NEW STUDENT ORIENTATION
(as facilitated by a group of therapists)
I am proud to have been accepted into Antioch University’s Masters in Clinical Psychology program earlier this year, and was anxiously anticipating the new student orientation day for months. I graduated from a Business Administration program back in 1993, so I am both excited and nervous to be going back to school again.
There were about forty new students altogether; about 80% of them female, and most of them younger than me. Although I had the usual fears of not “fitting in” with a new and diverse group, I also knew that 25 years of working in a corporate environment and traveling the world allows me to draw reference from a huge warehouse of life experience, making it easier to learn new things. And instead of drudging through all the boring subjects like finance, accounting, and computer information systems, I will finally get to delve into subjects that I’m truly passionate about. Cultural awareness. Human development. Crisis intervention. The neuroscience of relationships! I am ready for a whole new chapter — No; a whole new book! — in my life’s purpose.
I had no idea that the new student orientation itself would be run like a seven-hour group therapy session! It was both refreshing at times, and comical at others.
“Have a seat in the circle, and let’s talk about how you’re feeling about your first day back to school. What hopes and fears do you have?”
No other student orientation would be so focused on how well the students “process” their new experience. It was comforting but not always efficient. Information was shared by a lineup of faculty members, most of whom are successful marriage and family therapists themselves. Each person spoke gently and caringly, conveying empathy, and held the space for questions between each topic. They were nothing short of professional. And yet, the experience was completely unique to any other Orientation Day that I’ve ever attended.
“You’ll find the syllabi for all your classes online, along with all your weekly assignments. Don’t worry if you don’t see them right now. Our instructors will have them posted by the end of the day. Is everyone feeling comfortable with our student portal so far?”
A few times, I wanted to giggle. I’m so conditioned to experiencing my learning in a more cutthroat environment. (“No need to baby them; if they can’t keep up then they don’t belong here” mentality!) But I didn’t have the nerve to break the mood they were so carefully creating. I admired that the very council of leaders who would decide whether I will pass or fail in two years were kind enough to offer a safe space for me to learn, ask questions, and feel welcomed. I was mesmerized by the charm of it all.
Just before lunch, we were split into three groups, and taken into separate, smaller discussion rooms. There were no books, no wall art, nothing but chairs in a circle. We were asked to write down an example of something we felt might challenge us during the next two years, and an example of something we hoped to achieve, other than a degree or license to practice.
We were told to fold the papers in half when we finished. Then they were collected, and redistributed randomly, so that each of us were now holding someone else’s answers. Then we were asked to take turns reading the fears/challenges out loud, and solicit the advice of our fellow students for suggestion and strategy to overcome that challenge.
Now this is getting ridiculous, I thought. Are we really going to do this? Coddle each other in some anonymous way, as if we are too ashamed or frightened to own our own feelings and report them directly?
Yes, we were going through the exercise. And the discussion and sharing went on for over an hour. About twenty minutes in, I realized its brilliance. They weren’t just helping us to normalize our anxieties. They were giving us an opportunity to meet one another, and see one another as fellow colleague therapists. They were giving us an example of an exercise we might use one day as we are leading a group session, to help people overcoming addictions, or children facing their abuser. They were giving us a sample of what the next two years would be like.
The catered lunch and tour through the campus was another simple-yet-meaningful exercise. We were introduced to the managers of every aspect of the university. I was impressed by how professionally composed, upbeat, and welcoming they each were. Christina, for example, wasn’t just the head of the library, she seemed like the “therapist for researchers”! Tony wasn’t just the director of Student Services, he was the Tony Robbins of student success, with an open-door policy!
The toughest part of the whole day was a discussion on “Clinical Suitability.” It seemed like a thirty-minute presentation that dragged on for much longer, and could have been summarized in just five short minutes. We didn’t just “talk” about clinical suitability. There was an introduction to the topic, and then role-playing, and then responsive reading. Clearly this topic is something extremely important … perhaps too important for me to be making fun with it right now … but I’m going to play the newbie card and simply share my reactions. If I need to delete this part of my post later, when I learn just how serious clinical suitability really is, then I will.
Clinical suitability is a term used to describe the high standards of a professional therapist, not just in academic knowledge, but in terms of their overall demeanor, professionalism, integrity, and human decency. I can fully appreciate how hard it must have been for the two faculty leaders to facilitate this section of the orientation, because, well, in short, they are trying to explain the obvious. Basically, they were trying to tell us that in order for us to graduate, we have to be solid, upstanding human beings, worthy of the title Clinical Therapist.
It was a grueling thirty minutes.
“Would anyone care to explain what is meant by ‘professionalism’?”
The room stayed silent and motionless. I think we were trying to figure out whether this was some kind of a magic trick, or a fourth-grade pop quiz.
I sensed they were trying to get some audience participation because they really didn’t want to “talk down” to us, but they had no other way to present this material to us without being condescending. It was as if they were begging us, “Please, help us through this part of the orientation … we really don’t want to do this, but we HAVE to!”
“Can someone give an example of what ‘professionalism’ might look like in an everyday classroom situation?”
I so wanted to inject some humor into the stunned-silent room by raising my hand and saying sheepishly, “If you bring any food or candy, make sure there’s enough for everyone?”
Eventually some hands went up, as we played along. All of our responses were properly acknowledged. And everyone felt like good little boys and girls for a few minutes.
I can see why they need to do this. I’m sure there are some highly-intelligent assholes out there who have stumbled their way into programs like this, and even though the Admissions team did all they could to properly screen their candidates. Once they realize that one of their students is getting excellent grades, but is a nasty, sour, or shady personality, they want to be able to revoke the privilege of receiving the diploma. After all, what university would want their name on the wall of some immoral, crooked therapist who is doing harm in people’s lives instead of good?
They need to be able to weed out the bad seed, and keep the flock pure. And if and when they ever need to invoke their right to withhold a diploma from someone who is displaying signs of shadiness, they need to be able to say, “We told you about this, remember?” And so their administration requires that they lay down the standards very clearly for every student. And what could be better day to get that ugly work out of the way than Student Orientation Day?
When the discussion on suitability was over, we were excused for a break. On my way out the door, I really wanted to approach the two ladies that were trying so hard to facilitate the discussion and offer them my sincere congratulations … I’m sure that was just as fun for them as it was for anyone else.
The orientation ended a short while later, after hearing from some of the key professors that we will be learning from over the next two years. They spoke elegantly, like Distinguished Toastmasters. Listening to them describe the kinds of courses we’d be taking, I could feel a swelling sense of hope that one day I might look and sound as confident and polished about the elements of the human psyche, able to serve as a conduit of transformation for anyone who walks into my office.
I’m on the right path, and ready for the journey ahead!