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Starting Out
Committed, Finishing Up Strong

Written by Vera Springett

“No one could have convinced me that I would have such a sense of accomplishment and belonging from an online university,” claims Deborah Bell (Ph.D., Marriage and Family Therapy, candidate), who’s discovering how a virtual degree program has made her tougher than ever.

Deborah Bell (Ph.D., Marriage and Family Therapy - Therapy with Military Families, candidate)

In fact, she believes the University has stopped nothing short of empowering her life’s mission.

“I decided to go back to school to earn my Ph.D. 13 years after I received my MFT because I am very concerned about the homeless female veterans in my region of North Carolina,” she says.

Bell has dedicated her life to helping these women heal from situations that have left many of them emotionally scarred, homeless, and on the streets.

“Specifically, I am passionate about helping women work through the challenges of adult and/or childhood sexual trauma,” she explains. “My focus is to help them realize that they do not have to be defined by their negative experiences.”

Bell began her altruistic journey a few years ago with the help of NCU. At the time it was the only online university to offer a Doctor of Philosophy in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) for Military Families.

“Northcentral offered flexibility and a comprehensive program that included a clinical internship (complete with online supervision) and a training class for becoming an approved American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) supervisor,” she says, mentioning another one of her goals upon completion of her degree.

But when Bell transferred to NCU from another school, she had to repeat the program’s core courses—time she believes was well spent.

“I learned APA, how to conduct thorough research in the virtual library, and all the other skills I would need to be successful through to the end of the program,” she recalls. “My reasons for choosing Northcentral are only surpassed by my reasons for staying here.”

As per her program requirements, Bell participated in a 15-month Ph.D. Clinical Internship at the Fort Bragg North Carolina Army Installation where she used several of the MFT models she learned through her courses at NCU. During this internship she served as a Pastoral Counselor in the Watters Family Life Chaplain Training Center.

"The strength and resilience of many clients helped motivate me to give them my best every day."

“At that site, I sat with families, couples, and individuals dealing with life’s challenges in a military context,” she says. “The strength and resilience of many clients helped motivate me to give them my best every day.”

From program courses like Military Culture and Dynamics of Family Interactions for Military Families, to Sexual Addictions and Emotionally Focused Therapy, Bell gained knowledge that was not only pertinent to her clients but also applicable to the military environment. The research she conducted through her internship for these courses also prepared her to co-present a five-hour seminar at the 2012 AAMFT Annual Conference in Charlotte, NC.

“I was able to interview female soldiers on Fort Bragg and convey their concerns to clinicians, as well as discuss trends in the research concerning female veterans,” she says.

As Bell focuses on finishing her degree, she attributes much of her personal and academic growth to the care and guidance of her instructors and mentors at NCU.

“Being able to call or Skype with my instructors helped me gain clarity about the requirements of my assignments, so I have been able to submit quality work as I truly learn the objectives of each unit,” she says.

“The more I embrace corrections, the more my work improves.”

And while her instructors are encouraging and supporting, what’s most important to Bell is knowing they are all subject matter experts who are well aware of the potential stumbling blocks that are inevitable when taking on an endeavor of this caliber.

“The best lesson has come from all of them cumulatively, and, that is, feedback is meant to help me, not to demean me,” she says as she prepares to enter the dissertation phase of her degree. “The more I embrace corrections, the more my work improves.”

As for other aspiring marriage and family therapists, Bell believes that while the work is rewarding, it’s also important to take care of oneself to avoid burnout.

“Check your heart!” she advises. “I am not sure that this quality is something you can learn in school. I think it has to be in you.”

With a doctoral degree in hand, Bell plans to pursue her dream of providing services and programs tailored to the unique needs of these women.

“I decided to pursue a higher education degree to obtain the expertise needed to make a difference in this population,” she says. “I am becoming knowledgeable of the current research in the field and I believe I will be well prepared to complete my mission upon graduation.”