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Grading their experiences

May 1, 2008
by Brion P. McAlarney
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Students with diverse goals say their educational programs prepare them well

They are in different stages of life and enroll for different reasons, but students interviewed by Addiction Professional on their educational experiences in undergraduate and graduate programs in addiction studies fervently praised the programs in which they have enrolled.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) graduate student Wendy Dingee typifies the perspective of a non-traditional student. At age 39, Dingee had been working in Las Vegas as a bartender for 15 years, despite having an undergraduate degree in education. In Las Vegas, where bartenders routinely receive 10% of what their customers win on in-house poker machines, serving drinks proved more lucrative than teaching young people.

But Dingee says she also saw the ugly side of gambling—people throwing away relationships and money after vowing to stop gambling. Witnessing gambling addiction and its concomitant alcohol and drug abuse motivated her to try to make a difference through enrolling in UNLV's community mental health counseling program with an eye toward receiving an addiction counseling certificate.

While Dingee will be graduating with a degree in mental health counseling, the only counseling license Nevada currently grants is in alcohol and drug counseling. The UNLV program prepares candidates to test for that license. The state has passed legislation to grant a license for clinical professional counselors, but the regulations and apparatus have not yet been constructed. Dingee will receive an advanced certificate for her master's degree accomplishments, indicating to potential employers her advanced background in addictions.

Cheri Quijano, who also attends UNLV, found an interest in addiction treatment while pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology. An undergraduate course in addictions brought her into contact with Larry Ashley, EdS, LADC, CPGC, an addictions specialist and director of the Problem Gambling Treatment Program at the university, and she learned more about his efforts in prevention and treatment. Quijano decided to add a minor in addiction treatment to her psychology degree. From there, she went on to the master's degree program at UNLV with a concentration in addictions treatment.

Megan Gilmore is also pursuing a master's degree with an addiction concentration, at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. She initially enrolled in addictions courses because she sought to work with adolescents. After trying a couple of other concentrations, including marriage and family therapy and community counseling, she found that addiction treatment was her niche, as she liked the idea of being able to work with a relatively young population.

“Now that I'm in this field, I find that I love working with this clientele,” Gilmore says. She also considers the theories and methods of treatment to be a good fit with how her mind works—understanding issues and problems and trying to help people through them.

Kristine McMasters, a nontraditional undergraduate currently enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College in Terre Haute, Indiana, chose addiction studies for personal reasons. Her younger brother struggles with addictions as well as diabetes. She also had grown tired of the baking industry and was going through a career transition and decided, “Why not go back to school?” She is working on her associate's degree, and plans to transfer to Indiana State University to attain a bachelor's degree.

Practical experience

All four students interviewed for this article value the practical experience they're receiving through their respective programs. At the graduate level at UNLV, Quijano is working with homeless veterans as part of her practicum (pre-internship), allowing her to understand the addiction problems that can lead to homelessness. Dingee is spending her practicum at a Salvation Army residential facility and also has worked at a community nonprofit agency.

“One of the things I appreciated about the program at UNLV is that you're required to do actual practice work on a student level that allows you to get a feel for the field without going in blind after finishing a number of courses,” says Quijano. After practicum, UNLV graduate students are in internships for 18 months, she says.

At Indiana Wesleyan, a graduate clinic serves as a practicum site for students. Members of the community receive free services at the clinic, and students are supervised by faculty members. “You have to do that first—it's about 100 hours, and then you have two to three internships outside of your practicum and you receive sight supervision at wherever you're going to be working and university supervision so that the faculty knows you're on track and can assess your progress,” says Gilmore. Each of the internships involves about 300 hours, she says.

McMasters will be doing a practicum in addictions counseling this summer at the Wabash Valley Correctional facility in Carlisle, Indiana, a “supermax” prison. “I'll be working in the segregated housing unit with guys who are locked down 23 hours out of 24, separated from the rest of the population.” McMasters says that AA meetings are generally made available to these inmates only twice a month because of a dearth of volunteers.

All four students also give high marks to their educational experience within the classroom walls. At Ivy Tech, McMasters is taught by Ed Ross, who directs addiction services at the Terre Haute-based Hamilton Center agency and also is in recovery. “So we don't just get the book knowledge; we get the actual behaviors and thoughts behind being an addict,” says McMasters. Ross has brought in taped therapeutic sessions for students to listen to, in order to give them secondhand exposure to actual treatment.