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Loyola’s Jesuit liberal arts education uniquely prepares mental health therapists

Alumni share how their Loyola experiences led them to careers at the Chesapeake Mental Health Collaborative in Towson

Therapists at the Chesapeake Mental Health Collaborative (CMHC) often jokingly refer to it as “Loyola North.” The Towson-based mental health practice is run by Dr. Heidi Schreiber-Pan, who received her M.S. in Counseling Psychology from Loyola University Maryland in 2004, followed by her Ph.D. in Counseling Education in 2015. 

One of her goals when founding the collaborative three years ago was to recruit Loyola counseling and psychology graduates. And that’s exactly what she did—CMHC now has 20 staff members, almost half of whom are former Loyola students.

Dr. Heidi Schreiber-Pan Dr. Heidi Schreiber-Pan

For her part, Schreiber-Pan embraces the “Loyola North” moniker: “[It’s] not only due to the large amount of grads, but also because of [our] emphasis on continued learning and collaboration,” she explains. “The Jesuit education that I received consistently stressed the importance and significance of knowledge; I create numerous learning opportunities for everyone who is employed here.”

Schreiber-Pan’s time at Loyola also instilled in her the power of community, which was another key value she wanted to incorporate into CMHC.

“I am convinced that the work of a therapist is not meant to be done in isolation,” she says. “CMHC is like a family.”

And that family certainly embraces the Jesuit tenet of cura personalis, or care for the whole person. CMHC aims to mix established psychological approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy with innovative treatments including nature-based therapy, yoga-informed trauma work, neuro-counseling, spiritually integrated therapy, and art therapy.

This holistic approach is furthered by the varied backgrounds of the practice’s therapists. While many have a Loyola education in common, each brings a distinct perspective to their jobs.

Loyola magazine caught up with six therapists to learn about those journeys—and how their Loyola education prepared them for this chapter of their professional lives.

Learning to serve

Kate Gerwin and Tracy Sanna joke that they have parallel life paths. The CMHC counselors both received their undergraduate degrees from Loyola in 2006—Gerwin in theology and philosophy and Sanna in psychology and history, plus a secondary education certification the following year—before completing Loyola’s former Pastoral Counseling graduate program in 2015 and 2014, respectively. The two women also both began their careers as teachers; Gerwin taught world religion while Sanna taught history.

Gerwin notes that her Jesuit education greatly informs her work, where she has a passion for addressing the whole person—mind, body, and spirit.

“I love that my Jesuit education always felt big and solid enough to handle any questions I threw at it,” she says.

My theology and philosophy classes especially felt like places where everything was up for questioning; it was safe to turn concepts on their heads and examine them from every angle.

Today, she says, she strives to offer that “same type of space” to her clients: “one where no thought, feeling, or experience is exiled, and all parts of them are welcomed.”

Sanna had a similar academic experience at Loyola. “My world opened up during my first psychology class at Loyola in 2002,” she explains, which led to her continued interest in how history was impacted by the psyches of leaders and cultural norms.

That interest was also cultivated by Loyola’s Center for Community, Service, and Justice, where Sanna volunteered during both her undergraduate and graduate careers. “Loyola taught me how to be a person for and with others,” she says. “The school’s greatest gift to me was to teach me about service and social justice. My work with CCSJ taught me about my privilege and my responsibility to work for social justice.”

Gerwin also volunteered throughout her time at Loyola. “My experiences were pivotal for me in understanding how building relationships is at the core of all transformation,” she says. “If you’re not meeting people on a human-to-human level, there is no lasting change.”

My experiences at Loyola also taught me to shift my thinking from service to solidarity. I am so acutely aware of all that I learn and gain from my clients, and just how much we are all meant for deep connection and community.

Gerwin says that her time studying abroad in Leuven, Belgium, had additional impact. “It taught me that curiosity—intellectual, emotional, cultural—is a way of life, and following its lead is one of the surest paths to fulfillment,” she explains.

Second careers

Another thing that many of CHMC’s Loyola grads have in common: Counseling was not their first career.

Patricia Kevin O’Dean, who received her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Loyola in 2017, returned to school after raising seven children and working in a church for 25 years.

“At the church, I was really in the ‘people’ business—helping people with relationships and their kids and that kind of thing,” notes O’Dean. “When I ended that chapter in my life, the only thing I still really wanted to do was help people. I naturally gravitated to counseling.”

O’Dean sees a lot of similarities between her church career and her new role. “You’re still helping people, but it’s more about helping them find their own answers,” she explains, mentioning that having to receive her own counseling as part of the Loyola program was especially helpful.

One of the best parts of a Loyola education is the focus on reflection. We reflected all the time. You're constantly looking at yourself, looking at your own development, looking at how you were raised. We learned all about development, different theories, and psychology—but we were also applying that to our own lives and understanding.

Graduating in the same class as O’Dean was Emily Bitner, who also felt drawn to a counseling career after time in other fields.

“After traveling and working in non-traditional educational platforms for 10 years, I felt this pull toward a career in being with others while they encountered challenges in their own journeys,” she explains, noting that she moved across the country for Loyola’s program.

“I had studied world religions in my early 20s, and believed a person’s meaning-making system was a huge part of understanding their world. Later on I studied yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices that work perfectly with providing therapy,” she says. 

Emily Bitner in a session with a patient Emily Bitner in a session with a patient

One of the more recent graduates working at the practice is Carin “Carey” Cooper, who received her M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Loyola in May 2019. After completing her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and working in human resources for several years, Cooper ended up staying home with her children for 10 years—but felt called to return to school.

“I always knew [sitting with clients] was what I wanted to do, but the path for that was not clearly defined when I graduated from college in 1999,” she explains. “Licensure for counselors in Maryland began around 2007 through the efforts of many people, including [Loyola’s] former department chair Sharon Cheston—who is counselor license #0001. So clearly, without the efforts of Loyola faculty, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today in the same way.”

The Jesuit experience

Like Cooper, many of the CMHC therapists credit their success to the mentorship they received from dedicated and experienced faculty at Loyola.

“Loyola’s program was so impactful because it taught the academic necessities of psychology, interventions, diagnosis, clinical skills—but it also cultivated me as an individual,” notes Jeanine Adair, who received her master’s degree from Loyola in 2015.

“It’s hard to have a profound effect on people if you haven’t understood yourself. It’s an essential part of Loyola’s program that sets it apart. You're not allowed to learn psychology and graduate with blinders on.”

“My professors acted as mentors to me,” said Adair. “I observed [their] treatment of each student, of their colleagues. Every individual was treated as if they were the only person in the room. My professors would field a criticism, or an abrasive comment, and I would marvel at how [they] turned it around to affirm their personal value. [They] would not take offense.”

O’Dean agrees that the dedication of Loyola’s faculty made a huge difference in her education and in the way she approaches her career today.

“Most all of the faculty were so supportive and inspiring—you could tell they really loved the subject and were interested in people,” she says. “The best education is one that you can apply to yourself, one that helps you know yourself so you can operate with others more freely and objectively.”

Shared values

Many of the CMHC counselors appreciate having their Loyola backgrounds in common—and as director, Schreiber-Pan does, too.

“The one distinguishing factor of Loyola grads is the depth of personal reflection they have been guided to undertake,” she explains. “In addition to requiring personal therapy, they have been tasked with structured essays and intimate small group discussions. These things lead Loyola grads to gain significantly deeper insights into one's own strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and personal triggers. And that makes an above-average therapist.”

“There's definitely a closeness when you've gone through [a common experience] with people,” O’Dean says of her colleagues. “There’s that deeper level of understanding, and I think there's the core value from Loyola of caring, social justice, and of helping unburden people from their own distortions.”

O’Dean put these core values to work in her previous role at a mental health agency, where she worked before coming to CMHC. The agency worked with people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds; she also spent time working with people coming out of the criminal justice system. 

“I was seeing people coming from a totally different place, and being able to meet them and validate and affirm their feelings and what they’ve gone through,” she says. “I feel like Loyola values are part of what helped guide me in that job.”

Gerwin also notes those shared values with fellow Loyola alumni. “It’s invaluable to have colleagues and friends who I feel I’ve been able to grow alongside,” she says. “There’s definitely a special bond with other members of the Loyola program since I know we’re all deeply committed to the dignity of each of our clients—plus, they’re so much fun!”

Learn more about the Chesapeake Metal Health Collaborative