What’s Your Story/St. Edward’s University Commencement Speech/Masters in Counseling Grad
What’s Your Story? Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC
I’m telling my story today as a vehicle for giving you guideposts, or a kind of road map, through internship to full licensure. 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’ve 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, signing on as a copygirl at the Miami Herald. 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; before I knew it, my husband and I had three children, five and under. I quit my job. I held down the fort in Manhattan and then Brooklyn while my photographer husband traveled for work. But eventually, the expense and logistics of the city became overwhelming. And without a career, I was a nonentity in New York. Seeking a softer life, we moved to Austin. Motherhood sped by in a blur. It was the experience of lifetime, but left me with a 20-year gap on my resume. By the time our two older children were in college, and the youngest was a high school sophomore, I could see the empty nest approaching. I was getting itchy to reclaim my own life, and volunteer work was no longer cutting it.
Three of my volunteer jobs were critical, though, in my decision to apply to the MAC program: working with the homeless and 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
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 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 renewed her supervisor credentials, 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 and creativity. Serendipitously, another veteran therapist, Mark White, asked me to co-facilitate an ongoing psycho-educational parenting 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 a Psychology Today profile, 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, 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. We counseled Y members ranging from homeless individuals to CEOs. Within two years, 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. Three of us are supervisors, and we offer interns office space in which to begin seeing clients. Frequently, with appropriate clients, I take my dog to work as a canine xanax. He cuddles up next to them and palpably lowers the anxiety in the room. Meanwhile, the Town Lake YMCA counseling program—strategically located downtown, overlooking the hike ‘n bike trail–is still flourishing. We offer Y members two pro bono sessions and then a sliding scale. Many become long-term clients. Unwittingly, the Y counseling program has become a powerful marketing vehicle.
At last I had reached my goal: a career that offered autonomy, complexity and meaning, and one which I could pursue indefinitely.
Fast forward to 2016-2017: Since I was an intern, things have changed. Supervision costs have escalated, and it essential that you have a financial plan in place and a stable site at which to do your internship. Also, if you’re planning on going into private practice, no matter your marketing expertise, consider taking insurance. Austin is a young city, and most clients need to use their insurance for therapy.
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, part of a couple, or have experience in the LGBT arena. You might have navigated a serious illness, or a trauma.
One of my interns is a competitive athlete. She is carving out a niche, at least partially, counseling high-level athletes. An older intern, the mother of two older adolescents, is working with troubled adolescents in the Hays School District. Yet another intern, a brilliant individual on the Asperger’s spectrum, is working with that population, helping young adults navigate college and coaching them in seeking and interviewing for appropriate careers.
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. My journalism, parenting and volunteer background continues to be foundational to my counseling career.
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, coherent and genuine stories. And remember: it is our relationship with clients, not a particular technique or modality, that is the chief agent of change. Ch. 8 Good Luck!
Today I’m here to honor your launching. So whether you’re working at an agency, a school or other entity, or going into private practice, use your precious time to build a career around who you are. Be creative: talk to therapists who are doing the kind of work you want to do. Beef up your business and marketing smarts. Step out of your comfort zone, think out of the box. Find an internship that will work for you—logistically, financially and spiritually. Stay connected to your colleagues. Finally, (and I’m big on this) don’t fail to practice, and model, self-care: exercise daily, stay hydrated, eat mindfully, get eight hours’ sleep.
And be grateful…You are entering a profession in which meaning, and transcendence, are built into your work…one of the rare professions in which age is actually an asset!
To paraphrase Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: Man comes at the meaning of his in life in three ways: through good deeds or meaningful work, through love and relationship, and through transcendence of self to help others. His tale of transcendence sets the bar for all of us.
Above all, keep listening. There’s a story there.