Alumni Spotlight: Jennifer Dorsey Strives for Progress

"A lot of school-based therapy, from a systemic standpoint, gets pushed towards behavioral issues," says Jennifer Dorsey, a 2017 graduate of the Wright Institute Counseling Psychology Program. "I want to re-focus on an approach that is deep enough to really help our clients."

That's the idea that Jennifer recently presented at the Revisioning Progress Conference, sponsored by Richmond Area Multi Services (RAMS) with support from the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis. Held in San Francisco on Tuesday, February 5, Revisioning Progress brought a refreshing approach to school-based mental health and the ways it is traditionally structured. "A lot of times it's easy to focus exclusively on students' behavioral issues in school-based settings," Jennifer says. "But since we have so many students with complex and dynamic issues, there should be opportunities for psychodynamic work and family therapy work. Students would benefit from interventions that are just as complex as the issues they face."

Jennifer works with children and adolescents in school settings through her position as an AMFT (Associate Marriage and Family Therapist) with Bay Area Community Resources (BACR), with whom she has been working since her second year at the Wright Institute. At Montalvin Manor Elementary School in San Pablo, where she spends most of her time, Jennifer works with students from kindergarten to seventh grade as they navigate complex issues.

Alongside Wright Institute Full-Time Faculty Member Stephanie Chen, PhD, Jennifer presented "Enactments: Stuck in the Mud," a panel that discussed enactments in school-based settings. As defined by Dr. Chen, enactments are "clinical moments where a client and therapist play out past and current relational interactions, often on an unconscious level."

"At the conference, our goal was to provide participants with a deeper understanding of how enactments take place, with a focus on how they can be used in sessions," Jennifer says. Knowledge of enactments can deepen the therapeutic relationship, and help develop interventions that are more helpful to clients, according to Jennifer. They are also excellent opportunities for a therapist to examine and improve upon their clinical skills, particularly countertransference.

To illustrate the role of enactments in a school setting, Jennifer and Dr. Chen presented the case of a 12-year-old student with whom Jennifer has been working for three academic years. "It's a case that is particularly special to me," she says. Through this example, Jennifer and Dr. Chen engaged with conference participants to further their understandings of how engaging with enactments can enhance overall treatment.

Through the experience of presenting, Jennifer was able to reflect on the case in a new way. "I received some enlightening feedback and mutual support from other clinicians with similar cases," she notes. "The participants were really engaged, and it was powerful for me to be in community with clinicians from so many different places who share the same intentions and challenges."

Jennifer feels that the community aspect that she experienced at Revisioning Progress was especially impactful. "It was invigorating," she says. "Working in a school-based system can be isolating, and seeing experiences similar to mine really validated my outlook."

Throughout the day, Revisioning Progress called upon the perspectives of school teachers and administrators as well as mental health professionals. "It was a unique coming-together of professionals from all sides of school-based counseling.," says Jennifer. That collaboration is important because "it can seem at times like the education system and the system of meaningful therapy are inherently at odds," as Jennifer explains. "One of my fellow presenters at Revisioning Progress even described it as an 'arranged marriage'."

Jennifer sees the inclusion of teachers as especially vital to the progress of the school-based mental health field. "Working collaboratively with teachers with a common understanding of trauma-informed care and with empathy for kids' behaviors and motivations is both essential and enjoyable," she says. The need for teachers to be involved in the discussion is also based on their own wellness. "Teachers go through a lot of vicarious trauma themselves with what students bring into the classroom," Jennifer explains.

Jennifer began her work at Montalvin Elementary as a trainee while she was a student at the Wright Institute, and is now in her third year working there through BACR. "I've always been interested in working with children and families," she says. "Working with BACR has been a great experience, and a great opportunity to support my clients and their families."

While she is not at Montalvin Elementary, Jennifer serves as a teaching assistant for the Wright Institute's Multicultural Awareness and Sensitivity (MAS) course, taken by every first-year student in the Counseling Psychology program. It's a position that has held great meaning for Jennifer, who began as a TA when she was in her second year in the program.

Not only does MAS help Jennifer connect with current Wright Institute students, it also helps her grow as a clinician. "Working with the MAS class every week helps me recognize my own privilege and implicit biases and learn about the systemic oppression that students of all ages operate under while at school," she says.

Alongside Dr. Chen, who is also a member of the MAS teaching team, Jennifer applied some of the lessons learned in MAS class to the presentation at the RAMS conference. An objective of the presentation was to illustrate the impact of culture on school-based therapy, including how cultural issues can be addressed while with clients. Participants were engaged with the cultural portion of Jennifer and Dr. Chen's presentation as well. "The school-based clinicians had a real desire to address issues of racism, implicit bias, and intersectionality," Jennifer observes. Other presenters at Revisioning Progress also outlined the socioeconomic issues at play in the world of school-based counseling.

Now two years removed from graduation, Jennifer is setting her sights on MFT licensure, and that goal is not far away. "I just finished accruing my 3,000 supervised clinical hours," she says. "It was a lot of work, but I love this field so much." Jennifer expects to take the clinical exam soon, but does not appear overly worried. "Just as I felt that the Wright Institute had prepared me for my practicum and traineeship, I feel well educated for the clinical exam."

While she does plan to pursue some work in a private practice setting after licensure, Jennifer does not anticipate that her central focus will change. "I'll always want to play a part in community mental health," she says. While that may be the case, she is looking forward to the different doors that licensure will open. "I feel excited to be working with children and families, excited about teaching, excited about community mental health, and excited about private practice all at once."

Dr. Chen is also excited about Jennifer's professional prospects. "Jennifer demonstrates all the qualities I would hope to instill in our Wright Institute graduates. She is clinically strong, culturally humble, intuitively reflective and motivated to learn and grow," she says. "I am so honored to continue our collaboration and be part of her growth as a counselor."

Jennifer continues to be a vital part of the Wright Institute community. She has plenty of advice for current students who are about to enter in the world of professional psychology, ranging from "do the course readings!" to "have confidence in your abilities." However, the advice she places the most emphasis on is the advice by which she lives her own life.

"Stay focused on your passions," she says. "Be true to what brought you to the field." By constantly looking for ways to improve herself and the lives of her clients, Jennifer Dorsey is doing just that.



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