St. Edward’s University Graduation Speech
2013 Counseling Graduates
What’s Your Story?
Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC
Ch. 1: Honoring Your Roots
Everyone Has a Story
Each of YOU has a story about how you found your way from your previous life to the St. Ed’s counseling program. Whether you enrolled right after college or later on, you came to the MAC program with dreams of forging a new, perhaps more congruent path.
I was no different. All my life, I have been interested in people and their stories. Even when I was young, my friends came to me with their problems and I was always a willing ear. I grew up in Memphis, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where storytelling is an art form. An English major at the University of Tennessee (the REAL UT!), I began my career as a journalist, hiring on as a copy girl with the Miami Herald. Since I was good at talking to people, and I liked to write, the choice seemed appropriate. For the next 16 years, I worked as a newspaper and magazine reporter in South Florida and New York City, where I finally got my dream job at Life Magazine. At the time, it was a perfect fit: I captured people’s stories for a living.
Then I got pregnant. When I had my first child, a son, I quit my job and freelanced, but my heart wasn’t in it. I loved being a mother and this eclipsed everything else. My story was evolving. Two more children– a daughter and another son–followed. By this time, we had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and my photographer husband was traveling much of the time. I held down the fort. With a baby in a backpack, a toddler in a stroller and a 5-year-old on foot, we braved the streets and subways of the city, trudging to the park, shopping for groceries, visiting the pediatrician, meeting friends for play dates. But eventually, the expense and logistics of New York became overwhelming. Kindergarten tuition was on par with college.
We moved to Austin in 1993. Immediately, life was easy. The privacy and tranquility of driving my own car, instead of being sardine-ed on a subway with 3 kids and all the requisite equipment, was balm for my soul. The panoramic sky– something I hadn’t seen properly in years–nearly brought me to tears.
By the time the older two had left for college and my youngest was a high school sophomore, I could see the empty nest approaching. I was getting itchy to reclaim my own life. Three of of my volunteer jobs were critical in my ultimate decision to apply to the MAC program: writing the newsletter for the local non-profit, Mobile Loaves and Fishes; doing pet therapy with my Labrador Retriever; and serving an 8-year stint in the Stephen Ministry at my church. A Stephen minister is a lay person trained over the course of several months to function as a spiritual support to a congregant in crisis, meeting weekly with the individual, much as a counselor would. Those experiences fit; in the words of my old Southern English professor, they “spoke to my condition.”
Ch. 2: Choosing St. Edward’s
I researched counseling programs in the area, and zeroed in on St. Ed’s. The clincher, I admit, was the school’s willingness to waive the dreaded GRE–saving me from the further delay of taking an intensive course in remedial math. But when I was admitted, I froze. I had not been a student in decades…could I handle it? So I visited my advisor and tried to beg off, telling her I thought I’d defer admission and mull it over. But she held firm: don’t delay, she said. Put your toe in the water with just one course and see what happens. I did just that and was hooked, ultimately plunging into the program full-time. But there was another obstacle early on: I was older, intimidated in a sea of young people. Again, I was lucky: during orientation, I met a handful of women exactly my age. We ended up sticking together for the next three years and, if I do say so myself, we RULED! We all did our Practicums at Capital Area Counseling; and we comforted ourselves with the thought that we had picked a profession in which age (at last!) counted in our favor.
For me, St. Ed’s was one of the great experiences of my life–an incubator for a new beginning. Small and nurturing, the MAC program became a family. All my professors had something unique to offer, and they practiced what they preached by working as therapists in the real world. They woke us up. They made us laugh. And many of the friends and colleagues I made in the program–both professors and fellow students–will be life-long. They have changed me for the better.
Ch. 3: Finding a Mentor
Grad school, it turned out, was the easy part. Then the real adventure began. The licensing exam, 3000-hour internship and crafting of a new career required an entirely different mindset and a more sophisticated bandwidth. I was fortunate to secure Sunny Landsdale as my supervisor. Another intern and I talked her into taking us under her wing in private practice. She cleaned out a storage room in her offices and allowed us to furnish it as our counseling space. We were in business, with no clients. Then a friend referred a colleague to me, and I had my first client. That client referred someone else. As time went on, I realized that what I was doing felt oddly familiar. And then I made the connection: both journalism and therapy have to do with a fascination with the human condition, and in both cases, with getting someone’s story–albeit with different agendas. I could do this!
Building a caseload, though, took time. Serendipitously, another veteran therapist, Mark White, asked me to co-facilitate an ongoing psycho-educational parent group. I had met him during my volunteer days, when I wrote a profile of him as one of the founders of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. He, too, mentored me. Some of those group members became my individual clients.
Ch. 4: Building a Foundation
During this period, I spent my free time doing everything I could to establish myself: creating a website, and writing regular blogs; networking with established therapists by taking them to coffee; attending professional meetings; giving free presentations on relevant topics at the community library; becoming certified in EMDR and Trauma First Aid; and reading what I hadn’t had time to read in grad school.
Ch. 5: Being Creative: Carving Out Your Niche
But the real turning point came one day when I was swimming laps at the Town Lake YMCA. It occurred to me that a pro bono counseling program would be ideal for the Y’s healthy mind-body-spirit mission. I proposed the idea and the Y management jumped on it. Within weeks, the program took off and I had to recruit another intern, MAC colleague Marvi Haynes, to help me. The Y cleaned out its Pilates storage room upstairs. We scrounged up some furniture from home and WalMart and hung up our shingle. Within months, between Sunny’s umbrella practice and the Y, I had logged my 3,000 hours.
Ch. 6: Joining a Tribe
Once fully licensed, I left Sunny to office with a group of like-minded colleagues from St. Ed’s and Capital Area Counseling. Known as the Austin Counseling Center, we share space and camaraderie on Westbank Drive. I am five minutes from home. Occasionally, with dog-friendly clients, I take my dogs to work as canine assistants. And the Town Lake YMCA counseling program—strategically located downtown, overlooking the hike ‘n bike trail– is still flourishing. We now offer Y members two pro bono sessions and then a sliding scale. Many become long-term clients. Unwittingly, the Y counseling program–serving members who range from homeless individuals to CEOs– has become a powerful marketing vehicle.
Ch. 7: Staying True to Your Story
So I ask you: what experiences in your life can inform your new profession? What are your roots? What connections do you have that might prove useful? What are you good at, and what do you love to do? What sets you apart?
Perhaps you have a business background, or a facility with languages. You might have experience in healthcare, teaching or pertinent volunteer work. Maybe you’re a parent, or part of a couple. You might have navigated a serious illness, or a trauma. Even if you’ve gone straight from undergrad to grad school, there is something in your background that can contribute to who you become in your career. Use your story–all of it.
The world-renowned writer and psychotherapist Thomas Moore, author of the powerful book Care of the Soul, believes that it is the storytelling itself that is important–not only for us, as counselors, but also for our clients. He says:
“Storytelling is an excellent way of caring for the soul. It helps us see the themes that circle in our lives, the deep themes that tell the myths we live. It would take only a slight shift in emphasis in therapy to focus on the storytelling itself rather than on its interpretation.”
What this means to me is that the stories people tell about themselves, how they tell them and what they choose to emphasize, is where the substance lies–the key to the psyche, as it were. Storytelling, in this way, becomes a metaphor for the true self. It is our job as therapists to guide our clients in shaping their life narratives into empowering, integrated and genuine stories.
Ch. 8 Good Luck!
Needless to say, I am still on my journey. But today, I am privileged to watch YOU begin.
So whether you’re working at an agency or going into private practice, use your precious time to build a career around who you are. And be grateful…Remember: you are entering a profession in which meaning, and transcendence, are built into your work.
Above all, keep listening. There’s a story there.