Nikki Hurless

Nikki Hurless received the 2020-2021 ACES Graduate Student Scholarship for her dissertation research on the role personal histories of trauma play in relationships between counselor trainees and clinical supervisors. Hurless hopes the research will inform how mental health professionals are trained and how supervision is structured. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Fielding calls at a sexual assault response and awareness hotline was challenging for Nikki Hurless as an undergraduate at Roanoke College, but it gave her purpose.

At first, it was just a way to get involved in the community with her roommate, but she found meaning in being part of a support system for survivors. The experience would inform her studies and professional expertise for years to come.

“That was when I got really interested in trauma, wanting to learn as much as I could about trauma and the symptoms related to traumatic stress and traumatic experiences,” Hurless said.

Hurless would go on to earn a bachelor’s in psychology from Roanoke and a master’s in clinical psychology from Saint Louis University before entering the counseling PhD program in the College of Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where traumatic stress has remained her focus.

She expects to graduate in August after defending her dissertation on how counselor trainees’ personal histories of trauma affect relationships with their clinical supervisors. Her research on the subject was recognized by the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision, which awarded Hurless the 2020-2021 ACES Graduate Student Scholarship.

The professional organization gifted eight awardees from across the United States the scholarships to support research projects that contribute to the quality education and supervision of counselors in all professional settings.

Hurless used her award to compensate participants for completing a study for her dissertation – something she initially assumed that she would have to do out-of-pocket.

“I don’t think it’s really set in yet,” she said of winning the scholarship. “I’m collecting my dissertation data right now, and I have focused on that and finishing up the semester, teaching a couple of courses and seeing clients ­– just navigating my responsibilities. It’s kind of hard to take a pause and really let it sink in, like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a really cool achievement.’”

The study is representative of Hurless’ interest in trauma and her broad view of it. She noted that the “Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” the principal professional text used for psychiatric diagnoses, lists a very narrow scope of symptoms patients must have to meet the criteria for PTSD.

However, Hurless believes that trauma is anything that overwhelms someone’s ability to cope, a much more inclusive view of the condition. In developing her dissertation, Hurless also considered that counseling research often focuses on the individual as a counselor and how someone’s history and personality informs their work. She hadn’t seen much research focusing on how traumatic experiences affect interpersonal relationships.

“It occurred to me that the process of grad school could be a trauma,” she said. “It can be very, very intense a lot of times. That’s not something that is ever really talked about. In addition to the trauma that a student might experience in a program, they also likely have traumatic experiences from their past that they’re bringing in that are informing their path through grad school. Whatever their history, is it going to affect their ability to pay attention in class, to form relationships with their clients, their classmates, their supervisors?”

She’s still collecting data, but a preliminary statistical analysis seems to show that trauma plays a significant role in trainees’ relationships with clinical supervisors and their work. The more trauma someone brings into a graduate counseling program, the more likely they are to have lower quality mentorship and supervision as a trainee.

Hurless is still putting the finishing touches on her dissertation, but she’s already accepted a post-graduate position as a professor of counselor education at Tarleton State University – Fort Worth.

“I hope my dissertation research informs how we train mental health professionals and structure supervision,” she added.

Her time at UMSL has been a formative experience, though one that wasn’t planned.

After graduating from Roanoke, Hurless came to St. Louis to study at SLU. She intended to earn both her master’s and PhD at the university but found that the program wasn’t a good fit for her. She decided to take a year off to do some soul searching after finishing her master’s.

Instead of starting her doctoral work, she found herself working in Indonesia with SLV.Global, a volunteer-led mental health organization that provides support to local communities.

“We worked with a ton of different organizations, from orphanages to career centers, helping adults with disabilities learn functional skills,” Hurless said. “We were in schools working with kids, too. It was a lot of really great experiences all squished together. It was really rewarding, really challenging, trying to live in a totally different culture for a month while you’re working.”

The trip reaffirmed Hurless’ dedication to mental health field, but she still didn’t know where to continue her education. Over coffee, a friend told Hurless about her experience in UMSL’s MEd counseling program and suggested she investigate the doctoral program.

It had everything she wanted and aligned more closely with her professional interests and therapeutic approach.

“I really liked the flexibility that this degree offers,” Hurless said. “I’m very well trained in therapy and counseling but also teaching, supervision and research. It gives me a lot of flexibility and choices, so it’s fantastic for that. It’s very focused on social justice, too, and that’s been a really big growth opportunity for me and learning experience.”

Through the program and a practicum at Diversified Health and Wellness Center in Kirkwood, Missouri, Hurless began to focus on the integrative treatment of traumatic stress in young adults, particularly among gender and sexual minorities.

“I didn’t intentionally craft my practice around that population; it just sort of happened,” she said. “I am sex positive and gender affirming and LGBTQ friendly. I guess through the grapevine, different providers, different classmates have recognized that and referred clients to me.”

In addition to completing her practicum at Diversified Health, Hurless is also completing her licensure hours there. The clinic provides mental health counseling to community members on a sliding scale to make care as affordable and accessible as possible.

Hurless and her co-workers specialize in integrative care, which involves taking different sources of information and theoretical underpinnings and combining them to fit clients’ individualized needs.

One of the unique tools Hurless uses is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) training. She explained that it is an effective and heavily researched practice that draws on neuroscience to treat trauma and patients with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

“You address the client’s traumatic memories in a very systematic way, and it looks very different from traditional talk therapy,” she said. “It’s kind of weird. You do bilateral stimulation where the client is kind of watching somebody’s finger or a light bar. It looks very futuristic, but it’s very effective.”

As Hurless prepares for her next endeavor, she’s had time to reflect on the experiences of the last five years – working with clients at Diversified Health, volunteering in Indonesia and studying at UMSL. They’ve each been instrumental in broadening her view of trauma and expanding her horizons as a counselor.

Together, they’ve led her to where she is now.

“It was kind of an indirect path and some circumstantial things happened to get me along that path,” she said. “I took some twists and turns along the way, but I’m happy with my journey so far.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe