Growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, Ilissa Jones had a natural affinity for everything about the great outdoors. She also appreciated all aspects of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and following high school graduation, enrolled in UMD.
Over the next four years, she completed her coursework and graduated with a double major in criminology and psychology - and was just shy three classes from finishing a triple major in sociology.
"Early in my studies, I realized that I was interested in how drugs affect the mind, body and spirit," said Ilissa. "I have several close friends and family members who have been impacted by addiction, so it's always been a passion of mine to work in this field."
Following her college graduation, she completed a summer internship working with adolescents in the Juvenile Drug Court Program at the Dakota County Community Corrections facility. The job called for relocation, and she moved in with her aunt and uncle who happened to live near her work site in Apple Valley, Minnesota.
"This was a beneficial opportunity that actually became a defining moment for me," said Ilissa. "Up to that time, I had thought about focusing my career on working with the adolescent population. However, I found it was very emotional working with youth struggling with their own disease as well as with the family dynamics that often also included addiction."
It set her on the path of pursuing further education. In a random online search of top-rated graduate schools specializing in addiction, the first option that popped up was the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. Ilissa applied, went through the initial interview with Professor Dr. Dan Frigo, and two days later received notification she was accepted to the program. In April 2015, she completed her Masters of Arts in Addiction Counseling - Advanced Practice degree.
"The graduate school offered an exceptional program of learning - both about me and how to be a counselor," said Ilissa. "The best part of the program was being able to put into practice what we were learning in the classroom. I also appreciated the closeness of my cohort - we were a very tight-knit class and connected regularly to study. And we are still connected, even though we are now in different parts of the country."
During her first semester, she was assigned to work on the men's unit in Shoemaker on the campus at Hazelden Betty Ford in Center City. She then transitioned from there to working with health care professionals on the women's unit in Dia Linn. In her third semester, her disciplined approach and time management skills helped her excel in her studies while returning to her work on the Shoemaker unit.
"One of the key phrases stated early in our coursework was to 'trust the process,' and that was definitely one thing I learned to do," said Ilissa. "Another phrase was that 'you will run into yourself more than once in the program' which was also very true. It was cool to watch myself grow, both in my personal and professional life through this program."
In addition to her fourth semester classes, she was hired as an on-call counselor.
"When I graduated, my supervisor is quick to say that I was hired as a float counselor for about 12 hours before they put me into a full-time position," said Ilissa. "I've been working on Tiebout ever since and love watching the patients navigate through the early stage of recovery and being able to be a small part of 'the change' - from the time they enter the unit to walking them out the door."
She is also grateful for the ongoing encouragement of her supervisor, Ahmed Eid, and the support of her coworkers. For her, one of the most difficult aspects of the job is watching a patient choose to terminate their treatment early.
"You know what's on their mind, and it's sad to see them leave early because the chance of relapse is so high," said Ilissa. "In getting to know each individual, you become invested in them and their recovery. It's difficult to watch them leave and know that they will likely continue on in their struggle with addiction."
Today, Ilissa continues her work; however, in a slightly different capacity. She and her husband recently moved to North Branch, MN, and are anticipating the birth of their first child, due to arrive the last week of April. Because of health concerns brought on by the pregnancy, Ilissa recently transitioned to providing essential support and back up to her team members through doing assessments, completing discharge summaries, and updating weekly progress summaries.
"I'm continually reminded of the 'we' of this program - it's the theme of our Twelve Steps approach - and I couldn't have done the class work or completed school or transitioned to this new phase of my career without the tremendous support of those around me - classmates and coworkers, family and friends," said Ilissa.
An avid outdoor enthusiast, she is also an animal lover, especially of dogs and horses, and grew up having a family cabin and hunting shack. Ilissa still loves to hunt and fish, and deeply enjoys the aspect of "being in the moment and aware of every breath" that is inherent in hunting. In her free time, she and her dog like to go out "shed hunting" - searching in the woods for the antlers that deer routinely shed each winter.