SOLES Alumna Spotlight: Tina Casola '01 (MA), Marital and Family Therapy

Tina Casola
begin quoteTrust that you’re in a good place, make those connections, know your peer group, know your people…we all have to lift each other up at one time or another.

Tell us about your degree program and why you chose it.

Well, all the schools for grad school, none of them were large. I know I didn’t want to go somewhere where I was going to be sitting in a large conference room taking notes; I don’t do as well that way. Especially for the work I’m doing. The didactic, talking about stories and so much of what I learn, and in my teaching now when I go out to the departments, a lot of storytelling and talking about things to get people to learn better. We could sit there and tell them things from the textbooks, but if they don’t relate to it somehow, it doesn’t stick as easily. When I visited USD for the clinical interview, it felt a lot like what I was already used to. And definitely meeting the professors gave you a more personal connection, so that was marketing too. 

Who was your favorite professor, and/or what was your favorite class?

I will tell you that I often think of and refer to Lee Williams’ Statistics of Research class. I fondly think about it in a way that, I didn’t like it when I was in it, didn’t have any interest in doing research, but now I appreciate research, have worked in it a little bit, and I come up with some ideas in my head sometimes (like I would love to have a student that would want to study this).  One of my friends is a professor over at Alliant now and so if interest in working with first responders comes up, he sends them my way -- suggesting and talking about dissertation topics and stuff like that. So I think about that in as much as it was not a fond class at the time, but I’m glad that I had it. 

He also did one, I don’t remember what it’s called, but he talked about the timeline or life of a therapist and how there’s (how I describe my work now) a seasoning when you’ve been in a position for so long, you get seasoned -- you learn things about it. He was talking about the timeline of a therapist when you’re new and so many hours of this, there’s different changes you go through and like a therapist lifecycle. I remember thinking, “no way,” you know? As I kind of developed my time at the job I began thinking, “oh, he was right!” 

I’ve maintained, to some extent, contact with Todd Edwards, I’ve come back to campus to talk on a panel a couple times. Larry Chamow and Christy Turner have offices in Carlsbad, and so for a while I rented office space from them when I was first doing private practice, before my daughter was born. That was fun because I was there working and as I was getting ready to go on leave, another alumna from the program was coming back to working after leaving to have kids. They had asked if we would kind of touch base with each other. I remember writing her a letter and leaving it for her there, because it was before we did a lot of texting and emails. When I went to go work on the DOD project with the VA, the same alumna was on that project, as well. So it was from that connection there. I appreciated my classes. I always felt that I had confidence going into the VA and applying for these other positions because of that combination of USD and UCSD as my education in clinical experience. I wasn’t a narcissist, but it was more of I had good training and good education, and that did probably give me a little edge. 

Did you participate in an international course while at SOLES?

I did not, but that is an amazing opportunity. The other hat that I wear here is the lead for disaster mental health for San Diego, so I coordinate all the mental health respondents for San Diego and San Diego County disasters. It’s one of those things that comes and goes depending on what’s going on, and now as the lead, not going out as much with like feet on the ground kind of stuff like at UCSD and the operations center and stuff; I’m coordinating schedules and getting into stuff like that. I like it, it’s very grassroots and puts me in connection with people that I wouldn’t normally have a connection with. A lot of our shelters and such are open to people who don’t have many options, they don’t have family they can go to, they don't have money to go to a hotel; a lot of them are dealing with their own mental health issues and when you put them under a lot of stress… 

We had one issue a couple of years ago where there was a fire way out in east county, with a shelter that they had moved to Alpine, and there was a group of people that was making a lot of staff uncomfortable. It turns out that it was a group of schizophrenics in the shelter. They were fine, I loved working with schizophrenics and got to work with some at UCSD, but a misunderstood group of people where even the Red Cross staff and some of our medical staff were making assumptions about people and were uncomfortable from there. So for me, to have that connection… So a lot of people who want to come in that are interested in doing Red Cross work are interested because they would like to do some international work, it’s hard to get in with international Red Cross; it’s much more difficult to get employment with that. Our area does include Guam and some of the islands like that, so sometimes we get people who fly out for things like that… But that’s a new component, it would be fun to go somewhere else. Which I still appreciate, I feel like we hit the ground with skills instead of, you know, sitting in a classroom the whole time. I encourage people all the time to check out the program; I tell people to check out the MFT program a lot too because the timeline of school versus not… I’m not into spending a lot of time in school in order to do this work, the fastest means to do good work is important… unless it’s something specific that they want to do. 

When you were in the program, did you also work?

It was full day; it was almost like that first year was all academic and then the second year is when you’re in practicum. So practicum was like work for other people. It was myself and one other MFT at Gifford. Because it was an adult outpatient clinic, trying to get relational hours with families or couples, and it was really hard. So we had to open and close the clinic; we were there all day long. If someone was bringing their family member, or something like that, we would wait because we needed to have X amount of those hours. So once we got into that phase of life that was definitely fulltime. I did do some tutoring and stuff like that…that was through the school where the community would post needs for things. That was helpful because it was easy to find and decent pay and didn’t take a lot of work. I didn’t have to pick up a full-time job or part-time job like some people had to. 

How has your SOLES education impacted your career?

I think that there was a reputation that was there, too, in the outside world; they knew the high caliber of a person/professional you were getting. So that helped you to go out and do interviews and made you more confident. To this day, when I describe how I got into working with the departments and stuff, I say I went to USD for graduate school and used to go to UCSD for my practicum, so it’s still something I point out to people. I feel as though it gives me more legitimacy -- not a Cracker Jack box, you know. I love that fact that we had to sit in groups to discuss things and had to present cases. I think the supervision at clinics is good, but if you are being supervised by someone who is also doing clinical work (some people are busy with all kinds of stuff), I don’t think you’d get as well-rounded of a picture. So I appreciated the experience at USD, as well, because I could ask questions there or get further into something that I wasn’t getting from my supervision at UCSD. At that time, the one limitation was I didn’t feel as prepared for was the pharmacology side because when I got into the clinic, then going into a very heavy mid to moderate clinic…I remember, that’s when smartphones were pretty new. I remember downloading the DSM and downloading some kind of app that you could look up medicines really quickly because I didn’t know the medicines like the other MFTs. 

Tell us what you’ve been up to since graduating.

I lucked out, my practicum at UCSD (didn’t intend on doing it there, I wanted to work with kids), but since it was such a highly sought after position, “it’d be dumb if you didn’t take that.” I wasn’t big into the med-management side of stuff, but it was a good opportunity to learn about that side of it and I figured it would be a good solid base. At that point in time, I was still considering getting my PhD, so I kind of looked at my masters as a step up. So I was there for that year, and for the end of that year they came to me and said they had a job opening up and they wanted me to apply for it. It didn’t pay great, but it paid better than what a lot of other people were getting. So then I stayed there for a handful of years. And then I did find somebody in La Jolla who had a small private practice that wanted an intern, so I interned a little bit with her in the evenings to sort of get the experience, outside of the clinical medicine based practice. 

After that I left, had my first daughter, and when I decided to go back I wanted to learn more about the trauma stuff. There was a study that they were doing in conjunction with the VA so I applied to that, only to find out that the guy running the study, he and I had worked together at UCSD. I ended up over there on that study, which ended up being a position at the VA. At the time, I was technically one of the only salaried MFT on staff at the VA. But they pulled me… which was tumultuous because I never knew if my job was staying or going, because it was through the outside funds all the time, but I ended up being there for a lot of years. I was involved in the study on Telehealth to see if it was as effective in person, but that was back in 2009. 

Then, I got hijacked over by the fire department when a neighbor said to me, “we had some things happen and don’t know what to do about it,” and I said, “oh okay, let’s look at what you guys are doing,” and then saw, “holy cow, we’re not doing what we need to be doing for these people and what we are doing isn’t as effective. We’re not providing the right treatments for them and, the biggest piece is, we aren’t educating them”. They had no education on trauma and exposure and all that stuff. That was about six years ago. Now the floodgates have opened and I do a lot of case coordination. We have a program called the Seminal Program that’s a clinical oversight program that basically helps the departments figure out how to get people help, triage people, they call us, direct us; kind of like EAP but not because we use other resources besides just us. I think of it kind of like a concierge behavioral health service, really. Some of that is validating, or invalidating, people that jump in and go, “oh, we do this”. So my role is “know your stuff and do no harm, and you’re good,” we can all share it but just don’t come in and mess things up. 

How have you remained involved with SOLES and USD since graduating?

Probably more with the people! I’ve recently pulled in a cohort member…she and I were in the same class and did our practicum at Gifford together, and have stayed in touch over the years. So this last year I brought her in to working at our organization. I definitely seek out people to refer to, or as my company grows, I have a preference to go towards USD alums, because I know the quality of the students we get. The person. But, I have been back once or twice for some alumni events, related to a basketball game or something. But living in North County makes it a little harder because of traffic…It's all because of traffic! So that makes it hard. I’d love to be more involved, though. 

Do you keep in touch with your direct cohort members?

Just a couple! I think part of that is people have moved away. If it weren’t for Facebook, probably not. I think if I were working more out in the community again, I’d see people a lot more. I think also age-wise, where I’m 18-19 years out, I think a lot of my cohort is either in leadership positions in clinics or directors, so you don’t see them going out and doing as much stuff, or they are in private practices. They’ve done all that and moved on to private practice and are engulfed with family and other things. I’d love to connect with them, though, check-in and see what everyone is doing. I think the MFT program does a social every once and awhile, but I’d love to see more opportunities for people to meet up and get together again. Maybe because right now, people from my class are in some really cool positions -- being in the field for this long and all. And I’m big on collaborating. I love the networking and connecting things, so for me it’s fascinating to reconnect with people.

If you could offer a current SOLES MFT student advice what would it be?

Well they made a good choice being there, so that’s good. Take advantage of getting as much experience as you can from as many different areas as you can to be diversified. Like my peers, everyone worked hard, everyone was on a mission, would I say that we overworked and didn’t enjoy the other things, I don’t think we had the other stuff. Network, definitely network because it is who you know, not what you know. You have a solid base coming from USD but starting to know more people, alumni or not, is important in this world. I don’t think when all my friends that have group practices that hire, they don’t necessarily post it, they post it on the alumni networks or post it to each other looking for people. And don’t worry about specializing too much. USD is a good place to be, so just keep it up with what you’re doing there!

Like I said, I really appreciate the experience that I had at SOLES. I feel grateful that I did land in a place that was a high quality, high caliber institution where people thrive. It’s not just to get any job so we can say they have a job. The longevity and stuff has been great -- where I can go back and see people that are still there and have that connection. So trust that you’re in a good place, make those connections, know your peer group, know your people…we all have to lift each other up at one time or another.

Contact:

Amanda Gonzales
amanda@sandiego.edu
(619) 260-4539

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