Ochoa makes positive move from para to Huntington counselor
Monique Ochoa’s bright spirit has given hundreds of Huntington Elementary School students rays of hope over the past two years.
Ochoa is helping turn cloudy situations into sunny outcomes in her work as Huntington’s school counselor. She was a para-educator in Lincoln Public Schools for several years before switching into a counseling role. She said it was fulfilling to support students with their academic, emotional and social needs each day.
“The innocence of children at the elementary level is just phenomenal,” Ochoa said. “I feel like I hear about the things going on in these kids’ lives, and knowing I can be a safe person and be a safe space for them every day at school is just the most rewarding part about my career. It’s something new every single day, that’s for sure, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Huntington Principal Kristi Schirmer said Ochoa has made a major difference for many students in her time at the school. She and other LPS counselors are being recognized for their efforts during National School Counseling Week. LPS employs 134 counselors at district and building levels.
“Monique has a passion for serving the students and families at Huntington,” Schirmer said. “She works to help students learn key social and emotional skills that will help them not only while learning and growing while at school, but will also serve them well in the future.”
Ochoa began her Nebraska experience in third grade when her family moved from California to North Platte. She graduated from North Platte High School and became a first-generation college student when she enrolled at Southeast Community College (SCC). She spent her first two years at SCC before earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Ochoa knew from a young age that she wanted to work in a school system, but she was unsure if she wanted to become a classroom teacher. She started a job as a para-educator at Riley Elementary School in 2018 and moved to Hartley Elementary School 18 months later. Those experiences convinced her that becoming a counselor was the right career move.
“When I became a para, I was like, ‘Yeah, I love being in the schools.’ That was solidified for me,” Ochoa said. “I think the mental health aspect of being able to help students, especially in the times we’re having, is so important for the growth of students. That’s when I realized that being a counselor is something I want to do.”
Ochoa achieved her dream by earning a master’s degree in school counseling from Doane University. She began helping Huntington students with a wide variety of needs in the Fall 2022 semester.
Many students in grades PK-5 come to Ochoa’s office each week to learn about coping skills. Emotional management, self-control and being respectful are three issues that frequently come up on Mondays and Tuesdays. Ochoa spends much of her time on Wednesdays leading social emotional learning (SEL) classes, and she oversees social skills small groups on Thursdays and Fridays.
The American School Counselor Association and Nebraska Department of Education have both promoted the benefits of SEL and social skills classes. Ochoa helps students learn about self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. She tailors her lessons to each grade level to ensure they are getting the best-possible help.
Ochoa said it has been encouraging working with Huntington teachers and staff members. She said they have boosted her morale by sharing success stories with her.
“I had a teacher tell me a little bit ago that a student had repeated what I said in a social skills group about being respectful,” Ochoa said. “I like knowing that the things that I say are resonating with students and they’re remembering the things I’m saying, and that they’re using it throughout their class setting to let other people know.”
Ochoa has also enjoyed positive talks with students outside her office. Schirmer said she has watched many of these uplifting moments take place before the morning’s opening bell.
“She is one of the first faces children see as they arrive at school each day,” Schirmer said. “Monique greets each child with a smile as they walk into the cafeteria to eat their breakfast. During these first few minutes, Monique makes sure each student is ready for school, and if they need to talk, Monique is there to help ease students into their school day.”
Ochoa said her biggest goal is to continue providing rays of hope to everyone at Huntington.
“Just moving forward and continuing to have the confidence in the work I’m doing and knowing that I’m making a difference, even if it might not feel like that all of the time,” Ochoa said. “I just want to try to continue to grow my relationships with the students, and make sure that they see me as somebody that when they have something going on in their personal lives, they can continue to come to me for that.”
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Published: February 7, 2024, Updated: February 7, 2024