So They Say Get A Master’s Degree: 6 Lessons I Learned in Graduate School.


Photo Credit: Dane Shillingford

Boy oh boy! Can you believe it? It has been three and half weeks since I completed my Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling at Hunter College, The City University of New York.

It is still so surreal that I could call myself a counselor and I can finally say that I am done (for now) with school. For most of my life I never thought about getting an advance degree. Most people in my family only really obtain a four-year degree from a City or State University and everything else is history.

Going to graduate school allowed me to grow and develop as a young professional. It helped me self discover my interests and passions as well uncover my deepest fears. It challenged me to be open-minded about my biases and to appreciate the human condition. It was one of the hardest two years of my life but the reward in the end is sweet.

To those who are debating, beginning or continuing their journey in grad, law or med school, this piece is dedicated to you. There will be moments where you want to cry your eyes out because the pain of trying to stay up all night to finish a final paper becomes excruciating. There will be more sacrifices that you have to make along the way but continue to remind yourself of the end goal. Also, please remember to care for your own mental and emotional well-being because in the end if we ourselves aren’t happy, nothing else that we do in our lives will matter. 

Lesson #1 – You Got The Power!

If I only knew how much power I had as a young person I probably wouldn’t be so fearful of failure in the first place. Upon entering graduate school, one of my biggest fears was being in a classroom filled with students who were much more intelligent than me. I knew I had the knowledge and experience prior to entering into graduate school, however, I still had this fear that I wasn’t going to make it. 

Though my insecurities were valid and understandable, I failed to realize that I had all the power in the world to succeed and that the only person who is stopping me from achieving my dreams is me.

“Grad school helped me see that the only person who is stopping me from achieving my dreams is ME.”

Lesson #2 – Be Real and Your Authentic Self.

I remember always trying to be down with the cause (slang for inclusion or fitting in with the popular crowd) because I wanted to be respected by my fellow peers. But the thing is as you get older, you change, your relationships with other people change and the things you desire most out of life also change. 

In grad school we are taught to be our authentic self and to be sincere because our clients can tell if we are being fake. There are no cliques or set group of people you consistently hang out with when you’re in grad school. You interact with everyone and if a person gives you good vibes you roll with it.

No matter what though, always stay true to yourself and be genuine when doing so. 

Lesson #3 – Resilience. 

I interned at an outpatient chemical dependency treatment program in the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a year and a half before completing my degree. The clients there were absolutely amazing. They taught me so much about life and how I can be a more effective counselor.

We would set out goals and objectives for the course of our time together but it always seem as though they would relapse back on their drug of choice. All that hard work and dedication to remain abstinent from drug use all goes down the drain when a client relapses.

My clients will again and again relapse because addiction is a disease but they refuse to give up on themselves and with enough faith and will power they will one day overcome.

“…But it ain’t about how hard you’re hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.” – Rocky Balboa

 Lesson #4 – You are NOT Alone.

A major reason why I survived graduate school was because of my support system which comprised of my family, friends and classmates. I started grad school having friends who I knew from undergrad and by the time I walked at my commencement ceremony, I realize that they were no longer my friends or people who would be there for me long-term.

Having a good foundation of support makes a big impact on your graduate school journey. You support system helps you get through the rough times especially moments where you feel completely lost and unmotivated. But before I continue with graduate school lesson #5, let me take this moment and thank a few people who were there for me and through their words of encouragement I was able to overcome.

Thank you…

Dad, Rosann Santos, Tiffany Onorato, Monika Son, Bettina Murray, Julie Tran, Vanessa Gyamfi, Landy Familia, Christopher Ng, Kevin Weah, David Jones, Will Simpkins, Chantelle Wright, Gerard Bryant, Laura Diaz, Dayanna Torres, John Calero, Jazmin Letamendi, Alyssa Spano, Kiana Foxx, Dane Shillingford, Renee Toney, Anthony Persuad, Andrew Bandini, Alberto Perez, Jeffery Moss, Uzma Khurshid, Clarie Cornelio, Samantha Sampath, Zenia Alturk, Alla Shapiro, Kevin Mendez, Luis Calvo and Stacey Nelkin. 

…for your love, support and endless words of encouragement because without you I wouldn’t be Melissa S. Kong, MS. Ed

Lesson #5 – Don’t Let Other People’s Fears Influence You.

There will be people who will put a dark cloud over your sunshine. You will have people telling you that you can’t do it and that you are wasting your time studying to become someone who makes less than 65k a year.

If you let other people’s fears cloud your judgement, you will never begin to live your own life. Despite all odds and the challenges lying ahead of you, things will always get better. 

“It’s good to be scared. It means you still have something to lose.” – Dr. Richard Webber

Lesson #6 – Be Willing to Fight for What You Want Out of Your Life.

Many of my learned life lessons began in school. Most of my learning have been in a classroom with dedicated and passionate teachers. I grew more as a person within the last two years of grad school than my four years of undergrad.

If you know what your value and worth is go out and get it and don’t stop until you find it.

There are going to be moments where you want to give up and take the easy road to success but success has no shortcuts. Know that when the going gets tough do not blame other people but try to find your inner strength to overcome the obstacle that is in front of you.


7 Principles of a Working Marriage.


  1. Establishing Love Maps Taking into the account of where you have been and where you want to go.

  2. Nurturing Fondness and AdmirationRespecting and having a general positive view of each other.

  3. Turning Towards Each Other Instead of Away – Keeping alive real life romance by letting your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.

  4. Letting Your Partner Influence You – Consider each other’s perspective and feelings. Honoring and respecting both people in the relationship.

  5. Solving Solveable ConflictsMaking decisions together and search out common ground.

  6. Overcoming GridlockComing to compromises with one another.

  7. Creating Shared MeaningValuing the moments whether it is the good, bad or the ugly.

Real Talk: Why I Choose to Study Mental Health Counseling.

Two years ago I was debating whether or not I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Social Work or Mental Health Counseling. Everyone told me to go with the Master’s of Social Work (MSW) route because New York State is primarily dominated with social workers and I would be able to do more with the degree. But for me I wanted to genuinely make a connection with others and here is why.

There were cockroaches running up and down the living room walls. The smell of five month old spoiled milk smacked me in the face and the sound of twenty screaming children starched my ear drums as I followed Karen into the bedroom to meet her mother. The cluttered room filled with bags of clothes had one queens size bed, a dusty giant brown teddy bear, a metal chair with a soft green cushion attached to the seat and a 1980’s television set on the tile floor.

I have been an interviewer intern at the Child Psychiatric Epidemiology Group (CPEG) at Columbia University Medical Center/New York State Psychiatric Institute for eight months. I assisted with the data collection of a newly designed study entitled “Stress and Well-being” which examines the long-term effects of disaster exposure (particularly, the events of 9/11) on child behavior and mental development. When I first began my internship experience with CPEG, I thought the experimental group would be the individuals who would have the most clinical issues. But having completed more than 30 baseline interviews in both the experimental and control groups, I realized that it is not whether a person was directly impacted by the events of September 11, 2001 but, rather it is how these individuals cope with previous traumatic life events.

*Experimental Group – Persons who were directly affected in the events of 9/11. Sample was recruited through the World Trade Center Health Registry (WTCHR).

*Control Group – Persons who were not directly affected in the events of 9/11. Sample was recruited through an outside source and through the Queens area.

I was assigned to a control interview with a mother about her child in Astoria Public Housing on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon. We started off together as a family going over the study consent forms. Ms. April was a middle aged woman with red and black highlight braids. She immigrated to the United States from Barbados having only completed some of her high school education. She had a tough time understanding some of the study forms but I was there to help her through the process. My assignment for the day was to conduct and complete an in-person structured interview to learn about Ms. April’s unique 9/11 experience and other traumatic life events she may have experienced and how she deals with daily stress.

It was hard to conduct the interview. Her answers to my questions were yes and no’s but other times she would run into tangents about other traumatic life experiences that I had not yet asked about. The interview lasted about seven hours and I had walked away learning so much about Ms. April’s personal life circumstances. She shared intimate details about hardships she experienced such as making a suicide attempt, being a victim of child abuse and having had anticipated homicidal thoughts. It was clear that she was experiencing depression as she expressed her extreme sadness and feelings of hopelessness to me.

I was stunned and taken back by her life story of being sexually abused as an eight year old girl. She was so depressed about how things were going in her life, that she wanted nothing but to be dead.  Her stories touched me deeply but it was this particular interview that redefined my motivation to become a counselor. My encounter with Ms. April was important because all people’s lives matter and there is a essential need for more Mental Health Counselors to provide mental and emotional support for all individuals.

I walked away from this experience thinking to myself, I should have done more and that I failed to help someone who was crying out for help. It was hard to deal with the aftermath of the interview because as a former student leader at John Jay College, I prided myself in helping students with their questions and needs. My encounter with Ms. April caused me to feel vulnerable and helpless because I wasn’t able to effectively make a difference. I replayed her stories in my mind like a broken record for a week going over every small detail of her stories with a comb.

I ultimately dealt with this situation by seeking the advice from those who currently serve as advocates within the field of human services and by doing this I was able to gain a greater understanding and learn a different point of view of the role of a counselor. I was able to debrief and reflect on the situation with professional’s in the field. This ulimately allowed me to talk about how the situation made me feel and allowed me to develop skills to use in the future.

I was unprepared and very inexperienced at the time but hearing Ms. April’s story has only motivated me to continue growing and developing into a better counselor. 

Please note for privacy purposes the names of all characters were changed.

An Inside Look: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Before the mid-1990’s the vast majority of research on adolescent and young adult romantic involvement focus on the connection between early experience with parents (Madsen & Collins, 2011, p. 791). Past literature have shown that adolescents who have supportive relationships with their parents during years of adolescence have a smoother transition to forming romantic relationships during young adulthood as they learn beneficial relationship skills that will aid them as they emerge to adulthood (Valle & Tillman, 2014, p. 99 and 100). Intimacy is considered to be one of the most critical developmental tasks that marks one’s entry into adulthood. The failure to establish intimacy in a romantic relationship and sustain a committed partnership can hinder one’s development. Romantic relationships among adolescents and young adults have been explored by developmental theorists and encompasses the following motivational self-needs:

  1. Self-esteem, the desire to gain confidence in one’s attainment of dating to establish identity.
  2. Status, the matter of importance of one’s social image.
  3. Affection, reaching beyond the peer group, the concern of being emotionally and sexually involved with another individual.
  4. Lastly bonding, the mature and final phase where one fuse a number of different desires: emotions, sexual desire and long-term commitment when pursuing a romantic partnership (Kindelberger & Tsao, 2013, p. 148).  

It is important to note that as adolescents transition to young adults, there desire to achieve the need of companionship and closeness helps make sense of their own social identity (Meier & Allen, 2009, p. 310). The types of relationships that emerges over the course of adolescence to young adulthood consists of the following labels and categories:

  1. Romantic Partnership – The relationship that highlights the notion of emotional closeness and attachment and is labeled as non-sexual but involves the so called “lovey dovey” cute little good morning text messages, dinner and movie dates.
  2. Sexual Partnership – Individuals consider one another as only “fuck buddies” or just “messing around”—the relationship is only on a sexual bases, in other words in a sexual partnership has no attachment or real emotional tie.
  3. Romantic and Sexual Partnership – The ideal relationship that an individual wants and values to be in. This partnership involves both the love and companionship of a partner with the drop of sexual desire.
  4. Not Yet Romantic – The relationship where two individuals are not yet officially in a relationship but are as described as “talking” or just “hanging out” in order to get to see if there could be any romantic or sexual spark (Banker, Kaestle & Allen, 2010, p. 177).

Romantic Relationships in Adolescence

Among this group of individuals, self discovery is an essential piece in one’s transition to forming romantic partnerships in young adulthood. In this stage of living, adolescents explore their own identity through the exploration of several relationships and they are driven deeply to become romantically involved with others (Madsen & Collins, 2011, p. 790). In adolescence, one begins to reach beyond the context of a peer group for support and inquires and dally in feelings of dating. They progress to one dyadic relationship, the partnership in which one goes out exclusively with their significant other to affirm the status of the relationshipin the hopes that they will later establish a long-term steady and committed relationship. (Meier & Allen, 2009, p. 316). Though it is considered to be a normative behavioral phase-based progression to have establish several relationships during adolescence, adolescents who continue to acquire many dating partners across mid-adolescence may lack the ability to move on towards more serious and exclusive partnerships that may lead them to have difficulty forming steady intimate relationships in young adulthood (Madsen & Collins, 2011, p. 790). Nevertheless, adolescents who date fewer partners and who experience a better quality dating during the exploration phase of the dating experience demonstrates better romantic relationship formation in early young adulthood.

During adolescence, girls are more in line to care about their romantic relationships than boys (Monahan, Dmitrieva, & Cauffman, 2014, p. 22) with the suggestion that the concern of romantic relationships are at a higher level of interest among girls than boys due to age, gender role and idealized scripts (Soller, 2014, p. 55). As noted previously, identity among this population group is vital as it assists them in arriving towards an awareness of who they are, creating a sense of self, purpose and belonging to the outer world. For adolescent girls, to develop and maintain a romantic relationship is apart of their gender identity script and they are linked more with the gender role-identity that involves the building of interpersonal relationships whereas boys are associated with physical tasks that results them to have more freedom and independence (Soller, 2014, p. 60).  In addition, girls are most vulnerable to the development of romantic relationships as they emerge to adulthood and they become increasingly vulnerable to their partner influence. With this in mind, it maybe suggested that for boys, the forming of romantic relationships matter most during early adolescence but the development and building of romantic relationships matter most for girls is during young adulthood (Soller, 2014, p. 22).

Romantic Relationships in Young Adulthood

As they begin to transition to become an adult, one’s system of motivational self-needs shifts and they are seen to progress into a more mature adult-like state of being. Past literature that focus on understanding romantic relationship formation in the life stages of adolescence to young adulthood proposals that the support and companionship of a partner is looked up as the desire characteristic and quality when seeking a romantic partnership as opposed to adolescence whose desire motive is to self discover through the experimentation of dating. The adolescent who was once egocentric starts to inquiry about the concern for another, his or hers identity in the works of their career path, financial stability and the pursue of marriage to start their very own family.

The pursue of a romantic relationships for young adults are in a combination of dyadic, emotional, romantic and sexually intimate partnership (Meier & Allen, 2009, p. 324). Young adults are more motivated to pursue a romantic partnership experience that could potentially fulfill their long-term need for emotional, physical intimacy and support by a partner. These values take into account the means of this relationship as they move into a serious and independent phase in which they focus emotionally on the dyadic partnership. (Meier & Allen, 2009, p. 310). The triangular theory of love developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg explains the matter of young adult love within an interpersonal relationship. The young adult romantic partnership focuses on three main dimensions and or elements: 

  1. Passion. The physical and sexual attraction that one has for another.
  2. Intimacy. The emotional feelings of closeness and attachment.
  3. Commitment. The decision to stay and maintain a relationship with another even in really tough times.

In the examination of the theory of love, it is important to note that Sternberg’s three main dimensions of love is more than likely to shift throughout the course of a person’s life as one evolves and changes continuously. In young adulthood, we recognize that a relationship based on a single dimension is not likely to survive versus those that consist of two or more elements. In a young adult romantic relationship, different stages and types of love could be combined, creating the four types of love: romantic, fatuous, companionate and consummate love. For young adults today, society and culture still play a tremendous role in how one views their relationship. (Banker, Kaestle, & Allen, 2010, p. 185). In addition, one may be uncertain as whether or not their relationship is romantic or not. The lack of communication and decision-making may causes these individuals to view their relationship either positive or negative.


The romantic relationship experience among both adolescents and young adults are indeed unique and different. In this paper, we can conclude that in the life stage of adolescence, one’s attitudes towards pursuing a romantic relationship is motivated by the desire to fulfill the following self-needs: self-esteem, status, affection and bonding. Adolescents also try to achieve and attain self discovery through the establishment of several romantic relationships. We can note during adolescence that the pursuit of romantic partnership are causal but as time progresses it is in the hopes that they will later commit to a steady exclusive relationship. In the life stage of young adulthood on the other hand, the dominant culture of the outer world essentially influences the way young women and men uses language to create meaning about their relationship while also noting that the system of self-needs and theoretical orientation of love changes as age, gender role identity scripts emerges through transition to the stage of adolescence to young adulthood. We can also see that as they emerge into the new life stage of adulthood, one begins to inquire deeply about support and companionship.


Banker, J. E., Kaestle, C. E., & Allen, K. R. (2010). Dating is Hard Work: A Narrative Approach to Understanding Sexual and Romantic Relationships in Young Adulthood. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 32(2), 173-191. doi:10.1007/s10591-009-9111-9

Kindelberger, C., & Tsao, R. (2014). Staying Alone or Getting Attached: Development of the Motivations Toward Romantic Relationships During Adolescence. Journal Of Genetic Psychology, 175(2), 147-162. doi:10.1080/00221325.2013.834291

Madsen, S. D., & Collins, W. A. (2011). The Salience of Adolescent Romantic Experiences for Romantic Relationship Qualities in Young Adulthood. Journal Of Research On Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell), 21(4), 789-801. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2011.00737.x

Meier, A., & Allen, G. (2009). ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS FROM ADOLESCENCE TO YOUNG ADULTHOOD: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Sociological Quarterly, 50(2), 308-335. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.2009.01142.x

Monahan, K. C., Dmitrieva, J., & Cauffman, E. (2014). Bad Romance: Sex Differences in the Longitudinal Association Between Romantic Relationships and Deviant Behavior. Journal Of Research On Adolescence (Wiley-Blackwell), 24(1), 12-26. doi:10.1111/jora.12019

Soller, B. (2014). Caught in a Bad Romance: Adolescent Romantic Relationships and Mental Health. Journal Of Health & Social Behavior, 55(1), 56-72. doi:10.1177/0022146513520432


The 5 Moral Principles of a Healthy Relationship.

  1. Autonomy (n): Giving one the freedom, choice and action to make their own decisions and to act on their own personal values.
  2. Nonmaleficence (n): The concept that reflects the idea of not inflicting intentional harm and engaging in actions that risk harming others, in other words, “above all do no harm.”
  3. Beneficence (n): To do good, be passionate and to prevent as much harm as possible.
  4. Justice (n): Being righteousness and equitable.
  5. Fidelity (n): Involving the notions of loyalty, faithfulness and honoring commitments.


American Counseling Association. (2014). Code of Ethics

Forester-Miller, H., & Davis, T. (1996). A Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making.

Confessions of a First-Year Mental Health Counseling Graduate Student.

  1. The Millions and Billions Pages of Readings.
  2. Self-Reflections.
  3. Freudian Theory.
  4. Transcriptions of Video Role Play Recordings.
  5. “How does that make you feel?”
  6. American Counseling Association 2014 Code of Ethics.
  7. Carl Rogers, “The Unconditional Positive Regard for Others.”
  8. Insurance for malpractice.
  9. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
  10. Postgraduate 3,000 Clinical Hours.

A NYC Pig.

I have been a interviewer intern with the Child Psychiatric Epidemiology Group at Columbia University Medical Center/New York State Psychiatric Institute for seven months.

I assist the research group by conducting in-person structured interviews with New York City families about stress and their own unique 9/11 experience (Stress & Well-being Study).

We have booked and completed over 400 baseline interviews with families who were and were not directly exposed to the events of September 11, 2001.

I conducted an interview with a family in Manhattan who were directly affected by 9/11 and boy when I walked into the home I did not expect to find this little (I mean big) guy here…