Counselor Education Student Wins “Graduate Student of the Year” Award 

By Laura Hoxworth

Hina Zafar, a second-year counselor education student from Fredericksburg, VA, received the award for her academic excellence, passion for counseling, and potential to make an impact in the field. 

Hina Zafar likes to keep busy. When talking about what it’s like to work multiple jobs while earning her master's degree full-time, she explains how she’s energized by the relationships in her life – whether they’re friends, family, students, professors, or coworkers. “It’s cliche, but you learn something from every experience that you have,” she said. 

That positive outlook, strong work ethic, and drive to connect with others are why she recently received the Virginia School Counselor Association’s 2021 Tamara E. Davis Graduate Student of the Year award. 

Julia Taylor, an assistant professor of counselor education at the UVA School of Education and Human Development – and the professor who nominated Zafar – said the purpose of the award is to “recognize an outstanding graduate student who has demonstrated excellence in their program of study, displayed passion for entering the school counseling field, and who shows great potential." 

Zafar is all that and more, Taylor said.  

“Hina is outgoing, witty, cheerful, flexible, and always willing to help,” she said. “Her vibe is passionate, and this passion is always evident when she discusses her role as an intern and future school counselor.” 

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Mary Washington, Zafar wasn’t sure what to do next. She enjoyed working with youth but knew teaching wasn’t the right fit. On a suggestion from her advisor, she took a one-year position with Literacy AmeriCorps, working as a graduation coach to help high school juniors and seniors complete graduation requirements.  

The experience ignited a passion for school counseling. “It taught me that waiting until junior and senior year of high school is way too late,” she said. “For so many of them, I just wished there was more I could have done.” 

When applying to graduate school, Zafar said she was attracted to UVA for the program’s reputation. But it was meeting faculty and students at interview day – and getting a sense of the community in the counselor education program – that sealed the deal.  

Despite the challenge of completing the first year of the program virtually during a pandemic, Zafar has flourished. 

“COVID-19 had a tremendous impact on graduate students when everything shifted online, including field placements,” Taylor said. “Instead of focusing on what students could not do, Hina focused on what they could do. She is completely refreshing to be around. In addition, Hina has a knack for implementing and evaluating data-driven, evidence-based practices and always considers equity and systems-level change.” 

During her time at UVA, Zafar has maintained a 4.0 GPA while working part-time at a grocery store and as a graduate assistant, a position that’s given her opportunities to talk with prospective students, deepen relationships with faculty, interview alumni, and more.  

“One of my favorite parts of the program is the amount of student involvement and participation,” she said. 

Zafar is also a funded recipient of the VDOE/UVA Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health (VPSMH) grant. That means she is taking three additional classes related to school mental health, completing 40 additional hours of direct counseling services, and will facilitate a yearlong school mental health leadership project to create systemic change. 

This year, Zafar is completing her internship at Buford Middle School, where she’s part of a student support team that includes social workers, counselors, a psychologist, and others. She loves collaborating with and learning from her colleagues throughout the school.  

“Practicum and internship are where I have learned the most, hands-down,” she said. “I’m glad that we do a year-long internship at the same school, because that’s really important to be able to build that rapport and those relationships with students and with colleagues.” 

Zafar said she was surprised and honored by the award. “I don’t know what to say other than thank you,” she said. “I have so many people – family, friends, colleagues – who have supported me over the past 14 years. We talk about it in counseling all the time – the support that you have is pretty much the number one factor in your success. With my students now, that’s something that I think about a lot. Who do they have to support them?” 

As part of her involvement with the VPSMH grant, after graduation, Zafar plans to work as a school counselor in one of the grant’s partnership counties in Virginia. From there, she's keeping an open mind – she might pursue administration, or maybe earn another graduate degree someday. What she does know is that she will continue learning from every experience and building strong relationships, so she’ll be ready to seize whatever opportunities come her way. 

“Our faculty very much look forward to the impact Hina will have on the school counseling profession,” Taylor said. “It will not be small.”