September/October 2019, Volume 7 Issue 11

Leading by Example to Encourage Certification

Every housing counseling agency has its own approach to preparing counselors to take the certification exam. At High Plains Community Development Corporation (HPCDC), executive director and housing counselor Rita Horse is leading by example.

Located in rural Nebraska, the agency’s three housing counselors support a large geographical area filled with communities that are spread out across 65,000 square miles. “If you were to race from stoplight to stoplight, the nearest one would be 75 miles away,” joked Horse. HPCDC’s mission is to support individuals, families, and communities by providing housing related programs, advocacy, and information that enhances success and fosters social justice. As the only HUD-approved housing counseling agency in the area, their quest for certification isn’t just about checking off a box – it’s critical to the communities they serve.

When Horse first heard about the final rule on housing counseling certification, her initial reaction was surprise. “I’ve been doing this work forever,” said Horse, who’s been at HPCDC for 18 years. “When it comes to housing counseling, what we provide could be way different, or more or less detailed, from another counseling team or agency,” she acknowledged. “I can see why certification is a requirement.”

Setting an Example

With the requirement set and no way around it, Horse began her preparation.

She studied on her own for months using materials from the Office of Housing Counseling, HUD’s training partners, and Once she felt more confident and comfortable with the materials, she strategically scheduled herself to attend a NeighborWorks in-person training institute right before her exam date. “I took the test within 10 days of being back,” she said. “I really think that’s a best practice because all of the content is still fresh in your mind.”

When her exam day arrived in December 2018, she was a bit nervous because of things she’d heard. “They tell you to be prepared not to pass the first time,” she shared, noting that some people indicated that taking it a second time is easier and less stressful because you know what to expect. “I was fortunate enough to pass the first time. I felt a huge sense of relief.”

Preparing Staff for Success

Now, as the lone HUD-certified housing counselor at HPCDC, she’s preparing the other two counselors to have the same success she did. But their journey to certification will prove to be a little more complex.

For example, one counselor is new to the organization and to housing counseling. Although she is being introduced to much of the information for the first time, Horse believes this may serve as an advantage. “Everything is new to her, so she’s learning the material as she studies,” Horse said, “but, for those of us who’ve been in the field for a long time, we had to unlearn some of our previous knowledge to relearn the updated material.”

Horse is doing everything she can to make sure they don’t face other barriers to their preparation. In addition to encouraging staff to register for webinars and apply for scholarships that would decrease or eliminate training costs, their small team also does a lot of information sharing and communicating to support each other through the process. Also, when there is down time in their caseloads, Horse encourages her staff to use the time to study at work. Once they go through all of the study materials, Horse is planning to send the counselors to the same in-person training institute she attended. “It was so helpful because you’re there with people who are preparing to take the test around the same time, so there’s a lot of camaraderie and feedback and support among counselors,” she said.

With the deadline getting closer, Horse worked with each counselor to set internal deadlines for taking and passing the exam.

Sharing Lessons Learned

Below are some tips that Horse shared for preparing for and taking the certification exam:

  • Heavily review the materials a couple days before taking the test but recognize that there’s a point where you have to stop and trust that you’ve done everything you can to prepare.
  • Mark questions that you’re unsure about and return to answer them. This prevents you from wasting too much time looking for an answer you don’t know.
  • Stay focused and concentrate on the task at hand. Don’t be distracted or intimidated by the proctor, who will be watching you the whole time.

“Certification makes our work more standard across the nation,” recognized Horse. “I know that things differ from state to state, but we’re all trying to learn the same concepts. Now, no matter where we are, we’ll be able to give clients the same quality of information, which makes our field more dependable.”