Noor Ibrahim

Noor Ibrahim. Photo courtesy of Noor Ibrahim.

How do social workers provide effective teletherapy to patients whom they haven’t met in person? 

That question looms over Noor Ibrahim as she waits to find out if COVID-19 will force her to counsel a new batch of clients online this fall.

“I’m not sure how it’ll go because I haven’t done virtual sessions from the beginning of a relationship with a client,” says Ibrahim, who will graduate from the Boston College School of Social Work on Monday. “But I’m expecting that it will affect how much trust I can build with them early on and how comfortable they feel sharing.”

Ibrahim will begin to counsel college students at Brandeis University in August. But she doesn’t know when she will be able to provide support to her new clients in person. That's because COVID-19 has clouded the future. Like many colleges across the country, Brandeis has yet to announce whether students will return to campus for the fall semester.

If Ibrahim needs to treat her new clients online, she plans to pay attention to her facial expressions and body language. She says she’ll acknowledge that teletherapy might make her clients feel uncomfortable at first. And she’ll encourage them to discuss the challenges of sharing intimate details of their lives online.

“I have to be patient with clients if they take a while to open up,” says Ibrahim. “I think I’ll also remind clients that I am there for them and encourage them to contact me if they are feeling really bad.”

Ibrahim received her master’s degree in education from Rutgers University in 2007 and worked with college students in residential life departments at Penn State University, William Paterson University, and Endicott College for the next eight years. But she says she didn’t know she wanted to counsel college students until she realized how much she loved to help them navigate life as young adults. 

She lived in residence halls with the students, she says, and responded to crises in the middle of the night. She met with students who broke the rules and found that her responsibilities often mirrored those of a social worker who helps people resolve their problems. 

“My favorite part of the job was the one-on-one interaction with students,” she says. “I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer anymore. I wanted to sit across from students and talk about deep stuff.”

After she got laid off from her job at Endicott College in 2015, Ibrahim found a job at BC and enrolled in the part-time master’s of social work program. 

This program has been like therapy for me. I’ve learned to be kinder and more compassionate to myself, and in return, I’ve been able to be a more loving therapist to my clients.
Noor Ibrahim, student

“This program has been like therapy for me,” she says. “I’ve learned to be kinder and more compassionate to myself, and in return, I’ve been able to be a more loving therapist to my clients.”

Ibrahim recently completed an internship at the Counseling Center at Simmons University. She helped 12 undergraduate clients cope with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, academic issues, and relationship problems.

She used a form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on helping people change their patterns of thinking. She asked anxious clients to write down their thoughts, the evidence that supported those thoughts, and the evidence that suggested that those thoughts did not align with reality. Then she would analyze the data and discuss the likelihood that those anxious thoughts would come to fruition. 

“If you have low self esteem, depression, or an eating disorder, college becomes way more challenging,” she says. “I wanted to help my clients validate their feelings and change their beliefs about themselves so they could just be students.”  

Ibrahim says she tried to build strong bonds with her clients by infusing her sessions with humor and kindness. She credits Emily Pilowa, a part-time faculty member in the School of Social Work, with helping her understand how important it is for therapists to empathize with their patients. 

“She didn't just teach us what it’s like to be a therapist,” said Ibrahim, who took two classes with Pilowa. “She gave us examples of cases, and we would laugh or cry, and I will think of that if I’m having a hard day.”

Ibrahim says her career goal is to open a private practice. She wants to work with marginalized college students, including racial minorities and the LGBTQ community. 

“I love working with students who are marginalized,” she says. “I want to help them learn how to advocate for themselves and thrive in college.”