Marriage and family counseling focus of Benerd’s new master’s program

a professor works with a group of students

The Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology will open to students in fall 2024. 

University of the Pacific’s Benerd College has created a master’s degree program that will focus on marriage and family counseling, an area with a severe shortage of services in San Joaquin County.

The Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology major will open with a cohort of approximately 15 to 20 students in fall 2024.

“My sense is this will be a popular degree,” said Justin Low, program lead and associate professor. “Mental health practitioners are scarce compared to the overall population, and that certainly is the case with marriage and family counseling. The shortage is very serious in San Joaquin County.”

CalMatters detailed the reasons for shortages of mental health providers, such as counselors, in a 2022 report. They include workload and burnout, pay level and California’s cost of living.

Low said graduates of the new program can likely earn salaries starting around $90,000. Benerd College has worked to align the major with state licensing requirements.

The degree will lead to work counseling married couples and individuals as well as entire families.

“There are advantages for students with an undergraduate degree in psychology. They know the language and some of the background,” Low said. “But by the time they go through programs such as this, those who came from the workforce and different vocations fit right in. Both paths work.

“Those entering this field tend to be self-reflective. They look at their skill set and see where they want to improve. They tend to think ‘what can I do better next time?’”

The program requires 60 units—high for a master’s program, but in line for psychology-related programs, according to Low—and 280 hours of experiential work with patients. Pacific has identified agencies and adjunct professors who will work with students.

Andra Zastrow has worked in marriage and family counseling for the past 22 years in Stockton and is an adjunct faculty member at Pacific. She views the new program as a boost for a troubled system.

“This is a very important step for getting access to care because we have such a lack of resources in Stockton,” Zastrow said. “Getting an appointment can take up to a month. Beyond that, nobody is taking insurance. Many people must pay out of pocket.

“I am so excited that Pacific has approved this program. This is a positive change in a rewarding field.”

The program is part of Benerd College’s strategic move into areas of social education.

“Leadership, education and behavioral and mental health are three areas of focus within our degree programs,” said Patricia Campbell, dean of Benerd College. “We are really expanding.”