Each year, our counseling psychology students spread out across the Greater Seattle Area—and in some cases, the world—to intern at a variety of organizations. It’s one of the first opportunities for students to step into their future vocation. Tolu Mejolagbe, a third-year counseling student, sat down to talk with us about her experience as both a student at The Seattle School and as an intern with Hope Place, a women and children’s shelter in South Seattle.
What initially drew you to attend The Seattle School?
I remember I was in undergrad and stumbled upon a copy of Relevant magazine where there was an ad for The Seattle School. It was “The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology” and I thought “huh that’s a really interesting combination.” So, I looked into it, went on the website, and was really into what they were talking about. I did psychology in my undergrad, so the idea of the marriage of theology and psychology seemed fascinating. In my heart and my soul, I knew I was going to that school—I didn’t really look at other schools. The marriage of the two, how theology and psychology inform one another, has been fascinating and informative of who I am as a person and who God has created me to be and called me to be.
Why did you choose to go through the counseling psychology program?
I’ve always felt called to be the person for myself I didn’t have growing up, so counseling filled that hole. I was laser-focused on that. Whatever program it was, I knew I wanted to do the counseling track. It made sense for my own personal development as well to be able to hold other people’s stories and to sit with them well.
In what ways has your story shaped or inspired your work?
The first year I was writing stories about my family of origin—really, telling stories of my family of origin—and I didn’t realize how important that was to do that work here for my professional development. I learned if you haven’t sat with yourself and your stories of grief, sadness, joy, and deep trauma, it’s going to be hard to sit with other people. Being able to build a capacity to bear my own past pain, trauma, and to be able to sit with that in myself and have compassion for myself, at the end of the day that gives me even more compassion to sit with somebody else. If you want to do it well you have to sit with yourself and grieve. If you don’t grieve it you aren’t really doing the work, in my opinion.
What breaks your heart, and how are you informed by that kind of shattering?
I’m realizing much of my work is informed by systemic oppression, of all kinds of people—when people’s needs aren’t being met because systemic oppression is keeping them from it, or because of power structures that are very exclusionary. As a result, clients are in my office because of the bigger issues of systemic oppression. Women have been taught to shrink, be small, submit, that you need a man to feel important or to be anything. You need to be in a relationship, even if it’s toxic. What is the collective, societal responsibility for failing these women? Society’s getting better and women are progressing, too. But overall, women are more susceptible to domestic violence and abuse. So what breaks my heart is that that’s the reality that we live in.
Can you tell us about your current internship at Hope Place?
My site is a very community-based—it’s for women who’ve come out of domestic violence, drug addiction, homelessness, sometimes sex trafficking as well. Every morning we have a community devotion together and then I see clients during the day, or I’m helping lead or teach a class. A class I’ve been teaching at the moment is called “safe boundaries and people.” It helps these women learn what safe people look like and what safe relationships look like because their whole lives, they have not had that modeled very well, and therefore they are attracted to people who are toxic and not good for them. That’s been a really cool part of the internship, getting to teach the class and see these women’s light bulbs go off like “oh, that’s what I was going through the past ten years.” It’s kind of group therapy in a sense because it can be therapeutic for the women to be like “me too, me too, me too.”
Sometimes, we all sit around the table and read a book together, and after every page or so I stop and ask, “Do y’all relate to that? Have you ever experienced this?” And they’re laughing like “This book was written for me. ” So much is coming up with these women. I hear comments like, “Wow, that’s me in the book.” And it’s cool to see these women finally realize, “Oh, that’s what I was going through. That’s what I was experiencing. That’s why he or she was treating me like that.” I’ve never been through what these women have been through. I’m thankful that I haven’t had to live a life like that. But at the same time, it’s such a privilege and honor to be able to be there and witness these women’s lives turning around, putting in the work to be healthy, to be whole, and advocating for themselves. It’s really cool that I get to be a part of that healing journey for them.
Can you talk about the importance of transforming relationships at your internship?
I’m learning to realize that when I sit with a client, I’m not just sitting with that client. There’s so much more to them than who they are in front of me. When people come to their therapist, there is already an assumed power structure. The therapist is the one that has the knowledge and is given authority. We can’t ignore it. It’s in the room, it’s there, but at the same time, you want to make it as collaborative as possible. We’re going to stay on this path together. I’ve learned that from being at school and making friendships, being in classes with my peers, and sitting and listening to what they have to say and hearing what they’re saying.
As you prepare to step into the role of counselor after graduation, how does your own story work help you connect with others?
I think it helps having the ability to attune to these women because more often than not a lot of these women have a lot of childhood trauma that has informed who they are now and the decisions they’ve made. I’m able to sit with them and their stories and to have compassion on behalf of them, because a lot of them lack compassion for themselves— being able to attune to that part of themselves they haven’t been taught to attune to, or haven’t experienced secure attachment. Being able to work through my own story and work towards having more secure attachments makes me more able to sit with these other women, too, because I’ve done my own work.
What are your hopes, dreams, and desires as they relate to your future vocation?
My desire is to continue therapy, but to marry it with other things. I have a really strong desire to “nurture the matriarchy.” I want to water something so it grows and brings more attention to it versus focusing on tearing down. It needs to be destroyed a little bit, but at the same time, I want to focus on watering. That might mean helping women with childbirth, such as being a doula.
We don’t talk about the femininity of God enough. I think God is very hyper-masculine in our culture, at least in Western Christian culture. There’s not enough space for the femininity of God in our theology. There’s a lot of references in scripture to the feminine qualities, but we don’t talk about that enough. So, I think that’s where the matriarchy comes from, wanting to nurture the matriarchy, because I want to nurture the feminine qualities of God, too. Because men and women are made in the image of God, but for some reason, it feels like the maleness of God is more prized than the femininity of God. It’s not very balanced. We need people to be nurturers and providers and bring a secure attachment. I feel like the femininity of God does that really well.
What would you say to a student who’s thinking about studying counseling psychology at The Seattle School?
You can’t do this program without using your body. You need to be all in. You need to be present with yourself, present in the process, because the process really takes all of you. Coming into this program, you need to know what self-care looks like for you. Be prepared to give of yourself, of your time, of your energy, and of your mental headspace. It’s worth it because they don’t force you to grow, but you can’t help but grow and be changed by this place, even if it’s a painful growth and a painful change. It helps you find your voice. I feel like being here has helped me find my voice, it’s helped me to advocate for myself, and to know what I have to say is important, especially as a woman of color to lean into that more. That’s so important in today’s world. We need more voices, people who are confident in their calling and what God has for their lives and are committed to wanting to bring justice to our society because it comes from a place of love.