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The 3 Biggest Lessons I Learned During My Mental Health Policy Fellowship


Michelle Flores is a predoctoral fellow in APA’s Minority Fellowships Program. She is earning her doctorate at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

It has been a year since my summer internship at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) ended and a lot of people have asked me what I liked most about the experience.  I always have trouble coming up with just one answer.

Sure, going through a security checkpoint and wearing a government-issued ID badge was exciting. So was attending meetings at the Capitol and the National Institute of Health. Visiting a jail was eye opening, and reaching a weight loss goal of thirty pounds was personally fulfilling (although that was unrelated to SAMHSA!). In all honesty, the three most important lessons I learned over that summer cannot be included in my CV, yet they speak more loudly about me than any document could.

1. No job, setting, or method of doing things is beneath you.

During my first week as an intern, I boarded the SAMHSA shuttle in the morning and ended up having a lovely conversation with the lady sitting next to me. That same afternoon, I ran into her in the copy room and we chatted some more. Before we both went back to work, she told me her name was Pam and wished me a great rest of my first day.  As I made my way out of the building that day, I stopped to look at framed pictures that were hanging on the wall. There was a picture of President Barack Obama, Secretary of Health and Human Services – Kathleen Sebelius, and SAMHSA Administrator… Pam Hyde. Meeting Administrator Hyde in such an informal manner made me realize that, no matter how prestigious a job I get, I will never be so important that I can’t spare a moment to chat with an intern, take public transportation to work, or make my own copies.

2. You will never know what temperature you like unless you swim in many pools.

The personal goal I set for my internship was to spend the summer learning about policy and behavioral health inequities. However, if I had stuck to that original plan, I would have done myself a great disservice. As a “pool” intern, I was assigned to different tasks and projects in whatever department needed my help. Not only did I learn about areas that I initially knew nothing about (e.g., homelessness, lack of enrollment for Medicare services, how a policy academy works), I also went on my first visit to a jail and developed an immediate interest in working with incarcerated individuals who suffer with alcohol and drug addiction. If I had been unwilling to experience the discomfort of change, I would have accomplished very little during my internship.

3. Don’t cower in fear behind your talent and then call it humility.

The most important lesson I learned came to life months after the internship was over. When it was announced that I had been selected as the 2012 MFP Policy Fellow, I started feeling like an impostor almost immediately. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or boastful about my accomplishment so I called it humility. In reality, I was afraid that I might actually have the talent that people saw in me and I was fooling no one but myself. My supervisors, mentors, friends, and even my family saw it, but I was too afraid to look it in the eye. Fortunately, one of my mentors sat me down and gave me a tough-love talk that yanked me out of my fear-masked-as-humility and helped me see the tremendous path that I was blazing for myself.

Over the last year, I have frequently pondered what essential lessons about life people learn during graduate school. As a result of my internship summer, I now firmly believe that life has a way of putting us in the exact place where we will learn what we need to learn.

What about you? What important lessons have you learned along the way?

You may also be interested in:

Apply for APA’s MFP Predoctoral Fellowship in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Deadline: January 15, 2014

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