VALPARAISO | Valparaiso University graduate students Ashley Santana and Jeremy Waddell are drawing on their own life experiences to help others.
Santana and Waddell, both 24, are interns at the Family and Youth Services Bureau in Valparaiso, working toward master's degrees in clinical mental health counseling.
Both chose a career in the mental health field for personal reasons.
At the age of 20, Santana, of Magnolia, Del., was diagnosed with panic disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The diagnosis shattered her long-held perceptions about herself and offered a reason for the struggles she'd had at school.
Though she graduated in the top 2 percent of her high school class, she had to work “twice as hard” as other students to get good grades, she said.
“It was such a relief to know I wasn't a bad student,” Santana said. “I'm not stupid or slow.”
The diagnosis also galvanized her to pursue a career in counseling to help others with similar issues get diagnosed sooner than she did.
“I didn't want other people to spend a huge chunk of their lives wondering why they were bad students, but to know there is a real medical reason,” Santana said.
Waddell, of St. Leonard, Md., grew up in a military family and hopes to get a job helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
His father and uncles served in the Navy and his grandfather in the Marines. Many of his friends also are in the military, Waddell said.
“A lot of my friends went to Afghanistan,” he said. “There's so much trauma they deal with.”
As interns, Santana and Waddell spend about 30 hours a week counseling clients individually and in group sessions.
Teenage clients at the Juvenile Detention Center especially relate well to them because they are young.
“We tell them we're not here to lecture them," Santana said. "They start to open up when they realize we're not judging them.”
Many of the teens are dealing with drug and alcohol issues.
“Their family life is very dysfunctional, and they use (drugs and alcohol) in order to cope," Santana said. "But a lot of them are really bright, good kids."