George Mason University professors Fred Bemak and Rita Chi-Ying Chung began their careers on opposite sides of the globe—Bemak in Massachusetts and Chung in New Zealand—but their passion for human rights and social justice ultimately brought them together.
Bemak and Chung (who incidentally have been married for 17 years) have traveled to more than 55 countries, separately and together, where they have worked with at-risk youth, immigrants, and refugees; counseled child-trafficking and postdisaster victims; and guided students of color and former child soldiers.
In March, in recognition of their contributions to the counseling profession, Bemak and Chung received two of the American Counseling Association’s highest honors and became the only married couple to receive both awards. Chung received the Gilbert and Kathleen Wrenn Humanitarian and Caring Person Award, which Bemak was awarded in 2011, and Bemak received the Kitty Cole Human Rights Award, which Chung garnered last year.
“From the very beginning, there has always been a certain level of comfort in all the work we do, whether it is collaborative or independent,” says Chung. “This translates into a tranquil working environment that is free of competitiveness and tension.”
The pair first met at an invitation-only conference on refugee mental health at Harvard University in the early 1990s. Since then, they have worked together on national and international projects, all the while maintaining and pursuing their own research interests. They have been professors of counseling and development in George Mason’s College of Education and Human Development since 2000.
Together, they have conducted international postdisaster mental health interventions and training in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami, Myanmar (formerly Burma) after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and Haiti three months after the 2010 major earthquake.
They are involved with Counselors Without Borders, an organization founded by Bemak, which provides culturally responsive humanitarian counseling in postdisaster emergency situations. They have led and supervised groups of students working along the Mississippi Gulf Coast three months after Hurricane Katrina and on American Indian reservations and in Latino migrant communities after the San Diego wild fires.
Bemak and Chung also have teamed up on more than 90 publications, including articles, reports, books, and book chapters.
Being able to draw on one another’s strengths, they agree, is key to the success of their professional relationship. According to Bemak, bouncing ideas off each other, generating new ideas, and continuing to learn from one another keeps their relationship fresh.
Although their working styles differ—Chung is methodical and detail-oriented, while Bemak is more informal and relaxed—they have learned throughout the years to develop patience with one another and, most important, trust.
“We may not agree all the time, but there is never any doubt that either of us will support and stand behind the other’s work 100 percent,” says Bemak. “Our styles of working may be different, but our areas of expertise complement one another so well that we have learned to let go of any anxiety and trust that the other will not only do their absolute best, but will be right on track.”
Their professional relationship hasn’t come without its challenges. Throughout their career, they have encountered race and gender bias, the discounting of one or the other’s work, and being perceived as too much of a team or too independent of each other. Though these challenges persist, they don’t slow down these researchers.
It may seem that projects, papers, and conferences consume their lives, but Chung and Bemak know how and when to leave work at the office. They agree that the silver lining that comes from their work is that they have learned how to enjoy every minute of life—and do it together.
“Although the majority of our work reminds us of the cruel and unfair suffering that so many people around the world have endured, we consider ourselves lucky that we are able to share such rich and life-changing experiences together,” says Chung. “These experiences keep us grounded and help us appreciate everything we have and make the most of the time we have left.”