A Journey on the Jungle Gym
By Christina Migliara, Department Chair, Psychology
When you ask someone what made them go into a career they are passionate about, they usually can pinpoint a defining moment at which they knew this was the career for them. I didn’t know my moment was my moment until recently. So what was that moment? Well…it goes way back to the school yard in second grade. I was playing on the jungle gym when a friend of mine came up to me and said, “Christina, Bettina is over in the corner of the track crying!” I ran over and there was Bettina sobbing. The PE coaches did not see what happened, but apparently a boy named Chris had made fun of Bettina and it caused her to cry. Chris was also my friend and I was not sure why he did that to Bettina but it was not okay with me. I marched up to Chris, who was across the field playing soccer with a group of kids, and confronted him, “Why did you make fun of Bettina!” I yelled. I proceeded to put him in his place as a second grader would and told him to leave Bettina alone. His friends found it funny that a “girl” made fun of him which left Chris feeling embarrassed. Later I saw Chris by the bathroom, he came up to me very angrily shouting “How could you!” while crying as he ran into the boy’s bathroom. I simply replied “Don’t mess with Bettina!” I was always the easygoing kid who got along with everyone, but I was also the kid who did not like to see the “little guy” get picked on. It broke my heart seeing kids made fun of. I always felt compelled to stick up for people who seemed like they could not stick up for themselves, so I went back to Bettina and comforted her.
Many kids grow up saying they want to be an astronaut, a police officer, or even a firefighter. I grew up not knowing what I wanted to do. All I knew was there was a lot of pressure on me, I was the oldest and neither of my parents went to college so I had to do something with my life. Finally, in my senior year of high school I participated in a shadow program where I observed various medical settings. I knew I liked helping people but I just didn’t know in what context I wanted to do this. I had shadowed a birthing center and at that time I thought, what could be better than being a midwife? You get to do the coolest thing by helping people bring the gift of life into their world—no greater reward could top that! So I decided to go to college, work towards my nursing degree, and then, once I graduated, attend midwife school. Well, that did not work out so well for someone who gets squeamish and can’t handle needles. Meanwhile, I had been speaking with a woman named Debbie who I met in high school. She was a teacher who taught psychology and she was also a marriage and family therapist. I met her one day after school when I had to clean her classroom for too much tardiness. She and I got to talking and turns out she was pretty unique. The connection was great so we stayed in touch throughout college and she ended up becoming a lifelong mentor. I reached out to her and explained my dilemma with my uneasiness to blood and needles. She told me that I should do what I love and love what I do. I replied, “You always know what to say to make me feel better and you usually don’t say much!” It was at that time I knew I wanted to help people and I wanted to do it like Debbie did. The next day I went and changed my major to psychology. For many people who go into the field, they ask themselves “Why do people think and behave the way they do?” I found myself asking this same question as I pursued my degree, and I was eager to find out!
After completing my bachelor’s degree I went on to pursue a master’s degree. Here I was working towards my biggest goal of becoming a marriage and family therapist. I worked tirelessly at the clinic to get my hours and took classes year round. I was doing two internships just so I could get done, sit for my license exam, and start working in the field. At the same time, I was working at a local runaway and homeless youth program with teen girls as a direct care worker so I could get my feet wet and make contacts. I had hoped this networking would pay off so that when I graduated I could land a good job at an agency. I not only graduated a year early (the first person to ever do so in this program) but my hard work did pay off. I landed a job as the family social worker for a runaway program for youth. But I didn’t stop there; I worked in several different positions over the next 5 years with children, families, couples, mentally ill, and substance abuse populations. I even obtained a certification in substance abuse to add to my credentials. At the same time that I got the position as the family social worker and for the next 4 years I pursued my doctorate. I continued to work in the field and attend school.
People asked me many times why did I go for the doctorate, wasn’t a master’s degree enough? For me it was a personal goal of pushing myself to be the best that I could and I loved to learn. I grew up with many people underestimating my abilities and one thing I knew was that I could do anything I wanted to do. Debbie and many of the mentors I had throughout my life reminded me of this often! I ended up being the only one in my family of multiple generations to ever earn a doctorate.
I always told myself that if I could touch one life—just one, like Debbie did mine—I would truly have achieved my career goal. Turns out I touch many. I was not out to save the world because that is not what therapists do, but I knew that there were many Bettina’s out there and not many people like me to stick up for the “little guy.” I used to have a hard time understanding why Bettina didn’t stick up for herself. If that were me, I wouldn’t have taken it. I also wondered what compelled Chris to act the way he did. Every client that walked into my office was a Bettina or a Chris—they were vulnerable, scared, angry, and going through a tough time. Chris wasn’t that different, he was going through something too but since he didn’t know how to control or express his feelings (not many second graders do) he took it out on Bettina. Bettina didn’t stick up for herself because some people do not have the assertiveness skills to do so. I learned that I had a skill set, a gift, and it would serve me well in the career I chose so that I could help others like Bettina and Chris. Because I had this mindset, it was easy for me to get up every day and go to work. I loved what I was doing and doing what I loved!
In 2010, I had my first child, bought my first house, completed my doctorate, and opened up my private practice. What could be better, I thought I had achieved the ultimate goal! So why did I feel like something was missing? I had worked so hard to get here, at the top of the ladder, and I was perplexed. I had been doing what I loved and loved what I was doing but still felt like it wasn’t enough. I had never been the perfectionist type, always the middle of the road kind of gal, so this new feeling did not sit well with me. I pondered for many months trying to figure it out and had several conversations with my mentor. At the time I had also been adjunct teaching in the Psychology Department for Kaplan University. Then one day an opening came out regarding a full-time position as the assistant department chair for the Undergraduate Psychology Department. I thought to myself, maybe this is what I need? I had loved teaching at Kaplan University. Since I was a scholar and a practitioner, I brought a unique perspective to my classes where I taught students about psychology and prepared them for the field. Maybe I could share my knowledge on a bigger scale? So I went for it and gave it all I could (making sure I wore my lucky red shirt of course on all of my interviews!). Then I got the call. I had received the position and was thrilled to begin my work alongside the department chair.
I found my new position so rewarding—this is the answer I was looking for. I wanted to keep reaching all of the students I could and share the knowledge that was shared and even not shared with me. I felt compelled to educate students as much as possible so they could be prepared for the field no matter what specialization they were pursuing. I continued my work knowing that someday I would grow and make an even bigger difference at Kaplan University.
Today I serve as the department chair for the Undergraduate Psychology Department. I have the honor and privilege of working on an amazing leadership team surrounded by brilliant people. I am also grateful to create a cohesive department providing a great place for my employees to work and an amazing place for my students to learn. Many times I find myself on a call with a student who seemed so unsure about what to do and by the end of our conversation they are excited, confident, and ready to continue working on the journey to success. Students thank me for the guidance all of the time but really I am to thank them for what they teach me, I am truly humbled by their passion.
After working in the field for 13 years, I have learned that the best thing I can do to remain an expert and be the best mentor to others is always remain teachable. It’s what makes me a great leader. I never stop learning and I believe it is the key to my success. While there will always be doubters, don’t let them bring you down. Know that everyone has their own battle they are fighting and use it to positively motivate yourself. The reality is what they are saying to you may have nothing to do with you so don’t take it personally. If you want to be the best, surround yourself by a great mentor(s). I believe people come into our lives for a reason, even if it is just for a moment, and there is something we can learn from everyone.
Every day I come to work, I think about the crossroad I once stood at in my career. I realize I made the best decision and have never been happier or experienced more reward in my life. Yes, I have said that before. I guess as you grow you learn that rewards and growth are not finite but never ending, as long as you have the vision to see it that way. Truth is, I have a lot more work to do and I can’t wait to dive in. As Sheryl Sandberg says in her book Lean In, who wants to climb a ladder and wait while staring at someone’s butt to get to the top? Climb the jungle gym where there are many ways to get to there! I wasn’t at the top of the ladder, I am on the jungle gym (once again) and I am not even close to the top yet, but I am on my way. So what was my moment? It was in second grade where I stood up for Bettina, the little guy!
Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.