Vanessa Perry

This Pirate helps others
through clinical counseling.

Vanessa Perry serves the community through counseling

When Vanessa Perry isn’t grading undergraduate exams or working in East Carolina University’s community mental health clinic, she’s volunteering for the American Red Cross to provide mental health support during disasters.

Perry, a doctoral student in the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Studies, is the first doctoral student in her family and the first in her mother’s family to attend college. Even at an early age, Perry knew she wanted to get a Ph.D. when she got older. “I realized the importance of education,” said Perry. “I recognized that it could open or close doors.”

Though she had already determined her lofty goal as a child, she didn’t choose her vocation until she was in college when she worked at Camp Starfish, a summer camp in New Hampshire for children with emotional and behavioral disorders.

“I have never worked as hard as I did that summer. A lot of the campers exhibited severe behaviors. But the harder I worked, the greater the reward, as I saw the campers change and grow,” said Perry. “I interacted with children who were exceedingly vulnerable and hurting. I sat with them and their pain and knew I wanted them to experience a higher quality of life.”

That’s when Perry committed her life’s work to counseling, so she could help people like she did at the summer camp. She received her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling from San Diego State University in 2011. Now, she is a certified rehabilitation counselor, a graduate teaching assistant, clinical supervisor and counselor for ECU’s Navigate Counseling Clinic, which is operated by ECU’s Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Studies in the College of Allied Health Sciences.

“At Navigate, we don’t turn away any client for inability to pay,” said Perry. “We are wholeheartedly invested in our community.”

Perry is also a volunteer for the American Red Cross in Pitt County, where she is called upon to provide mental health support following natural or man-made disasters or tragedies, such as tornadoes, hurricanes or shootings.

Last year, she responded to the aftermath of tornadoes in Beaufort County and spent several days at a Red Cross shelter in Washington, N.C. “We went out…to check on citizens when there was a concern. Our job was to provide brief counseling and support,” she said.

Until she started teaching an undergraduate class this semester, Perry was also a clinician and team leader for ECU’s Operation Re-entry NC, a research initiative in support of military service personnel, veterans and their families. “We have a mobile clinic that we drive around to areas where there are high concentrations of veterans experiencing homelessness,” said Perry.

The team provides counseling on site, which Perry said eliminates barriers to access to care that veterans might otherwise experience. “I spent nine months in charge of my own team of master’s students, driving around to various parts of the region,” she said. “The veterans we met had some amazing stories to tell, and we were humbled to serve those who served our country.”

After she graduates next spring, Perry wants to find a job where she can both teach and be a clinician.

As a counselor, what do you find most fulfilling?
What’s most fulfilling for me is the moment when I realize that I’ve worked myself out of a job - that the client has worked hard, progressed and grown so much that counseling is no longer needed. Saying goodbye to clients is bittersweet because I’m always sad to see them go, but overjoyed that they are in a better place.

What is something everyone should do at ECU?
Everyone should sit in the Boneyard at an ECU football game. The energy is palpable in the air. I’ve never had as much fun being an ECU student as when I took in a game from the Boneyard.

What advice do you have for fellow Pirates?
Your destiny is forever in your control, as long as you have the gumption to take control of the reins.

Describe how someone at ECU has influenced you:
My Ph.D. student cohort has greatly influenced me. When I’m in their presence, I feel comfortable being my quirky self. They speak the same language as me, understand my experience and accept me for who I am. It’s as though we have an unspoken bond - we’re family.

I just recently took my comprehensive exams. On day one of the exams I found that my office had been decorated with signs and streamers. They provided me with my favorite snacks and a card wishing me good luck. Never have I felt so supported. I felt grateful to have them and really understood the importance of having a group of cheerleaders for when you have to face challenges.

What would you suggest to help doctoral students survive their studies?
I would encourage them to find one activity, one “thing,” that will be their life raft to keep them afloat during their program of study. Without it, they’ll struggle and feel lost. For some, it’s religion, cooking or a fun hobby. For me, it’s the gym - it has kept me sane when things in my program get challenging.

Photography by: Cliff Hollis
Written by: Grace Haskin


College:  Allied Health Sciences

Major: Ph.D. in Rehabilitation Counseling and Administration, Concentration in Rehabilitation and Clinical Counseling

Age: 31

Class:  Third year doctoral student

Hometown: Glendora, California

Hobbies & Interests: In my spare time you will probably find me lifting weights, practicing handstand pushups and rope climbing. If I am not there, I am most likely running with my two dogs on the Greenway, come rain, sleet or snow. I also enjoy laughing with friends, dancing, reading, crafting and blogging.

Clubs & Organizations: The American Counseling Association, the National Council on Rehabilitation Education, the Licensed Professional Counselors Association of North Carolina, and the Professional Association of Rehabilitation Counselors


Hangout: CrossFit Greenville

Place on Campus: My cozy cubicle office within the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation Studies. It is my home away from home.

Place to Eat: The Scullery

Class:  Clinical Supervision taught by Dr. Shari Sias

Website: Pandora

TV Show: The Walking Dead

Musician/band: Something Corporate

Movie: Wall-E


Most Influential Professor: Dr. Steven R. Sligar because of his overwhelming encouragement. He is my loudest cheerleader.

Dream Job:  Clinical director of a community mental health clinic

You Can’t Live Without: My red lipstick

Role Model: My mother. She has never claimed to be perfect, but has always been a pillar of strength. She has taught me what it truly means to be a good, strong woman.

Words to Live By: Life is merely a collection of moments. If you can make it through this single moment, you can make it through life.

Something cool about ECU you wish you knew during your first year:  Being a part of the Pirate Nation is awesome. I love witnessing the entire town rally around its team during football season. It warms my heart to see so much community support for its team..

Words of Wisdom

“Your destiny is forever in your control, as long as you have the gumption to take control of the reins."

– Vanessa Perry