This article was originally published in the Helena Independent Record.
The Helena 20 Under 40 awards are meant to honor those up to age 40 who, through their industry and hard work, are moving the Helena community forward toward the future.
These awards are not just bestowed by the Independent Record. They are bestowed by the citizens of Helena and the Helena Valley, who nominated each of the honorees.
Lifelong educator Rita Pierson said “Every child deserves a champion — an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”
For the past 17 years, Chrissy Murgel has tried to be one of those champions for the students she works with as a counselor at Helena High School.
With her mother and grandfather having both been teachers, Murgel admits that she comes from a long line of educators. She shared that she always knew growing up that she also wanted to be a teacher and help people, especially young people. This dream led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from the University of Western Montana in Dillon.
During her time at Western, Murgel recalled seeing a poster on the wall of a hallway one day advertising the counselor education program at the University of Montana. She was immediately intrigued. While part of her felt becoming a counselor might be the next step on her career path, she wanted to gain some classroom experience first.
After graduating from the University of Montana Western, Murgel was hired as a teacher at Helena High School. After teaching for a few years, Murgel continued her journey of helping others after being accepted into the three year counselor education program in Missoula. Murgel explained that she had to travel to Missoula on weekends while working full time at Helena High in order to achieve her master’s degree. In the spring of 2005, Murgel officially became a counselor and returned to Helena High to continue helping her students.
Murgel explained that the role of a school counselor involves bringing together three different realms: high school academic planning, college and career planning, and social/emotional support.
“We do the best we can to understand all of our students’ varying needs,” said Murgel. “We work with them to find viable solutions to whatever challenge or setback they are facing so that they can continue to find success in the academic setting.”
“It’s a big job,” Murgel went on to say. “We have to wear a lot of hats.”
There are currently four counselors at Helena High with a fifth coming on board for the upcoming school year that will focus strictly on freshmen. Murgel explained that up until now, the students were divided up amongst the counselors by the first letter of their last name. That meant that Murgel got to work with students from the freshman class all the way up to seniors preparing to graduate.
“It’s fun to see them blossom into confident young adults by the time they are ready to graduate,” said Murgel.
At times, the caseload of students split between the counseling team has been upwards of 400 students. So how does Murgel go about building relationships with so many students needing her help? She explained that her efforts include simple things like standing in the hallway to greet students and ask how their weekend was and pulling them into her office to do periodic checks. She also goes as far as to attend students’ athletic events and plays, as well as mailing personally written postcards to their homes telling them how proud she is of them and that she is thinking of them.
“Chrissy’s passion for the job and her dedication to Helena youth has never ceased to amaze me,” said Jason Murgel, Chrissy’s husband and fellow Helena High counselor. “When difficult situations face her on a daily basis, she never wavers and embraces each challenge with invigorating determination.”
Being a high school student in 2017 is hardly an easy role. From worrying about what they want to be when they grow up and how to pay for college to combatting bullying and the negative side effects of social media, Murgel has her hands full with helping students discover who they really are and navigate through their four years of high school.
“They need to know that it’s OK to give themselves permission to just be kids,” said Murgel.
Outside of her regular role as a counselor, Murgel also serves on an advisory council for Reach Higher Montana as both a counselor and parent. Reach Higher Montana is a public benefit partnership with the Montana Higher Education Student Assistance Corporation that works to guide, prepare and support students in their efforts to reach their potential through higher education. Murgel helps with Reach Higher Montana’s college goal nights, which help raise FAFSA awareness and provide free help to students and parents as well as the opportunity to complete their FAFSA application.
Despite all of the challenges, one of the most rewarding parts of Murgel’s job is getting to hand her seniors their diploma when they finally arrive at graduation day. She explained that while some students seem to breeze through their high school years with ease, others have hidden struggles that “people couldn’t fathom.” From students who attend school full time and also work full time jobs to help support their families, to students who don’t have a solid home to return to and spend their nights couch surfing, reaching graduation is a massive accomplishment for some.
“But they continue to persevere despite the challenges,” said Murgel.
Even after Murgel proudly hands off diplomas to her students each June, her contributions to their lives often continue years later. Murgel shared that many of her former students make surprise visits to school to see her to tell her how work or college is going. These check-ins by transformed students are the only affirmation Murgel needs to realize that she’s doing something right.
“That’s how you know that you did some tiny sliver of good to help that kid,” said Murgel.