Half a Million Service
Hours and Counting. Service Learning Opportunities Impact Lives, Shape Careers

Written by Michelle Glicksman

In 2009, Dana Avey enrolled in Northcentral University (NCU) to complete a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT). When she enrolled, she had no idea that doing so would change her life so dramatically.

Just like every student in the School of Marriage and Family Sciences at NCU, Avey was required to complete at least 500 hours of direct therapy as one of the program’s requirements—which actually takes more than 1,000 clock hours to complete when the paperwork, supervision and more that is involved outside of the therapy hours are included.

Her supervisor, whom she found through the national board for marriage and family therapists, referred her to an agency called AmericanWork in Columbus, Ga., whose mission is “to provide services that maximize the ability of people with mental illness, addictive disease and co-occurring disorders to live and thrive in their community.”

At AmericanWork, Avey ran a day program where adults with severe and persistent mental illness could attend during the day to learn daily living skills, so that they could return to the community as functional citizens.

Her experience brought her into contact with a variety of situations and people she hadn’t worked with before.

“Professionally, having that opportunity enabled me to sample a variety of demographics with that agency, which then enabled me to hone in on my specialty, and hone in on what I love. It shaped me as a therapist,” Avey explains. “It enabled me to be comfortable with any person who walks through the door. The work I do now is community-based. I’ve been in houses now that you wouldn’t think are habitable. It expanded my own perception of the world and let me see what’s really out there.”

As Avey fulfilled her hours, she met with her supervisor to discuss the situations she was encountering and received feedback on her actions and decisions that helped guide her forward in learning the scope of her work and its applications.

“You learn a variety of things throughout the academic regimen,” Avey explains. “But learning to apply that to real world scenarios? You don’t learn that in a classroom. And you get to test yourself—where do your skills lie?

“This gives you real life examples to work with. Things that are written in a textbook don’t always play out like it does [in real life]. The classroom gave me a foundation, but then I had to figure out how to use it with people.”

Dana Avey

“This gives you real life examples to work with. Things that are written in a textbook don’t always play out like it does [in real life]. The classroom gave me a foundation, but then I had to figure out how to use it with people.”

Avey’s experience not only let her hone in on where she would eventually specialize—working with a population that has chronic, severe mental illness—but created the springboard for her career.

“Doing that work enabled me to come to Savannah, Georgia, and spearhead a multi-million-dollar project called Opening Doors to Recovery, which is working with the same population and working to eradicate recidivism, since [this population] is fraught with it,” she says.

The project has not only garnered much statewide recognition, but has been featured on CNN, nationally recognized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and is funded by a research grant through the National Institute of Mental Health.

Through these roles and her work, Avey, who graduated from NCU in 2009, has become known as one of the go-to therapists in her field in Georgia, and she still continues to give back and provide her services to the community.

“That is something that has been important to my practice and very important to me,” she explains. “I want to generate revenue, of course, when people are insured, but I also want to make time for those who don’t have insurance or income—which actually tends to be the chronic, severe mental health population. And that I learned through service learning.”

For Ellen Fox, her journey took a bit longer, but also made just as much as an impact. She was part of NCU from 2006 to 2013, though she came to the School of Marriage and Family Scientists already a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She had been employed as an outpatient mental health provider to the church and community at large at Western Avenue Baptist Church in Statesville, North Carolina when her employer, the pastor of the church, suggested she go back to school for her doctorate. She entered NCU with the job, and role of integrating Judeo-Christian faith—“it fits in with my own faith, and was therefore congruent,” she says—in mind.

“It promoted me to be a serious thinker in my chosen area.”

Ellen Fox

“I appreciated NCU’s systemic point of view,” she states. “The use of a systemic lens in therapy has helped me focus on the systematic aspects of the family’s environment instead of a specific problem, as a means of promoting change within the family. And for the majority of the families I serve, their faith was an important part of their individual and family environment. Approximately 80 percent of the people to whom I provided services wanted their faith to be a part of their therapy. Others came to me, not because they wanted issues of faith integrated with therapy, but because they felt that in offering to integrate their faith into therapy, I would have specific, and additional, ethical guidelines in place.” she said.

“Because I believe that faith can positively impact our relationships with self and others, and our physical health, I was determined to learn how to do that with excellence. That’s why I went to NCU.” As part of NCU’s service learning requirement, Fox had a supervisor who monitored her program. With patients’ permission (and anonymity guaranteed), Fox videotaped therapy sessions, which she then reviewed with that supervisor who mentored her and guided her with feedback.

“It promoted me to be a serious thinker in my chosen area,” she says.

And although there’s always the need to earn income, service learning deepened Fox’s commitment to the concept that “in the field of mental health, we have a responsibility to help those who can’t pay. It’s a model I’ll continue. I’ll continue it no matter where I’m doing it because it’s a privilege to serve. It’s a privilege to walk alongside others who are hurting. To me, that’s foundational to this work. I hope I never forget that.”

Currently, there are approximately 1,000 students in MFT programs at NCU. They will complete more than 500,000 hours of therapy in their communities around the world, with the vast majority of those hours as volunteer hours, and most of those services are available at low cost or no cost to the recipients.