For many, the thought of dealing with the disease of addiction is not exactly uplifting.
But that’s just what Dr. Elizabeth Coccia, professor and chair of Austin Community College’s Human Services Department, found it to be early in her career when she began specializing in addiction treatment and counseling.
“I loved it. I loved the people,” she says. “I spent a lot of time with people in recovery, and they’re just joyful. The disease is horrible, but the recovery is amazing.”
Now Coccia teaches students to help others find similar hope as she prepares them for roles such as suicide-hotline counselors, child-abuse caseworkers, clinical supervisors, and leaders at community service agencies—jobs that require students to go “all in.”
“You have to be willing to be great, and work really hard at being great to be a successful counselor,” she says. “There are other careers you can be OK in—you’re not going to kill anyone if you’re good but not great,” she says. “That’s what I try to convey to students. What you bring is really yourself.”
A New York native, Coccia earned a master’s degree in counseling from State University of New York at Oswego, and later a doctorate in educational administration from University of Texas at Austin. Instead of focusing on research, she followed her brother’s lead and opted to teach at a community college. She joined ACC in 1990 and today oversees the college’s human services, addictions counseling, and therapeutic recreation degree programs. At the state level, she helps oversee counselor certification as a board member on the Texas Certification Board of Addiction Professionals.
Coccia jokes about competing with her brother for the best online “Rate My Professor” ratings, but it’s not just students who give her high marks: In 2009 the National Association for Addiction Professionals selected her for its Mel Schulstad Professional of the Year Award. This year she received the NISOD Excellence Award recognizing outstanding community college faculty and staff.
Coccia continues to work as a PRN, or as-needed, counselor at an Austin outpatient chemical dependency treatment program where she finds practicing her empathetic skills helps her teach students to develop theirs.
“There are some students who have surprised me with their insight,” she says. “I see them sort of struggle academically and then I see them in a skills class and they completely blow me away with how talented they are. They have this sort of innate talent to be empathetic and insightful. They are going to be some of the best counselors out there.”
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