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Portrait: Andrew Fitzgerald
Anne Elizabeth Walden

The Third Degree

(Photograph by Brad Sullivan)
Andrew Fitzgerald

School counselor Andrew Fitzgerald, ’04 BA, ’07 MED, is back at NAU going for his third degree, a doctorate in counseling psychology.  It dovetails with his longtime passion for “discovering what inspires people to become who they are.”

When Andrew’s journey was interrupted recently by a serious car accident, he flashed back to an NAU memory that helped him transcend the challenges.

“One of my profs said that when you’re a counselor, whatever happens to you turns into an empathy-building experience,” he says.  He soon found himself transforming his recovery with a positive refrain: “I’ll be able to understand people who have been through something like this.”

“One of the most important times of your life is the first year of college, making your own choices and mistakes,” Andrew says.  “As a school counselor, I could relate really well to the kids.  Now I’d really like to work with the first- or second-year college population.”

And perhaps later, inspired by Prof. “Fitz” and his example, Andrew’s students will also return to NAU as three-time winners.

Excerpts from the interview with Andrew Fitzgerald

We can tell he's given this a lot of thought:

My personal philosophy is that the two most important times in a person's life are the first couple of elementary years, when you're first starting to socialize outside your family, and the first year or two of college, when you're on your own for the first time. You're making your own choices, and making your own mistakes. These things are a part of life, and they happen, but it's important to learn from them so you don't keep making [the same] mistakes. I feel like if I can help freshmen or sophomores or anyone in college learn from those mistakes, then they'll be set up for making better choices later on.

In the counseling psychology program, you do a dissertation as well as an internship. I'm still narrowing down the topics, but I'm really interested in motivation, what makes people do what they do -- especially motivation in schools. We saw so many kids at the elementary level who would just be bumps on a log. They would just sit there not doing anything, not caring about anything really...I've always wondered what are all the factors that went into that...there are a lot of variables and family experiences, knowledge, genetics, and [I] didn't really have the time or the resources to research it when I was doing the school counselor job.

How to win friends and overcome basic cultural differences:

I [did] my professional work as a school counselor, after my master's degree, in Page, Ariz. At our school we had 85 percent Navajo population, and 95 percent of our students fell below the poverty line. So it was a Title I school, and most of our kids were bused in from the Reservation. It was an eye-opening experience, for sure.

There was a lot of reluctance [to communicate], just because I'm white, and they have so many experiences with Anglo-Americans that bias their opinion against working with us or telling us what they need. Or even if we were trying to find a family: I would join the social worker -- each of the schools had its own social worker on staff -- and sometimes [on the Rez] they would look at these two white people and say "They live that way" [purposely pointing us in the wrong direction.] But the kids...they were kids. It didn't matter what their background was, they still wanted to be kids.

The kids liked me; they enjoyed coming to my office, and I didn't realize that at first, until I was picking up a kid from a classroom, and a couple of the other kids were like, "Oh, he gets to go with Mr. Fitz!"

When Change wants you, it gets you:

[Since the accident] I'm OK. There were three major aspects to the injury. A broken jaw -- I have some titanium plates and screws in my jaw...and a very minor skull fracture, which didn't require any medical attention because I was going to be laid up for a while with the other injury, which was five spinal compression fractures.

I'd never been in a hospital for a week, and I'd never been recovering from something like that for months. And I had to wear a back brace for five months. But actually, one of the things I picked up from my school counseling degree at NAU -- I forgot which professor said it, or whose words I twisted around to turn into something like this -- but anything that happens to you, especially for a counselor, it's just an empathy-building experience...All of these experiences, as horrible as they are, are going to make me into a better counselor some day.

So the second day in the hospital, some friends showed up to visit me, and they said, "What's going on, Andrew? You're a lot different than you were yesterday." And I said, "Well, you know, I thought about it, and I decided to counsel myself and practice what I preach." Turning it into a positive refrain -- I'm alive, I can breathe, I'm going to be able to walk again, and I'm going to be able to understand people who have been through something like this.

On NAU's difference that matters:

The first degree...
(Photo courtesy of A. Fitzgerald)
The first degree
You know, I love it here. One reason I was really glad to be accepted back here for my Ph.D. is that I know the professors, and I know their teaching styles, and I know that I respond well to their teaching styles. And I like them as people, not just as teachers.

The continuity really does's my seventh or eighth year, though they weren't all continuous. But every class is different, every subject is different, and the people are always changing too.

I'm meeting a lot of friends this time around in different graduate programs through a Facebook group we put together, which is nice because last time around, I only met people in my classes. I'm meeting people from the history department, biology, sociology, archaeology and anthropology, all over campus. That's really keeping it fresh.

And now?

I dealt with my preliminary exams in the fall. It was a series of eight different questions in eight different topic areas. You're given about an hour for each question, and you have no idea what the questions will be. It's all foundational knowledge, but it's a very broad base, and the questions are very specific.

[This time] I'm exploring around Flagstaff a lot more, hanging out with all the friends in the graduate group...and going on road trips, much more carefully.

—Anne Elizabeth Walden, Communications Coordinator, NAU Office of Alumni Relations

Reprinted with permission from Pine magazine, Fall 2010