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Harper Birdsong ’20 finding a niche as a counselor in training

  • birdsong475.jpg
     Harper Birdsong '20 who played two seasons on William & Mary's women's basketball team after transferring from George Washington.  Photo courtesy W&M Athletics
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After graduating with a degree in film and media studies, Harper Birdsong '20 was uncertain where the next path would lead. 

So Birdsong took a career assessment test.  

"Only two jobs fit my personality," said Birdsong, who played two seasons on the women's basketball team after transferring from George Washington. "One was in the arts, and one was being a therapist. Which is interesting, because I think they're similar in a way. 

"Film and documentaries are telling people's stories and focusing on the human condition. That's very similar to counseling. And they're both creative." 

Birdsong, who uses the pronoun they/them, is in the second of a two-year master's program in clinical mental health counseling. Part of that is an internship with Marion Swanson, a Williamsburg psychologist and the wife of Tribe coach Ed Swanson.  

Originally planning to play their fifth season of eligibility, Birdsong decided to focus on the graduate program. They also have applied to a PhD program in counselor education. 

"Harper is the kind of person I'm thrilled to see come into the field of mental health," Swanson said. "They're incredibly hardworking and dedicated, deeply reflective, a committed learner, and always focused on honing the skills and knowledge to better serve counseling clients. 

"Harper is extremely open-minded, warm, empathetic, and non-judgmental, which are essential to providing effective counseling support. Harper's an absolute gift to the field of mental health, and we're so lucky to have them." 

Birdsong also works with Deidre Connelly, director of performance psychology at William & Mary. 

"Harper is technically my intern, but I keep calling them my grad assistant," she said. "That's how it's operating more in our world." 

As the fall semester bean, Birdsong took the initiative in creating a group for LGBTQ athletes at William & Mary. Meetings are held twice a month to discuss issues and lean on each other. 

"It's a supportive space," Birdsong said. "We have groups on campus, but we've never had one for athletes specifically. I think athletics is a little bit behind the curve when it comes to LGBTQ advocacy and things like that. 

"I'm a member of the LGBTQ community, and when I was here, I felt very supported. But I think it depends on what you sport you play. I would have loved to have had a group like this when I was here. So I felt, why don't I just create it?" 

Birdsong said there about 10 people in the group and the numbers keep growing. 

"I expected there to be some mistrust and anxiety about going to a meeting like that," they said. "There's always a fine line between not wanting to make it too secretive, because we have nothing to be ashamed of, but at the same time wanting to protect people's privacy.  

"But every session we've had, we've had a new member. I might change [meetings] to once a week next semester." 

Going into their final semester, Birdsong has two more programs on their radar: disordered eating and the mental effects of injuries. 

"Disordered eating is a huge one — an even bigger issue, I would say, than LGBTQ," Birdsong said. "I know teams where I'd say the majority of people have a problem with body dysmorphia or disordered eating. It's increasingly concerning, especially with females and athletics.  

"You have sports-specific body you're striving for. … People end up restricting themselves, and it effects their performance. I think this is going to be really important to give them a space, because we've never had a space for that." 

As for overcoming a major injury, Birdsong is fortunate to have never been there. But there are relatable experiences. 

"I can speak to it in the sense that when I finished my athletic career, it was a hard transition," Birdsong said. "Your entire identity is wrapped in being an athlete. When that's taken away, there's a loss of identity.  

"I think athletes in certain areas are more developed in terms of our discipline and work ethic. But in other areas, I think we're stunted because everything's been wrapped up in sports. You have coaches telling you where to be, and suddenly you don't have that. That can be very destabilizing and lead to depression." 

The graduate program and internship has opened Birdsong's eyes toward a new future. But it might not  be solely in sports psychology. 

"I think, surprisingly, I've been drawn more to the counseling than sports psych," Birdsong said. "I like working with young adults, but they don't have to be an athlete."