When MaiLinh Hartz, a master’s student in the Couple and Family Therapy program, was younger, people often said she had an old soul. “I was very introspective and had time to listen and absorb people’s stories and emotions,” she explains. It’s a common narrative heard among people who work in the mental health field that they were always, in some way, drawn to care. As a student, she is expanding what it means to take care of others—not just as a therapist, but as a peer.
In the midst of studying and working full-time she often turns to her friends, family, and partner as sources of support. People are central to her well-being and work. “Talking about issues in my circle of people who share a similar identity as me is really important,” she says. She knows it can be really important for other students of color too.
Hartz spent the past year as a leader in the Counselors of Color Student Support Group, a group that serves students in both Couple and Family Therapy and Clinical Mental Health Counseling at the Seattle campus. “As a person of color, I know from personal experience that receiving support from people of color, who share similar identities, is super important and validating,” Hartz says. “It creates a sense of belonging and inclusion in these big institutions that are often predominantly white.”
Creating Supportive Spaces for Students of Color
Exploring her own background as a person with Chinese, Vietnamese, German, and Finnish ancestry has been a part of Hartz’s personal and professional work. “The program and therapy helped me really unpack some deeply ingrained beliefs about being mixed, or being Asian, or being a person of color,” she says. “And it was really hard and really challenging for a while.”
One part of training to be a counselor is understanding the ways your identity is shaped by the dominant culture and how that, in turn, shapes your ideas about the world. But texts are most often written from the perspective of people with European heritage and white privilege. Hartz found herself not only navigating her own work but also having to use tools, languages, and lenses that didn’t reflect her experience. “Students of color disproportionately have more emotional labor than their white counterparts in the program because of the content,” Hartz explains.
As a graduate student who works in higher education administration, Hartz is realistic about the time it will take to make the big changes that need to happen. It’s one reason she’s found her work in the Counselors of Color Student Support Group to be worthwhile, it creates a ripple effect that’s necessary to push those changes along, and it provides concrete relief to students when they most need it. The group meets twice a month to discuss any issues they’re having with classes, challenges with the material or the program, and how to balance everything they’re doing. Most importantly, the support group proves to students that they’re not alone.
The support group makes it a point to visit specific classes that can be especially challenging for students of color and invite people to join. Classes that take place in the first and second quarters, when students are getting their feet under them and might need the most help, are also on the list. “The class, Multicultural Perspectives, is especially challenging for students of color,” Hartz says. “So we drop into those classes week one to let them know about our group to tell them to come.” But if students can’t make it to the meetings, they can also reach out to student leaders for one on one talks. Hartz has had many students contact her directly when she was a student lead. “We’re here,” she says. “Utilize us; utilize your resources.”
Hartz’s work, within the context of the group and with the help of co-leaders, has led to an addition to all Couple and Family Therapy syllabi that acknowledges the disproportionate burden of emotional labor BIPOC students face in the program. She also helped create a Counselors of Color Resource Directory that connects students to mental health resources, podcasts, and social media. In addition, when it came to strategizing and implementing a program connecting students of color to direct peer-to-peer mentorship, she was ready to help. She says, “All of these changes are to support BIPOC students so they can focus more of their energy on completing their counseling programs and achieving their degrees.”
Knowing Her Path is Necessary
Completing her degree is Hartz’s main goal, too, even as she helps create the resources necessary for others to pursue their dreams. But she didn’t always imagine this is what she would be doing. “10 years ago, I was so young, I felt like, how could I be a therapist?” Hartz says. “I just felt like I needed more life experience.”
Her first job out of college was, in fact, in the mental health field. But the impact actually pushed her away from considering it as a career. Working in a highly specialized outpatient clinic that treated people with severe depression, anxiety, and mood disorders narrowed her perspective on the mental health profession. She has a different perspective now, “There’s such a wide array of issues, and people, and populations that you can see as a therapist.” Hartz explains. “I realized that job was really intense and was not an accurate depiction of the full breadth of mental health.”
She started working in student services and then thought human resources might be a good fit, but nothing ever felt quite right. It was during the early waves of the COVID pandemic that she decided she needed to figure out her best path forward. Finally, deciding to pursue graduate school was a moment of clarity. After years of winding paths, she explains, “Landing in grad school for therapy just made so much sense. And I felt so much relief like I’ve never felt that way with any career move I’ve had.”
Through her own experience in therapy, Hartz has learned how important it is that she is pursuing counseling as a career. “Recognizing that in my own journey of healing and trying to find a therapist who shares my identities, recognizing how challenging that has been, informs me that there’s such a need for therapists of color of all backgrounds,” she says. And Hartz extends that sentiment to other people considering entering into counseling, “Everyone has a unique story, identity, and life experience that makes them uniquely valuable as a therapist,” she says.