Sejal Barden is an assistant professor in UCF’s Counselor Education Program, which is housed in the College of Education and Human Performance.

In addition to helping develop the next generation of counselors, Barden researches cancer survivorship and health disparities for couples as well as multicultural and international counseling issues.

Barden spent the past month at the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Md. She was among the 80 physicians, researchers and other experts selected from more than 38 countries to participate in the summer course on Cancer Prevention and Control.

What first drew you to counseling and counselor education?

I’ve been interested in counseling and couples therapy since I was a teenager. I’ve always been fascinated with what makes relationships work and how difficult experiences bring people closer together. As a young adult, I found that my friends often came to me for advice about their relationships. I really liked hearing their stories and helping them find solutions to their problems.

How did you start working with families impacted by cancer and other serious illnesses?

When I was working on my master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at the University of Florida, I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and Botswana for a month long clinical experience working with individuals impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. What struck me the most was not the pain and grief of living after receiving a life-altering diagnosis, rather the resiliency, strength and courage of the individuals I had the privilege of working with. The experience changed my career aspirations and fueled my passions for community-based work with chronically and/or seriously ill underserved populations.

While pursuing my doctoral degree in North Carolina, I worked in a regional cancer center, providing individual, couples, family and group counseling for cancer survivors and their caregivers. I found the experience to be extremely meaningful to my life, both personally and professionally. From these combined experiences, it became clear that my research agenda and clinical expertise would be grounded in working with patients with cancer and other degenerative diseases.

Tell us about what you learned at the National Cancer Institute this summer.

Each day we heard from leading cancer researchers and scholars from around the country including Otis Brawley, the Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society. We learned and discussed the state of cancer prevention and cancer control and what we can each do individually and collectively as health professionals.  We addressed a wide spectrum of topics including health disparities, health communication, screening practices for specific cancer sites, risk factors and much more. I feel very fortunate to have been selected for this experience and to represent UCF at the National Institute of Health and National Cancer Institute.

What goes into counseling people who come from other cultures or places?

When working with all clients, I seek to learn more about their cultures, values and beliefs. It’s important to find sources of strength and support in the client’s life and build on cultural values when discussing changing thoughts and behaviors. There are many differences both between cultures and within cultures, so it’s important to spend time to learn more about my clients’ worldviews.

As a mentor to graduate and doctoral students, what’s the top piece of advice you have for them?

Seek opportunities to help build networks and expertise. Seeking out research-team opportunities, leadership and organizational positions and attending professional conferences are all great opportunities for both masters and doctoral students. Through being exposed to a variety of experiences, students will better be able to develop their passions and areas of interest.

What’s the best part about your job?

The variation in what I do each day. I love working with students and watching their self-efficacy and confidence build as they learn and master the skills needed to be effective researchers, scholars and practitioners.

What about the most challenging part?

I think the hardest part of my job is the different demands. Although I enjoy the variation, it can be challenging to find a work-life balance.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

My husband and I love to cook new recipes; go walking or running with our two Labrador retrievers; and travel to new places, both nationally and internationally. We’re both scuba certified, so we love to travel to tropical locations where we can dive and experience different foods and cultures.