George Mason University

News at Mason

When teaching becomes an ‘experience’

February 28, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Fred Bemak

Fred Bemak is a 2018 Outstanding Faculty Award winner. The awards are administered by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

When Fred Bemak greets a class for the first time, he explains a dynamic that goes well beyond book learning.

“I say to the class, ‘We’re going to have an experience together,’ ” the George Mason University professor explained. “ ‘We’re going to have an experience in which you are going to learn intensely about the subject area, but you will also learn about yourself.’ ”

It is that sensibility, coupled with his passion for diversity and social justice, that has marked Bemak’s 18 years at George Mason, where he is a professor and academic program coordinator of the university’s Counseling and Development Program in the College of Education and Human Development, and founder and director of the Diversity Research and Action Consortium.

Bemak also founded Counselors Without Borders, which provides culturally responsive humanitarian counseling to those in disaster situations around the world. Bemak, with a small group of Mason faculty and graduate students, will travel to Puerto Rico in March to help those still recovering emotionally from Hurricane Maria.

View Bemak’s profile here.

Bemak’s career will be honored on Thursday, March 1, at an event at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., where he and 11 other educators (83 were nominated) will be presented Outstanding Faculty Awards from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).

“Incredible,” said Bemak, who is the 21st recipient from Mason since the award’s 1987 inception. “It was absolutely surprising and wonderful to hear. But more so than me, my work is being acknowledged and recognized at the highest levels, and that is meaningful.”

Bemak’s wife, Rita Chi-Ying Chung, also a professor in Mason’s Counseling and Development Program, was similarly honored in 2013.

Winners receive $5,000 underwritten by the Dominion Foundation.

Bemak said diversity and social justice are the underpinnings of all he teaches in his graduate classes. They are so important, Bemak said he and his team spent two years redesigning every course in the graduate program to include those principles. Mark Ginsberg, dean of the College of Education and Human Development, called Bemak’s program a national model.

“We are moving into an increasingly diverse society,” Bemak said. “We are dealing with large immigrant populations, refugee populations, and rapidly expanding communities of color, so anyone working in the field of counseling and psychology has to be highly sensitized to the inequities around diversity.”

Lewis Forrest, BA English ’96, MEd Counseling and Development ’05, was one of Bemak’s students. He called Bemak’s courses intense, but said Bemak was encouraging and open to discussion.

“He didn’t pull any punches. He wanted people to get the most out of it,” said Forrest, an associate dean for University Life at Mason. “He pushed us in a way that prepared us for the profession. When we finished, you could see people were trained for the job.”

And, Bemak hopes, a little more self-aware.

“His approach has always been to push students both intellectually and emotionally in a way that helps them grow,” Ginsberg said. “

“We have to heal to be healers,” Bemak said. “Our entire counseling program emphasizes that. We’re healing ourselves while we’re learning skills, theories and critical thinking about the issues in our field and our world.”