I applied for my first internship experience in the second year of my master’s program. I was excited; I had visions of being placed at a college counseling site, meeting with clients who had a range of concerns, building rapport, etc. Possibly I’d have an office area, where I would put up posters of calming images…
Flash forward to when I was not able to get placed at a college site due to the fact that I “had no clinical experience.” This was the statement made by several local college sites when they found out I had, well, no clinical experience.
The images that had flashed through my mind a week before were suddenly gone. Clients were erased from my would-be schedule, potential rapport building was gone, posters were ripped from my imaginary office, and I was left feeling more than a little lost. What now? I had wanted to be an intern at a college site for quite some time. It’s hard to build up something in your mind and then realize you aren’t fully qualified for the position. This is especially true with college sites, who often have fewer staff members and require a more independent, experienced intern.
I eventually was accepted as an intern at a hospital in Philadelphia. I was told that the first semester I would be placed at the outpatient drug and alcohol clinic, and the second semester I would spend time at the locked inpatient psychiatric unit. Was this the internship I had been hoping for? No. Yet I made the decision in that moment to "love the one I was with” and embrace an experience that I hadn’t thought I would ever get, or for that matter, want.
I was very lucky in that I had an excellent supervisor who was open and took me on as an intern because, as he put it, "how can you get experience in the field if no one will open the door for you?” The semesters that followed were a whirlwind of new experiences. I was hearing life stories from clients I could never imagine. Client return rates were low in the outpatient drug and alcohol clinic because individuals would continually relapse. The inpatient locked dual diagnosis unit was never dull, and I was working with a population I had never been exposed to. For somebody with “no clinical experience,” I was certainly getting a ton.
During this internship experience, I was able to work with one particular client for the year, and felt myself grow as a clinician. What I imagined “therapy” to be like was not it at all. I had to meet my client where they were at, which was a great lesson to learn early on. I also was able to co-lead the women's outpatient group, which was a great experience. When I left my site, I walked out of the door knowing that what I had been a part of would stick with me forever.
When it came time to choose an internship at MSPP, I felt I was ready to apply for an internship at a college counseling center. I currently am placed at a fantastic college site and am loving my internship experience so far. I even put up posters (!) and have an office (!). Not having a place to call my own last year really made me thankful that I do not have to shuffle around and I believe it creates a sense of stability for me and my clients.
Although I am enjoying my internship now, I have found that my work at the outpatient and inpatient unit has been useful to me in a number of ways. First, it was an extremely educational experience. I learned crisis technique that I could not have effectively learned in the classroom. Second, I made connections with individuals and learned about life from a different perspective. Although somebody is diagnosed with a chronic mental illness, they are still people, and I think oftentimes society is not always understanding. Third, a client may come to my office and have a friend or family member with a mental illness. Knowing what the disease “looks like” is extremely helpful to me and helps me connect to my clients.
Will I choose to work in a hospital setting again? Right now, I’m feeling comfortable at the college site. As I learn more about myself and can formulate my long term goals as a clinician, I am not sure I see myself in a hospital setting again. However, who knows? It may take one client, one class, or one life experience to pique my interest. I guess I will have to wait and see…