How Life Experiences Can Shape a Career Shift

Post-Bacc Counseling and Psychology Professions graduate Megan Ro seeks to create social change

For as long as Megan Ro can remember, she’d felt a strong connection to the arts: Her grandmother was a painter and florist, her grandfather was a photographer and her mom had worked in design. So it was natural for Megan to pursue a creative career as well.

“I didn’t want to be an artist, but I loved learning about art and using it as a lens through which to learn about different cultures,” Megan says.

“This was particularly important to me, as my art classes had long been a means for me to appreciate my Korean American heritage and cope with my experience as a minority growing up in a mostly white suburb [of Agoura Hills, Calif.].”

Understanding Culture and Herself Through Art

During her undergraduate years at UCLA, Megan had internships and gained work experience at a variety of museums and galleries, including bG Gallery in Santa Monica, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), Grunwald Center Collection at Hammer Museum and Getty Research Institute.

But her proudest and most memorable undergrad experiences were part of the university’s Alternative Breaks, which creates service-learning programs for students during academic breaks and engages them in experiential learning and meaningful service for a variety of social issues.

“After attending twice as a participant—first to an animal sanctuary in Utah and then in my own city of Los Angeles—I challenged myself to lead my own trip to New Orleans,” she recalls. “I was responsible for organizing the trip’s partnerships with nonprofit organizations and nurturing my team’s dynamic from the ground-up.

“At the time, the thought of pursuing a career in counseling and psychology had not at all crossed my mind. But looking back, I can see just how formative these experiences would become in shaping my future career shift; they showed me just how much I valued being able to connect deeply with others and create social change.”

After graduating in 2014 and given her background in art history, Megan says it felt like a no-brainer to pursue a career in museums. “I wanted my career to be rooted in my values, and through museum work I could support the arts in a nonprofit space that served the public.

“I loved the idea of my work contributing to the public’s knowledge and appreciation of cultures and histories other than their own.”

Megan’s kinship to the arts, while significant for learning about different cultures and peoples, was not a purposeful career goal for her. She discovered she would rather form deeper connections and interactions with people.

“Not long after I graduated from UCLA, I reluctantly began to see a therapist for the first time,” Megan divulges. “This was not an easy decision for me, having grown up with a stigma against mental health treatment my whole life, especially as an Asian American.

“In addition to addressing recent depression and lifelong anxiety, my sessions helped me acknowledge that while I felt deeply connected to the arts, the work I was doing was not meaningful enough to me. I wanted to create tangible social change. Meanwhile, my employer at the time—a leader in the museum field—was failing to address their own long-standing issues with diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion. Much to my surprise, I realized that my values could be better fulfilled by doing exactly what my therapist was doing for me.”

Beginning to Explore a Career in Counseling

Megan found and registered in our Post-Baccalaureate Program for Counseling and Psychology Professions to further consider this career pivot. Not long after she started, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns began.

“The pandemic landed in the U.S., increasing the need for mental health services now and certainly in the years to come,” Megan says.

“This was the final push I needed: I left my job to focus on my studies and pursue new volunteer experiences. This was a big risk for me, especially as someone who defaults to being very risk-averse, but my leap of faith paid off.”

For many, just the thought of changing their career path can be both scary—no matter which stage in their career they might be.

“Even though I was relatively early in my career, the thought of changing my path to become a mental health professional seemed incredibly daunting,” admits Megan. “After being so focused on a career in the arts, pivoting to mental health essentially felt like I was starting over.

“I knew that I needed to take a psychology course to explore more of what a career in counseling and psychology could be, and also get a better sense of whether it was really right for me as I hadn’t taken any psychology-related courses previously.

“In searching for online classes that I could take, I happened to come across UC Berkeley Extension’s post-bacc counseling and psychology professions program. It really felt like the perfect program for my needs, particularly since it is geared toward career changers like myself.”

The extra guidance on career direction and the application process was a benefit that Megan appreciated. “In addition to the required psychology coursework, the program also offered seminars to learn more about possible career paths and to support me through the graduate application process—valuable guidance that I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.”

What other things did she find beneficial?

  • Remote format: “As I was based in Los Angeles during my enrollment in the program, I took all of my classes online, some self-paced and some on a fixed schedule.”

  • Flexibility in scheduling: “I appreciated the flexibility that the self-paced classes allowed me, as I was able to focus on business trips and prioritize my personal life as needed.

    “At the same time, the fixed-schedule classes helped me stay on track with the program, pushing me to complete it within a year and a half.”

  • Engaging interactions: “I was initially hesitant to take online classes as I was unsure of the quality of engagement they would allow with both fellow students and the instructors. I was pleasantly surprised, as many of the classes involved weekly discussion posts where I was able to learn from my peers. The instructors were all very knowledgeable about their specialties, and I was impressed by the quality of feedback that they gave on graded assignments.”

Delving Into the Curriculum

Our instructors and courses allowed Megan to fully explore which career track she wanted to pursue. “The courses exposed me to a wide range of psychologies—I had no idea that there were so many different approaches to study personality psychology and abnormal psychology, and I quickly found myself very excited by the material as well as my potential for a career founded on this knowledge,” she says.

Megan’s favorite courses were the seminars led by Dr. Richard Chiovarelli and the developmental psychology course taught by Dr. Richard Sprott.

“I particularly enjoyed Dr. Chiovarelli’s first seminar, which provided me with invaluable insights into a future career in counseling and psychology. It illuminated and differentiated the many different degrees and licensures that I could pursue within the field. Current professionals spoke on their diverse experiences and reasons behind their licensure of choice, both methodological and practical,” she remembers.

“That seminar ultimately helped me choose to pursue a Master in Social Work (M.S.W.), as opposed to a Master in Marriage and Family Therapy (M.F.T.) or Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.). I felt most connected to the M.S.W. degree’s contextual, holistic approach to treatment and clients, and I appreciated the diversity of work that I could choose from with this degree. In addition, an M.S.W. would allow me to work toward becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), which—unlike some of the other licenses—is currently recognized across all states, giving me the flexibility to relocate in the future,” Megan adds.

This is to say nothing of Dr. Chiovarelli’s seminar on applying to graduate programs during the application process. “He gave many helpful tips to consider, from what to look for in a school (i.e., accreditation) and how to develop a personal statement, to the art of asking for (and, more importantly, securing on time!) letters of recommendation, as well as who best to ask. I felt well-equipped going into an otherwise very stressful season of applications.

“Had I had more time and resources, I would have loved to have taken more courses, such as Positive Psychology and Adolescent Psychology, but I’m grateful to know I’ll have the chance to explore these topics in my graduate program,” she adds.

Where Megan Is Now

Because Megan and her fiancé had planned to eventually relocate to his hometown of Chicago, all of the schools she applied to were either in the Chicago area or within Illinois, where there are a number of excellent programs for the counseling and psychology field. Megan applied to five schools, was accepted to three of them and waitlisted for another. One of those three: The University of Chicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice.

“Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice was my top choice,” Megan says proudly. “I was drawn to its wealth of research opportunities and emphasis on experiential learning through two year-long field placements.

“I am interested in learning both about the specific challenges faced by older adults and their families and the richly diverse experiences of Asian Americans in relation to mental health. The unmatched flexibility and wide variety of curricula offered through Crown will allow me to explore both of these equally and in depth.”

With these interests in mind, Megan already has an idea of how she wants to use her new knowledge, skills and experiences in order to connect with others and create social change.

“After obtaining my master’s degree, I aim to work at a community clinic in the Chicago area and treat individuals of all ages who are facing an array of life challenges and disorders,” she says. “I am especially interested in serving older adults; my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more than 10 years ago, and without her social worker’s guidance, she would not have been able to age in place for as long as she did.

“Motivated by my own journey with mental health, I also hope to serve Asian American communities and increase their understanding of mental health and utilization of services. After I gain licensure and supervisory experience, I hope to advance to a directorial role within a clinic in order to shape future clinicians, treatments and policy. I know my privilege in being able to afford therapy, and I hope to make treatments more affordable and accessible.”

Megan understands the risks she took for herself—therapy and career change—so what advice does she have for other possibly risk-averse counseling and psychology students?

She answers:

“Take your time, keep your interests open and reassure yourself that the risk you are taking is worthwhile! It took me years to get to the point of seriously considering a career change. There were many, many times where it would have been easier to just give up and settle for the career I was already in, or just any job that I could find with my existing education and work experience. But the sense of fulfillment that I have already begun to feel tells me all the essays, late nights and uncomfortable self-reflection (a special thanks to my therapist who I’m still seeing nearly five years later!) have already paid off.”