The stories that need to be told: W&M counseling professor uses novels to reach, support Black youth

By Julie Tucker, School of Education

As a school counselor, Pamela Harris Ph.D. ’16 saw firsthand the power of stories to validate and inspire young people, especially the Black students she worked with who struggled to see themselves in the books and stories they encountered. As a writer, she loves bringing authentic stories to life from her own imagination and lived experience. She’s now a published YA (young adult) novelist and a counselor educator at William & Mary, fulfilling both sides of her dream to support youth through counseling and writing.

Harris is a clinical assistant professor in the School of Education’s growing Online Counseling Program, which offers fully online master’s degrees in clinical mental health counseling, school counseling and military and veterans counseling. She spent seven years as a middle school counselor in Isle of Wight County Schools before pursuing her Ph.D. in counselor education at William & Mary.

“At Isle of Wight, I was a site supervisor, mentoring interns who were studying to become school counselors,” says Harris. “I became interested in the kinds of support and training that best prepared them to work with students and also with families, because those relationships are so important for student success.”

These interests led her to William & Mary and the Ph.D. program, where she dived into family counseling and supervised school counseling interns through Project Empower, which places W&M graduate students as mentors in local high schools.

Meanwhile, she signed on with a literary agent and continued to hone her fiction writing. Her experience in counseling — as well as her own background growing up in Newport News — pushed her to write stories that centered Black voices and experiences.

“When I was a counselor, Black boys would be referred to my office and the initial assumption was that they were having trouble reading, but the real issue was that the content was just not interesting for them,” she says.

She would incorporate bibliotherapy with her students, reading stories together about young people who looked, talked and acted like her own students. “I never saw those books as a kid, but more and more are being published now. I saw what a difference it made for my students.”

In early 2021, she got her big break when Harper Collins published her first YA novel, “When You Look Like Us.” The novel is set in her hometown of Newport News, following the tale of a boy who must search for his sister when she goes missing from a neighborhood where Black girls’ disappearances are often overlooked.

“I used to change the way I wrote my characters, to not make them ‘too Black,’” says Harris. “But I knew that to be fair to my students, I had to be unapologetically Black in my writing and talk about the real experiences that I and my former students lived through.”

The book is garnering accolades and awards as one of the best YA novels of the year. It’s been nominated for an NAACP Image Award as well as an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The audiobook version recently won the American Library Association’s Odyssey Award for best YA.

A second novel is already in the works with a planned publish date in winter 2023. The book, tentatively titled “This Town is on Fire”, will again explore a timely topic — the interplay of social media and racial tensions — from the perspective of teenagers.

Finding success as an author has been just one side of the coin for Harris. She returned to William & Mary in 2020 as a faculty member, helping to build out the online counseling program in partnership with her colleagues. The flexibility of online education helps her juggle her many roles — professor, counselor, mentor, author and busy mom of two small children.

“For the first time in my career, I feel like my voice is truly valued and I get to integrate my creativity and my expertise in the field,” she says. “Our students are enthusiastic and they love to learn. They challenge us every day to give them the best training we can.”

She’s also continuing to conduct research, exploring the role of school counselors in facilitating family-school partnerships, especially among families of color, to support the growth of students.

Balancing her writing and her counseling work isn’t easy, but she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I feel like I can’t have one without the other. They fill my cup in different ways and I always joke that even if I become a bestselling author, I’d still want to teach. I know the power of story and the power of my students’ stories. The only time I’m happy is when I’m able to do both.”