by Brooke Blanton Leith
Through St. Mary’s University’s two counseling programs, the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, hundreds of students have gone on to become licensed counselors, helping people overcome hardships and live more fulfilling lives. The programs offer counselors-in-training a solid educational foundation, allowing them to find their niche in the mental health field.
Meet five St. Mary’s alumni who have made careers in counseling. From canine-assisted therapy to disaster crisis counseling, these individuals are using their passion and talent, combined with top-notch training from St. Mary’s professors, to make the world a happier place.
Animal-assisted counseling with Elizabeth Kjellstrand Hartwig
Shortly after she defended her dissertation for her Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision from St. Mary’s, Elizabeth Kjellstrand Hartwig (M.A. ’98, Ph.D. ’11) adopted a dog. Ruggles, a bichon poodle mix from the San Antonio Humane Society, immediately became a source of joy for her and her two children.
“She was just the nicest dog in the world,” Hartwig said. “I started to feel guilty that we had all this love from Ruggles, but nobody else in the world did.”
Hartwig, who had always wanted to learn more about animal-assisted counseling, started to look into how she could incorporate Ruggles into her practice. At the time, there were not many formal training programs for counselors wanting to include their animals in sessions, so Hartwig took matters into her own hands.
“I decided to do a study with adolescents ages 10 to 18 to compare sessions with just a counselor and sessions with a counselor and a therapy dog,” she said. “In the process, I developed a curriculum for the therapy and how to train the therapy animal teams.”
The curriculum incorporated play therapy, a form of children’s therapy, and became the basis for the Animal-Assisted Counseling Academy at Texas State University, where Hartwig is an Associate Professor. Every summer, the academy, led by Hartwig, offers intensive workshops for graduate students and professionals to earn a Certification in Animal-Assisted Counseling.
“Research has shown that animals in counseling reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and reduce blood pressure and heart rate,” she said. “In my study, the participants said they felt more comfortable and that they were able to be more open and trust the counselor more.”
In 2020, Hartwig co-authored a book with guidelines on credentialing therapy dog teams. The experience gave her the confidence to write a book on her own and this year, her guide on solution-focused play therapy was published.
On top of her work at Texas State, Hartwig runs a private practice in New Braunfels that utilizes canine-assisted therapy techniques. After a successful career, Ruggles has retired and enjoys her days at home. Hartwig now brings Holly, her three-year-old goldendoodle, to her sessions.
“I’m in my dream job, and St. Mary’s helped make my dream a reality,” she said.
Neurofeedback and IFS with Dan Reed
“I showed up in the program and had to read so many textbooks it was ridiculous,” Reed said. “It wasn’t what I expected.”
Before long, Reed acclimated to his new academic environment and developed close relationships with his professors, including former professor Ray Wooten, Ph.D., who played a large part in Reed’s decision to attend St. Mary’s.
“I was very interested in the experiential forms of psychotherapy and body-centered practices,” Reed said. “And Dr. Wooten was the only professor I could find within a five-hour radius who specialized in that.”
Reed and Wooten are still in close professional contact — they have presented together at conferences and co-authored a book chapter to be published within the year.
“A good mentor is there to shepherd you along, then become your peer,” Reed said.
Looking back on his time as a student, he appreciated that his professors had the freedom to connect with students on a personal level. For him, that made all the difference.
Reed, who taught high school full-time while getting his master’s, joined the University as an adjunct professor from 2018 to 2019, supervising counseling students in their practicum and internships.
“I got to help students develop their clinical skills and wonder who they wanted to be as clinicians,” he said.
Now, he provides his supervisory skills with the IFS Institute, which trains practitioners in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) method of psychotherapy; his work with the institute has taken him to Australia and across the United States.
At home in San Antonio, Reed uses IFS and neurofeedback to help individuals, couples and families overcome trauma and other challenges using body-centered psychotherapy in his private practice. He attributes his specialization in neurofeedback to former professor Allen Novian (M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’07), who taught the subject and helped Reed become board certified in the practice.
“When I started, I had no idea what a counselor did,” he said. “St. Mary’s gave me what I needed to orient professionally.”
Yoga therapy with Nevine Sultan
Although she incorporates yoga into her therapy practice, a session with Nevine Sultan (M.A. ’12, Ph.D ’15) is unlike any yoga class you may have taken.
“We all know yoga as this vinyasa flow practice, where we go through a sequence of movements,” she said. “The psychotherapeutic focus on yoga really slows down the process. It’s a very individual experience.”
The hope is to remove distractions and provide the client with a “calm space where the body is allowed to let go of everything,” Sultan said.
Sultan has been practicing yoga since she was 10 years old and always knew she wanted to incorporate it into her practice, but it was not until she attended the counseling program at St. Mary’s that it became clear how it actually works.
“I did a somatic concentration in my doctoral program and part of that was learning the very beginnings of trauma-sensitive yoga,” she said. “Then I followed that up with more formalized training.”
In addition to yoga, Sultan’s therapeutic approaches in her Houston private practice include mindfulness, breath therapy, expressive arts and hypnotherapy.
“When we do hypnotherapy, we open up a part of consciousness that is not usually readily available to people in their everyday life,” Sultan said. “It helps them to remember things they have forgotten and recognize the origins of issues like grief and anger.”
“I got to work with people of all ages and socioeconomic statuses, and in different stages of development and grief,” she said.
While going through classes and internships, Sultan took comfort in the Counselor Education and Family Life Center building, which is where all counseling classes take place, faculty offices are housed and practicum students work with real clients from the community. Located less than a mile from the St. Mary’s main campus, the center acts as a nurturing environment for counselors-in-training to grow and learn.
“We knew everyone and our professors were really accessible,” she said. “It was our safe place.”
Military and veterans therapy with Nichdali “Grichell” Pelizzari
More than eight years after graduating with her M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy* from St. Mary’s, Nichdali “Grichell” Pelizzari (M.A. ’13) still keeps in close contact with her classmates.
Though the specific program is not accepting new students, Pelizzari said, “What I’ve seen from my cohort is we all have the ability to work with everyone. I’ve been chosen for jobs and paid more because they see I went to St. Mary’s.”
In her experience, the reputation of St. Mary’s counseling alumni is not only their universality, but the fact that they do not shy away from the tough topics.
“We’re not terrified to talk about religion or politics with our clients,” she said. “We’ve been given a great foundation in that way.”
This openness was modeled by her professors, several of whom she still keeps in contact with, particularly former professor Nicholas Wilkens (Ph.D. ’01), who supervised her work at the St. Mary’s Family Life Center and in her post-graduate work.
“To this day, I still bother Dr. Wilkens because he’s amazing and just a brilliant human being,” she said.
Pelizzari has ADHD and said that while a lot of professors have a hard time with that, Wilkens did not.
“He let me pace back and forth or sit in the middle of the floor,” she said. “He said, ‘Do whatever you need to do.’”
The most important lesson Wilkens taught Pelizzari? Never settle.
“He said to always go where it’s a good fit and learn as much as you can,” she said. “Try all the different arenas and learn about the different populations. That will make you a better clinician.”
Originally from Panama City, Panama, Pelizzari was part of a military family, so it makes sense that she now works with active-duty and veteran individuals and families, among other populations, in her practice at Thriveworks Pflugerville. Before joining Thriveworks, she was a military family life counselor with Magellan Health, where she worked within an elementary school to help children and their families.
During her master’s program, Pelizzari interned at Fort Sam Houston working with service members and, in her doctoral program at Walden University, she plans to write her dissertation on the cultural disconnect between non-military counselors and their military clients.
“Maybe I’ll write a manual along the way to help,” she said. “That’s the goal.”
Cross-cultural counseling with Linda Sheets Lockwood
Since earning her Ph.D. in Counseling and Family Life from St. Mary’s, Linda Sheets Lockwood (Ph.D. ’97) has used her degree to help people all across the world — from Alaska to South Korea.
After finishing her classwork in 1995, Lockwood accepted a teaching position in a 75-person village in Alaska. It was there that she worked on her dissertation.
“There was nothing to do there,” she said. “Nights and weekends I would just write and do research.”
After she submitted her dissertation, she began her counseling career traveling around Alaska doing mostly court-ordered counseling.
“I would fly in on a little two-seater plane, land on a dirt runway, they’d drop me off and come pick me up the next Friday,” she said. “I would sleep in my sleeping bag on the school floor or the city hall floor — wherever it happened to be.”
After 10 years in that setting, Lockwood moved to Sarasota, Florida, where she became a family counselor in a school for children with disabilities, which utilized her background in teaching. Lockwood has a master’s in special education, and taught in San Antonio ISD before and during her Ph.D. program. She found that her counseling experience helped tremendously in teaching.
“I learned how to listen and it made teaching so much easier,” she said. “Behavior modification is 85% of teaching. If you can get that under control, you can actually start teaching well.”
She then began working as a military family life counselor where she traveled to South Korea, Germany and across the United States supporting families in deployment and reintegration.
In 2019, Lockwood joined the Peace Corps Response and was sent to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, an island country in the Caribbean, to start a summer school program and train teachers.
“I taught them how to talk to children, how to discipline, how to set up their classroom,” she said. “I did workshops to teach them how to control kids who were having behavior problems.”
Last year, Lockwood began volunteering with the Red Cross doing virtual disaster mental health counseling.
More than 20 years after turning in her dissertation on cross-cultural counseling, Lockwood has learned what it really means to work with people from a different background.
“People are people,” she said. “When you can talk to them and listen and do all the counseling skills that St. Mary’s taught, then you can really talk to anybody.”
“What advice would you give St. Mary’s counseling students?”
“Have compassion for yourself. Graduate school is hard, but don’t be too hard on yourself. It takes time and practice to build clinical skills.”
-Elizabeth Kjellstrand Hartwig
“Drop the assumptions and allow yourself to learn. There is so much to learn and it would be unfortunate to miss out on something.”
“Ask as many questions as you can and challenge your professors.”
“Develop your skills in a way that’s congruent with who you are, instead of trying to emulate anyone else.”
“Pick your dissertation topic early and then every time you have to write a paper for any class on anything, stick to that topic. By the end of the program, you’ll have tons of papers and research already collected.”
-Linda Sheets Lockwood