Beyond the Classroom

Spotlight on Students

The Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies provides an exceptional educational experience for students through its accredited degree programs. This is the second in a series of three articles focusing on recent graduates who are truly making a difference in the lives of the patients they serve.

As a non-traditional student, Tonya Olson had already amassed a broad spectrum of knowledge and wisdom through her various educational pursuits. However, as she approached the milestone of her 50th birthday, she took time to take stock and determined that she needed to focus on checking things off her "bucket list."

Tonya Olson"My transcript proves I'm a lifelong learner," said Tonya. "The pattern in my life was to turn to academia and learn new things - ranging from business to medical to integrative health & healing to psychology - but I'd never completed a degree. In 2010, I took an in-depth self-assessment and one of the main items on my bucket list was going back to school and finishing my degree."

The following year, she completed a few more classes at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in order to prepare to transfer.

"Over the years, I had attended Anoka-Ramsey Community College, and it was a wonderful place to gain knowledge and practical, hands-on experience. To this day, I so appreciate and respect the instructors there who dedicated time and energy to helping me learn," said Tonya.

She set her sights on the Psychology program at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. As part of the application process, Tonya completed an essay and was awarded the prestigious Presidential Scholarship Award. The award was instrumental in her being able to attend the university.

Through her studies, she felt herself being stretched to take on new challenges. Previously, she had avoided research and statistics; however, one day her adviser pulled her aside and suggested she explore going into the Honors Program. She completed two semesters in the Honor Psychology program, and just before graduation, she was selected to present her findings at a conference in Chicago, Illinois.

"During my time at Hamline, I was like a sponge and focused on absorbing every morsel of information," said Tonya. "The staff helped me feel safe, and as a result, my self-confidence soared. They encouraged me to move forward, and I just kept saying 'yes.' It was an incredible honor to be a presenter at this conference, and I'd encourage every undergraduate to go through the process of research and presenting."

In reflecting on her education at Hamline, she is quick to add: "My only regret was that while I love tennis, I didn't go out for their tennis team!"

Following graduation, she began checking into master-level degrees, and in 2013, she enrolled in the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. In 2015, she graduated with a degree in Master of Arts in Addiction Counseling - Advanced Practice.

"Early in our studies, one of the key phrases that we learned was to 'trust the process.' I found this to be a brilliant concept. It meant that I had to turn off knowing the 'ending of the story' and learn to take one day at a time," said Tonya.

While the classroom instruction through the graduate school was beneficial, an added bonus was the opportunity to gain experience through being on the units - shadowing clinicians and working one-to-one with patients. Tonya credits two of her instructors for making lasting impressions that continue to impact her current work.

"The teachings of Professor Dr. Dan Frigo and others made a monumental difference in my life. I may only have 'x' amount of years to work in this career, and my goal is to emulate them and bring the skills and expertise learned through their classes to my work, every day. They set the bar high through challenging each of us as students to really understand and apply what was being taught. I think I'm a better clinician today because of their instruction."

Through her coursework, she gained expertise in a broad spectrum of treatment settings including interning in the Hazelden Betty Ford Family Program and on a Men's Unit, and at the Vinland National Center in Minneapolis, MN, which specializes in outpatient and traumatic brain injuries treatment. In 2015, she was hired as an Addiction Counselor 2 at Hazelden in Center City and now works on the women's unit.

"This has been quite the experience, but I love the variety and the chance to learn new things each day," said Tonya. "Right now, I've got a challenging case load of six to seven patients and great support from my supervisor and co-workers. And I'm continuing to learn - new processes for streamlining procedures, new ways of developing connections and rapport - in order to better serve my patients."

As she moves further into the field of addiction treatment, she's aware of the need for change, especially in the area of work/life balance for clinicians.

"I would like to be part of that wave of change so there isn't the high potential for burnout in this field. While there are long hours and a high level of stress, there is much we can do to streamline processes in order to create a better balance."

In her spare time, Tonya enjoys spending time with family and friends, traveling, and hiking in the woods around the North Shore of Minnesota. A recent "empty nester," she and her husband enjoy following the activities of their daughter who is pursuing a Fine Arts degree and visiting their son in Colorado.

Through it all, her commitment to learning is ongoing. She recently found an acoustic guitar that she's had for about 10 years and dusted it off. It now sits in a prominent place in the living room as a reminder that she promised to learn to play it - and she's already learned three chords.

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