by Nicole Sellino, ’17, M.S. clinical psychology student
I’m not exactly sure that I know the difference between an externship and an internship. One difference is that “externship” gets a small red line under it when I type it into emails or Word documents on the computer, while “internship” does not. I’ve googled it a few times, and never quite found a sufficiently satisfying answer. Most of my friends who majored in business classes talk about their “internship,” whereas my psychology friends talk about their “externships.” Regardless, I do not think that it is a coincidence that “externship” begins with the same two letters as “experience.” For the purpose of this post, I will maintain the privacy of my externship site out of respect and confidentiality, although it pains me to do so. I’d like to give it the credit it deserves for being an enriching, constantly growing and beautiful place – both inside and out, just like the people I have encountered there. For the sake of this essay, the most you have to know is that I extern at a school, and work with students from the ages of 7 to 18 years old.
I went from swearing to myself that I would never disclose information to the individuals that I would work with to answering every question they pulled from the question box. I remember leaving the school thinking “What have I done?” The students know my favorite foods, my favorite color, where I would go if I could go anywhere in the world right now, what I would do if I found $1,000, and my preference on sports teams. They know some information about my family, my dog, and from where I come. They know that I am a graduate student. The one question I did not answer was about my age. I spoke to my supervisors both at my site and at Loyola about the children’s persistent questions, and they assured me it was normal. Every site is going to be a bit different, and working with students in a school setting is different in itself. One of my professors told me that it felt as if she was simply playing with children, when in fact, she was giving them the correct type of intervention and therapy that they needed. My disclosure of some personal information helped the children in the social skills group learn to respond to my statements and ask follow up questions. That was the point of the question game, and I learned that they were not the only ones growing in the room. They learned to ask and answer questions effectively. I learned that self-disclosure, when appropriate, can be okay. I savored the moments when I realized that the individuals are my priority in the room, and not myself. If answering the question will help them and not hurt them, then yes, my favorite kind of cake is carrot cake, in case you were wondering.
My experience at this site has taught me to appreciate the differences in genders, cultures, and religions. I have sat across the table from a high school student, explaining to me that they do not identify with the gender that was assigned at birth. Due to both cultural and religious factors, the child expressed fear about disclosing that information to the child’s parents. I also have been in the room with a pacing student, paranoid that the entire school knows his secret (when, in fact, I did not even know of it myself). I was surprised to learn that I had no judgments or frustrations – I was almost moved to tears at some points because I wanted to take their own frustrations and anxiety away. I kept thinking about how high school was difficult for me on several occasions, and yet I did not even have the fears and feelings that these students are experiencing. I give these students an overwhelming amount of credit for coming to school and living a successful life both in the classroom and with their peers. Again, I was recognizing that while the students are the priority in the room, they are not the only ones learning. I was, and still am, learning so much about the students, as well as myself.
One student has helped me grow immensely as an aspiring counselor. In September, I attended a family member’s wedding – the first interfaith wedding in our family. It was a beautiful demonstration of love celebrated by both families. A few months later (with no knowledge of my personal experiences), a student proclaimed his dislike for a religion – the same one that my new family members practice. This, I found, caused some discomfort within me. I kept wanting to tell the student about my new family members and how wonderful and kind they are, but refrained. This was the type of disclosure that I do not want to experience. My job was not to change the student’s opinion because of my own experiences. My professional job was to provide a safe space for students to share their own opinions and biases. While I hope to try to make the world a more accepting place, I cannot force my own values upon others. So, I simply asked the student, “What would you do if you encountered someone of this faith?” The student responded that they would not like it, but that they would be nice. When I asked why this was the case, we had a productive conversation about how people may identify differently, but that we have our own right to practice different religions. Although this student and I share the same religious background, we have different views about other religions. I did not share this observation with the student because it was the student’s time to talk, and mine to listen. As an undergraduate theology major, I wanted to educate. But again, there is a time and place for education, and I had to wear my counselor hat, and keep the teacher one in my back pocket for now. I learned that I am more tolerant of views that differ from my own.
I find that this has been fueled by a sincere curiosity to understand why some students have the opinions they do. Instead of the frustration, and maybe anger, that I was expecting myself to feel, I found myself interested and thoughtful. All of our thoughts and stereotypes come from somewhere, and it is absolutely fascinating to probe beneath the surface of what may seem like a “mean” comment. There is more to our words and stories than what we initially see or hear. If everyone listened for a few minutes, maybe they would realize this, too. Sometimes I take a moment to appreciate just how fortunate I am that Loyola led me to such a rewarding experience, and how lucky I am to have the privilege to know these brilliant, creative and selfless students who are teaching me so much about myself and others.