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College of Education and Human Development at The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Jennifer Vassell


Student Spotlight: Jennifer Vassell

Changing lives through children’s books

How one COEHD graduate is using her gift with words to inspire others and change the face of counseling

Over the years, Jennifer Vassell has written hundreds of stories. Some stories were short; some were long. Some were plays and skits; others were songs. All of them sat unfinished, hidden from the world. That is until a few years ago.

“One of my first memories is of writing a song for my brothers while growing up in Natchez, Mississippi,” said Vassell, a recent graduate of the College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Counseling. “There came a point in my life a couple of years ago where I had all of these stories stored in folders all over the house. One day, I just decided to finish some of them and get them published.”

decided to finish some of them and get them published.” The first book she published was “How Fish Learned to Swim,” a story about how Swimmer, a fish that only knew how to float, faced adversity and learned to embrace his difference in a sea of walking fish. This story, which was illustrated by counseling student Jenna Burns, was inspired by both her daughter and granddaughter.

“When my eldest daughter was younger, she would always ask me, ‘Mom, how did fish learn to swim,?’” said Vassell. “Her daughter, my granddaughter, asked me that same question a couple of years ago. So, I came up with this great story to tell her because I wanted her to have a story that was empowering and entertaining.”

Her newest book, “Domino the Donkey,” was inspired by her youngest daughter and provides a unique twist on the Nativity Story.

“My youngest daughter, when I used to tell her the Nativity Story, was always wondering what the donkey was like,” she said. “‘Domino the Donkey’ is a story told through the eyes of little Domino who carried Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem on that first Christmas.”

According to Vassell, her books seek to answer children’s questions while also teaching them to acknowledge and respect diversity, an integral part of the UTSA Roadrunner Creed that she incorporates into each of her stories.

“I hope children learn that it’s okay to be a little different,” said Vassell. “When I read the Roadrunner Creed, one of the principles that stood out to me is to respect and accept individual differences, recognizing the inherent dignity of each person. I believe that different is not deficient; difference is more. A person is more of themselves when they are not trying to be like everyone else. I want my readers to recognize the inherent dignity in each person.”

In the midst of publishing her stories, Vassell continued her studies as a full-time graduate student in the Department of Counseling, focusing on family and couples counseling. Her story of how she decided to become a counselor is just as inspiring as the children’s books she writes.

Nearly 22 years ago, while her husband was stationed in Keflavik, Iceland, Vassell received news of the death of her brother. A few months later, her mother passed away. Vassell, who was thousands of miles away from her family, turned to counselors for help during this difficult period in her life.

“Their deaths ripped my heart out; I just didn’t know how I could go on,” said Vassell. “There were some counselors in Iceland who helped me through that time and I always thought that if I ever got the opportunity, I would help others the way I was helped during the worst time of my life."

And that opportunity presented itself when she applied to the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program at UTSA after Vassell’s husband retired from the U.S. Air Force in San Antonio.

“I was so worried about coming to UTSA, especially because of my age,” she said. “I was worried about how I would be accepted and whether or not I had missed my window of opportunity. The professors and instructors were so kind and so helpful. For the most part, the staff was very positive and focused on our strengths. I am hoping that I can take some of that positivity with me into the future.”

Vassell graduated this past December with her master’s degree in counseling and plenty of ideas for future stories, including a series called “Counselor Trey.” Counselor Trey counsels animals that are having difficulty in their everyday lives. Trey uses basic counseling techniques to help those animals. The series, she said, is part of her efforts to bring counseling and mental health issues to the forefront.

“I really want to advocate for this profession,” said Vassell. “One way to do that is to help decrease the stigma of mental health illness among children. I really feel that if we can reach children when they are young, they will grow to learn to be comfortable with the idea of counselors and counseling.”

Vassell will continue to publish her stories and hopes to open her own counseling practice so that she can help others just as her counselors helped her

“In my time at UTSA, I learned to seek the positive in others when trying to support their goals in life,” she said. “Hopefully I will be able to help someone the way I was helped in Iceland and the way I was encouraged here at UTSA. That is the type of support that I intend to offer my readers and future clients.”


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