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Patricia Neal Outstanding Volunteer Award

Alumni Spotlight: Joel Simmons

Rehabilitation Counseling

Joel earned an MS in Counseling with a concentration in the Rehabilitation Counseling program in 2016. He is originally from, and currently lives in, Knoxville, TN. We asked him to reflect on past experiences with EPC and discuss where he’s at now. Read his responses below.

Current Occupation

Counseling & Public Relations
East Tennessee Technology Access Center
Knoxville, TN

I meet with vocational rehabilitation (VR) clients who come here for technology assessments. Through these assessments we can figure out what technology will allow individuals to be successful in school or at work. I’m currently in the process of reaching out to other organizations that serve people with disabilities in East Tennessee. We need to be working in a more cohesive manner trying to serve our population in Knoxville and surrounding counties.

Awards and Accomplishments Earned as a Student

I was asked and joined Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society.

Accomplishments since Graduating

I received the Patricia Neal Outstanding Volunteer Award for 2016. I received this award for my peer mentoring with newly injured spinal cord patients.

I facilitated free Lasik surgery for quadriplegics in East Tennessee. There were many centers in the Southeast that offered these services, but none in Knoxville. Refractive surgeon, Daniel S. Durrie of Durie Vision started offering free Lasik to quadriplegics after seeing a Christopher Reeve special. I coordinated with his office, reached out to local surgeons, and I was Colby Stewart’s, ophthalmologist with Tennessee Lasik, first client.

Personal Interests

I like being outside. My family has a cabin on Lake Douglas and we spend many weekends at the cabin. Market Square is another one of my favorite haunts. With plenty of outdoor dining, wheelchair accessibility, and people watching as a bonus, Market Square is one of my first choices for lunch or dinner. I love music and I like concerts in small venues. Tennessee Theater, the Bijou Theater, and The Shed are three of my favorites.

Since my graduation in August, I’ve tried to involve myself with these many organizations as possible. I still continue to my volunteer work at Patricia Neal, I’m on the Board of Directors for the disAbility Resource Center, which is Knoxville’s Independent Living Center. Recently, I have gotten involved with the Knoxville Area Employment Consortium (KAEC). KAEC works to connect people with disabilities with local businesses for job placement.

Joel Simmons

What sold you on this program/department/university?

It wasn’t what, but whom, that sold me on the program. I was doing volunteer work at Patricia Neal and my VR counselor facilitated a meeting with clinical professor, Wayne Mulkey. It was Mulkey that sold me on the program. I received a lot of personal gratification if I could just get somebody to smile when I visited them at Patricia Neal. Mulkey opened up my eyes to an education that would allow me to help people far beyond just a smile. It never occurred to me to return to school and get a master’s degree in counseling at 53 years of age.

What do you think was the most rewarding/challenging about this program?

It’s hard to say what was the most rewarding and what was the most challenging about this program. Everything about this program challenged me. I was a flight attendant for 23 years and when I started this program I had never used Microsoft Office. I’m a quadriplegic and do not have use of my hands. Halfway through the second semester I began using Dragon Naturally Speaking and a large Trackball for a mouse. This made the actual use of the computer easy, but I still had a lot of difficulty putting papers in APA format and writing and researching at the graduate level. Many times I wanted to quit the program due to both frustration and health issues, but I could’ve never looked Mulkey in the eyes, and by now my other professors had taken a vested interest in teaching. Clinical instructor, Lisa Rimmell, and associate professor, Patrick Dunn, had to have found it challenging to maintain an even keel with the many questions I had during my two years at the University of Tennessee. When asked what was the most rewarding part of the program I would have to say the relationship that developed between teacher and student and my classmates as well.

Did you end up where you thought you would?

I was asked a few times what I planned on doing upon graduation. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I didn’t want to work as a VR counselor because I didn’t want everything to revolve around the client returning to work. Do not get me wrong, I would help anybody that wanted to go to work get a job, but I really want to see people with disabilities engage in life. I thought about starting my own nonprofit and would have considered it a success if I just managed to get two or three people year coming to Market Square on a regular basis.

I did my practicum and internship at East Tennessee Technology Access Center (ETTAC). I was fortunate to be offered a job here after graduation. This job allows me to do everything I wanted to do and more. VR clients are sent here for technology assessments and I’m able to work firsthand with these individuals, but I’m also out in the community forging alliances with other organizations such as the Down Syndrome Awareness group, The Autism Society of East Tennessee, the Cerebral Palsy Center, and recently I made contact with Shangri-La Therapeutic Horses. Not sure how, but I knew when spoke with their executive director that this organization is going to tie-in with what we’re trying to do here at ETTAC. I mentioned earlier that my goal was to get people with disabilities more involved in life in East Tennessee Technology Access Center has the same goal. We hope to develop a community center with our 20,000 sq.ft. building and two acres of land.

“It is sad that this program no longer exists. There is an obvious demand for this degree and the University of Tennessee was the only accredited university offering this degree via computer correspondence. Most of my classmates were already VR counselors, but all of my classmates that were not, have already been hired as VR counselors in various counties and states. I watched the passion with which the doctors and professors taught these classes and it is sad to think that a degree that is so highly sought by employers is no longer taught at the University of Tennessee.”