As a high school guidance counselor, Mary Ellen Fennimore saw how social and family stresses play out in the lives of teens.
Substance abuse and chemical dependency — sometimes in students themselves, other times in a close family member — can hobble young lives and dim otherwise bright futures. Ms. Fennimore — as Susquehanna Valley High School students knew her — found a new mission.
“I was a high school guidance counselor for 22 years. I saw a need because of the opioid epidemic for adolescent services,” she explained. “Kids were struggling with substance abuse and chemical dependency.”
After retiring from the district, she decided to return to SUNY Broome as a full-time student and earn her certificate in Chemical Dependency Counseling, retooling for a new and equally rewarding career.
“It was a short-cut. It was designed for people like me who already have a higher education degree,” she said of the certificate program. “You can segue right into a job and hit the ground running.”
‘The right place’
Mel Fennimore knows the value of a SUNY Broome education from multiple angles. She’s an alumna herself, having graduated in 1979 with an associate’s degree in Liberal Arts, before going on to earn a bachelor’s from SUNY Cortland, a master’s in comparative literature from Binghamton University and a second master’s in education with a focus in school counseling from SUNY Oneonta.
In her years at Susquehanna Valley, she also recommended her alma mater to many future Hornets. “It’s more bang for the buck. Some of the best professors I’ve ever had were here,” she explained. “There are some amazingly gifted teachers here.”
While pursuing her certificate at SUNY Broome, she also worked part-time in the Admissions office, answering phones and helping students on their educational journey.
It led to some interesting conversations with former students – who were surprised to find out that their former guidance counselor was now attending their college.
“I would see some of my former students and it was lovely to see them on campus and hear them say hello. They were happy,” Mel said. “SUNY Broome was the right fit. It’s nice to know you helped them pick the right place.”
Retooling for a new career
Like many older students, Mel was initially hesitant to return to college, but she soon became enthusiastic about the experience. Her fellow Hornets come from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging in age from their teens to their 50s.
“It’s a rigorous program, but my classmates were so inspiring. Their life stories and their courage taught me as much as I’ve learned in the classroom,” she said.
Following graduation, she landed a job at the Addiction Center of Broome County, where she interned for her spring semester. She works as the lead clinician for Compass Academy, a recovery high school within Broome-Tioga BOCES Evertech Program. The goal for the program, which began in February 2019, is to offer alternative education to students whose academic potential may be in jeopardy due to substance abuse.
“I love teens. I find them fascinating,” Fennimore said. “It was a perfect fit.”
Local school personnel are trained to screen candidates who may benefit from the program, and ACBC conducts the clinical assessment. The program doesn’t just target teens with substance abuse problems, but those who are at risk for a substance use disorder, perhaps due to family history. In additional to educational credits, Compass Academy offers the teens clinical therapeutic services, peer-based recover support, family sessions and more.
It may be tempting to view a certificate as less valuable than an associate’s degree, but that’s not the case for Mel Fennimore. SUNY Broome’s Chemical Dependency Counseling program prepared her extremely well for the field, and many of her ACBC colleagues went through the program, whether for the associate’s or the certificate.
“All the instructors have hands-on experience in the field. They can tell us what it’s really like,” she reflected. “It’s a great advertisement from school to career — the definition of a community college.”