in my courses. Even though we are halfway through the semester, the planning and organizing hasn’t stopped. I am adjusting to what works best for students on a weekly basis.


By Anneli Haralson
Photo by Sy Bean
Published Dec. 5, 2020