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Musings of a Non-Traditional Student on Career Development

Feb 6, 2024

At The Grove like many treatment centers, our clinical staff is comprised of a vast array of professionals, from masters degree social workers and licensed professional counselors to addictions counselors. This includes persons in recovery and / or those led to the profession in one way or another. Our paths have been very different, leading us to our career choices and our purpose.

One of our counselors captured her journey to her career showing that not all take the traditional career path.
Read below.

Musings of a Non-Traditional Student on Career Development
Written by: Abril “Grace” Alello

I am a middle-aged woman. Yet, it has only been in the last decade that I have seriously considered the possibility of a professional career. I guess one could say that my life circumstances were not conducive to educational or professional development. The transient environment of my youth provided slim pickings in the way of positive role models, and there were more pressing concerns than what I might become when I grew up. My mother, Aunt Dee (my mother’s long-time roommate), and little brother comprised my family unit. My mom had mental health conditions, including addiction, and my aunt was abusive and cruel. My little brother and I were essentially victims of circumstance.
My first daydreams of potential careers were of being a librarian or a nun. In hindsight, I would realize that the library and the stories it contained provided my first escape. Libraries were safe, quiet, and orderly- a place where a girl could hide in the pages of a book for hours and not be bothered. Coming from the chaos of my home life, the library was a haven. As for becoming a nun, there was a short period during my childhood when I attended St. Alphonsus Catholic School on a charity scholarship. A nun called Sister Rochelle was my primary teacher. She treated me with patience and affection. I didn’t know much about God or Jesus; my family did not stick around long enough for me to learn. But I believed if sister Rochelle was representative of one of God’s agents, then I wanted to be one as well. Plus, in my young mind, being a nun equaled safety; after all, who would harm an agent of God?
As I entered my teen years, my thoughts and efforts centered on survival: learning to anticipate my mother’s moods and temper her paranoia, staying under the radar of my aunt’s judgments and “corrective measures,” and keeping my little brother occupied when the drama peaked. My mother, though intelligent, was incapable of maintaining consistent employment. My Aunt Dee mainly worked in restaurants and convenience stores. Both received government assistance. My mother’s mental health issues and addiction contributed to the poverty we experienced as a family. We lived an almost nomadic lifestyle, often moving every few months. Life was characterized by a series of trailer parks, cheap rental units, women’s shelters, unreliable cars, secondhand clothes, crises, and desperation. We were what one might have called “poor white trash.”
I never thought too far ahead, and if I dreamed or planned, it was only of escape. By the time I was 13, I was bouncing around foster care and would soon become a runaway. I would never attend a high school dance or graduation. I wouldn’t take part in sleepovers or summer camps. I wouldn’t peruse college brochures or look at wedding magazines. I would learn to lie, placate, playact, and manipulate to survive, and I would learn well. However, the skills that served me well in the environment of my youth did not translate to a productive life as an adult. Ironically, as an adult, I made many of the same unfortunate choices my mother had. By the time I hit 40, I had a history of addiction, mental instability, criminal behavior, homelessness, and incarceration.
My family environment and the lack of social support were very influential in all aspects of my development, including my self-concept, self-efficacy, and self-worth. The emotional/psychological impact of the trauma I experienced was profound, leaving me to struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Educational disruptions, lack of healthy interpersonal skills, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and a general resignation to the state of my life impeded my ability to set realistic goals, obscuring my vision for a future career.
Cultural expectations reinforced a lack of ambition. The societal stereotypes and stigmas often associated with individuals from low socioeconomic backgrounds have the effect of limiting one’s resources and aspirations. Moreover, the communities my family interacted with had a distinct hierarchy wherein women were often objectified and regarded with less respect than their male counterparts. As a young woman who grew up around drugs and violence, I gained the misconception that my physicality was of primary importance. In other words, my level of attractiveness and the promise of what I could offer sexually were considered assets with which I could bargain to meet my needs. To express a desire to learn or grow would have been seen as uppity and, therefore, unacceptable. One did not shine in my culture; to shine was to invite yourself to be shattered.
Despite my perilous beginnings and cringeworthy escapades, I have been blessed to find a purpose and, thus, a career path. My life experiences, support from my community, and the examples of others ignited in me a desire to serve individuals and families affected by addiction. Some might say that I did not learn what I could become from my mother and my aunt, but I would respectfully disagree. It might have taken some years and hard-won wisdom, but I did learn. I have learned that I can choose. I can choose to be helpless and bitter, or complacent, or ugly and cruel, or I can choose to be kind, honest, persistent, and hopeful. I have had the privilege to receive encouragement and acceptance from many individuals in my adult life who gave me the courage to strive for improvement, including my brother, who built a career in gaming technology even though he never finished high school, my employer, who overcame her own battles to embark on a second career which has changed lives, and my husband who continually pushes me to believe in myself.
While my career development journey did not begin until later in life, it is important to acknowledge that everyone’s journey is different. In my experience, the path to fulfilling one’s potential is rarely linear and orderly.
From a counseling perspective, my story is not unique. Many individuals find themselves with a history that, for one reason or another, reinforces their perspective that their career choices are narrow or that the opportunity for professional development has passed. However, I am an example that, at any point in one’s development, factors like resiliency, social support, mentorship, therapy, honesty, and commitment to personal growth can mitigate the adverse effects of a difficult upbringing on career development. Change is possible.
Because I have experienced it, I recognize that some people may feel constrained by social standing, stigma, and lack of education or technological skill. For these individuals, career development will be an essential aspect of their counseling experience. Learning to trust myself, gaining self-efficacy, and persisting in pursuing personal and professional growth despite the challenges has instilled a sense of confidence I have never known. As I prepare myself for the honor of contributing to the addiction counseling profession by combining my professional training and personal experience to foster meaningful connections, encourage autonomy, and model hope for my clients, I am grateful for the path that led me here.