Making the most of opportunity: stipend, graduation, a great new job
The past six months of Karla Cortez’s life have been a rollercoaster of emotions.
Facing the need to finish her marriage and family therapy (MFT) practicum hours so she could graduate with a master’s degree from Brandman in May as planned, Cortez quit her teaching job to focus on her unpaid internship with the county of San Bernardino.
Comfortable with the decision but still worrying about the financial implications for her family, she was simultaneously dealt a major blow when her mother became seriously ill, dying with her family surrounding her a few months later.
But amidst the grief and worry, good news arrived in the form of an Inland Empire MFT Consortium stipend. Originally designated an alternate, Cortez learned in March that the stipend was hers.
The stipend, made possible through the Mental Health Service Act, also known as Prop 63, is a $18,500, tax-free grant that can be used for educational expenses.
Recipients “pay back” the stipend by promising to work with underserved communities for a year in the Inland Empire. In May, the San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health Barstow office, where Cortez did her internship, offered her a position as a clinical therapist.
“Karla graduated on Sunday and by Wednesday morning she was offered a full-time position,” said Nakisha Castillo, the MFT faculty member who encouraged Cortez to apply for the stipend. Castillo hopes other MFT students seriously consider applying for the grant.
“She is my mentor. She taught me far beyond anything I could ask for,” said Cortez.
In addition to relieving some financial stress, Cortez said receiving the stipend also validated her decision to change careers and pursue her passion for helping others.
“I knew I was helping students but I wanted to do it in a more in-depth capacity than I was doing as a teacher. There, when issues arise, it’s not your position to help. I wanted to be the one to do that,” said Cortez.
While thinking about becoming a school counselor, Cortez discovered Brandman’s Victorville campus and the MFT program. “It was what I wanted. It gave me purpose. I took it and ran with it.”
Although like all new MFT graduates she has many more hours to work before becoming licensed, Cortez says working where she does in Barstow gives her experience with a wide range of issues from suicide and crisis intervention to working with individuals with both drug or alcohol addiction and mental illness to group therapy. Her clients include veterans, the elderly and children. Being bilingual makes her particularly valuable.
Her education helps every step of the way, she said, recalling her “amazing” class on group therapy. “You think you’re just going to sit with this group of people and just talk, but it doesn’t work like that. There is a way to go about things, ethically and legally.”
From Olson, she learned to put the client’s perspective ahead of her own. Faculty members Dr. Joe Faustino and Dr. Christopher Deulen – “the smartest man I’ve ever met” – got Cortez and her classmates ready for their practicums by sharing their experiences, relating them to the students and having them apply it in class.
“We were prepared. What they shared with us was so valuable, I don’t even have the words to express it,” she said.
Although the application process for the MFT Consortium stipend was daunting, Cortez said every student with an interest in community-oriented work should consider applying but encourages them to start earlier than she did.
“I didn’t find out about it until just before the application was due,” said Cortez, who spent a frantic weekend writing. “I thought to myself, I don’t have much experience. But it’s overall lifetime experiences as well. What did you experience growing up? What does the community need and how would you help?”
As for the stipend: “It’s a tremendous opportunity. Why not try? You never know.”
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