By Kate Latimer, MA, LPCC, Program Chair of the MA in Counseling (Clinical Mental Health) Program
photo of Seren Morris, Joanna Conte and Kate Latimer at their SWC graduation
I first heard about Southwestern College in 2002 while living in Morocco and teaching at a small international school located in the town of Ifrane in the Mid-Atlas Mountains. A parent of one of my first-grade students was completing her internship as a college counselor at the University that housed our school and we were both part of a group that went for regular walking excursions around the town and countryside. On one of the walks I expressed my interest in school counseling and psychology, and she urged me to apply to Southwestern.
As a teacher, I had seen first-hand how children suffered academically and emotionally due to family problems, abuse, intergenerational trauma, socio-economic inequality, and community violence. Early in my work as an educator I felt called to help my students and their families overcome these personal and societal challenges yet knew I needed more training and tools to do so effectively. When I looked at Southwestern’s website, I discovered that they offered a track for school counselors, so I applied with much excitement, feeling that this was the place of study I had been looking for that would give me the professional skills I needed to become and positive force for change.
I came to visit the college and interview with Admissions and planned to start at SWC in the Fall of 2005; however, a terrorist bomb in Morocco’s economic capital of Casablanca targeting foreigners, increasing anti-American sentiments, a politically motivated freeze on American teachers’ paychecks and other administrative challenges at my place of work, led me to decline an additional contract year at the school in Ifrane and I asked SWC if I could start a bit earlier than initially planned. They agreed to allow me to enroll early, and I arrived at SWC for student orientation in the Fall of 2004.
At new student orientation, as I listened to faculty and current students introduce themselves and the different programs, I felt like I had arrived home, and not just because I had landed back on U.S. soil after two years abroad. New Mexico’s landscape and culture presented a very different experience from my home state of California, but I had a sense that by choosing to enroll at Southwestern I had arrived at a place that held a resonance with elements of my being that had always been there and were asking to come forward even more. When I learned that founding president, Robert Waterman, had studied the educational and spiritual philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, who developed the Waldorf School curriculum that I had experienced as a child, it seemed very clear to me that I belonged at SWC, and would be continuing in an educational vein that supported personal, professional, and soul development.
I jumped into the curriculum with both feet and took all the weekend elective offerings that I could squeeze out of my student loan money. I fell in love with Psychodrama and dove deep into the world of interpersonal neurobiology with SWC master teacher and internationally known trainer, Kate Cook. I attended workshops on play therapy, art therapy for children, and sand play, planning to use all these modalities in my work as a school counselor. I also signed up for weekend intensives that introduced me to Holotropic Breathwork, shamanic healing, sweat lodge and pipe ceremony, Process Oriented Psychotherapy, and dance/movement therapy.
I know there were some in my cohort at SWC that did not feel at home with the transformational approach threaded through Southwestern’s curriculum. Some felt threatened by instructors who challenged us to examine our implicit beliefs and assumptions and how they influence our ways of being. As we explored our thoughts and beliefs about God, humanity, society, culture and our own identities, in order to let go of any barriers to our ability to be present with clients, respect differing viewpoints, or achieve greater neutrality, potential for healing and conscious relating, students (self-included) experienced resistance, fear, and a whole host of other emotions in the face of significant transformational shifts and life-altering change.
Southwestern’s mission and values reflect a commitment to being in collaborative partnership over patriarchal hierarchy, taking personal responsibility for our experiences rather than identifying as a victim, and choosing to consciously and intentionally seek to be a loving and compassionate advocate for peace and justice for individuals and the collective, with an unwavering trust that we are all doing our best to fulfill the highest potential we can achieve as humans. To this end, instructors maintained an openness to all forms of spiritual practice and religious views, so the environment felt inclusive and validating, and the college continues to seek ways to improve the diversity of faculty, staff and students alike in order to better reflect the global community. In time, I believe most found that their fears and resistance melted within the warmth of love and compassion central to the culture of the college.
It is within the safety of this environment that I learned how to be more compassionate and present with myself and others. I discovered an increasing ability to tolerate ambiguity in a world full of dualism. In my second year, I learned how to stay emotionally regulated in the midst of great change and upheaval when I took on a leadership role along with a small group of concerned students when the college experienced an existential crisis and our student body demanded the resignation of the entire board. In hindsight, I am aware that had I elected to stay in Morocco, and not come a year earlier than planned, I would not have been able to advocate for that action, which ultimately resulted in shifting the leadership of the college into a more balanced constellation, with a student and faculty member seat being added to the Board of Trustees.
During my time at SWC, I used the personal therapy requirement to process various traumas that I experienced in childhood and adolescence, and began to ask for what I needed in the face of conflict and relationship challenges in my marriage with Non-violent Communication. By the time I entered internship, I realized my area of interest in counseling had changed. I no longer felt called to work exclusively in the schools. Instead, I felt pulled to work in the field of crisis stabilization and trauma recovery, where I could facilitate and foster resiliency of the human spirit in overcoming adversity. My focus had transformed, so lo and behold, rather than seeking a position as an intern with the Santa Fe Public Schools, or with Youth Shelters and Family Services as initially planned, I ended up with a position at the Santa Fe Rape Crisis and Trauma Treatment Center (now Solace Crisis Treatment Center), providing crisis intervention services for adult and child victims of violent crime, sexual assault, and military trauma.
Upon completing my internship, the executive director invited me to stay on as a full-time employee and tasked me with a newly created position that blended clinical counseling and psycho-educational training services in the community. In time, I became the in-house specialist on trauma recovery for first-responders and members of the military. I worked collaboratively with many local law enforcement agencies and the New Mexico National Guard to provide education regarding signs and symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. I worked closely with a team of professionals offering pre and post deployment services for military families and participated in New Mexico’s Yellow Ribbon Program to increase awareness of military sexual trauma and combat-related PTSD. I presented all over the state of New Mexico offering trauma prevention and education training for the National Guard and other agencies including the Attorney General’s office, the City of Santa Fe Police Dept, the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department, New Mexico State Police, the Law Enforcement Academy, and various others. Later, after the birth of my daughter, the Vice President of Santa Fe Community College, who wanted help starting a Veteran’s Resource Center on campus, offered me a position in Student Affairs as a mental health counselor and adjunct faculty member.
Though I have continued to develop my clinical skills with subsequent training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, EMDR, Sandplay, Psychodrama, and other modalities, I feel that the most important training I received came from my time at Southwestern, where I learned to be present and engage with others in a heart-centered way, grounded in unconditional love. There is a place for the knowledge that comes from books and academia, but for me, perhaps the most important lesson was about opening up to more subtle forms of knowing. I learned to listen to my intuition and trust my inner guidance.
My teachers at Southwestern showed me how engaging in compassionate dialogue while sustaining an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment creates a catalyst for transformational change. They encouraged me to track sensations in my body to increase somatic awareness (or what Peter Levine refers to as “felt sense”) and shift from a reactive position to a more responsive one. As I progressed through the counseling program, I learned how to better set and maintain personal boundaries, staying sensitive to the needs of others without sacrificing my own well-being. I also gained greater understanding of the ways in which our neurobiology orients us in empathy to sustain inter-connectivity and support emotional intelligence.
In my experience, good counselors are not highly evolved intellectuals who can discuss theory, analyze, conceptualize, and rationalize their way to understanding. Good counselors actively invest in their development as multi-dimensional beings, continually cultivating healthy relationships with their bodies, emotions, minds and spirits. The self-reflective model at the heart of Southwestern’s pedagogy, that begins with inviting students into a greater healing connection with themselves before transitioning to working therapeutically with others, gave me the core competencies required for excellence in clinical work that supports all theoretical approaches to counseling.
A central theme in the core curriculum at Southwestern is understanding how life’s twists and turns, as painful and disruptive as they can be, conspire to offer us opportunities for personal development and learning. Students are invited to use every challenge as a pathway to personal advancement and self-mastery. As a student at Southwestern, I acquired tools for how to navigate the trajectory of my life and follow my North Star. I deepened my spiritual practice to develop an inner compass that guides and directs me. I found that I could adjust, be flexible, make repairs, and course correct while staying in alignment with my personal truth and the highest parts of myself. I learned that if I trust my own life as it unfolds, knowing that it is perfectly designed for my continued growth and upliftment even when it looks very different than what I wanted or expected, then I can help my clients do the same.