Interview with Amy O’Connor – Lecturer, Admissions Coordinator at Humboldt State University (HSU) | Wilderness Therapy & Indigenous Social Services

About Amy O’Connor, LCSW: Amy O’Connor earned her MSW at the University of Pennsylvania, where she concentrated on direct clinical practice — specifically trauma-focused psychotherapy. Prior to earning her MSW, she worked in both traditional and alternative juvenile detention programs. She also worked outdoors with children and teens as a guide for Outward Bound. After she graduated from UPenn, she drove across the country to Oregon, where she worked as a field therapist in a wilderness therapy program for teens with dual-diagnoses. The work consisted of self-contained expeditions that typically included two guides, one therapist and six to eight young people. The groups did not see anyone else for 21 days, and over the course of the expeditions developed collaborative treatment plans, facilitated individual and group psychotherapy sessions. She earned her LCSW while working this job, along with her CADC II.

She eventually became the clinical director of the wilderness therapy program, and after moving south to the Humboldt Bay, she found her skill set transferred to other clinical management positions. She worked at the local hospice as the director of social services, where she trained and supervised social workers, chaplains and grief counselors.

She now teaches at the Humboldt State University Department of Social Work and coordinates BSW and MSW admissions. Amy O’Connor was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] You currently work as a lecturer and admissions coordinator at HSU, but prior to this you spent five years working as a wilderness therapist. Can you describe the goals and methods of a wilderness therapist, and how they relate to social work? For aspiring social workers interested in wilderness therapy, are there particular educational or professional experiences you would recommend?

[Amy O’Connor, LCSW] There are a few academic programs that specialize in wilderness therapy, but such a specialized degree isn’t necessary to work in the field. All wilderness programs are different, and regulations that govern them differ from state to state. I would suggest aspiring social workers interested in the field visit a few programs to get a sense of the programs’ clinical model, especially how the therapy is integrated into the daily program.

The goals of a wilderness therapist are the same as any therapist — build rapport and relationships with your clients. You identify goals and challenges and work toward them with the clients to help them prepare to live lives that are healthy, independent and fulfilling. At times, the wilderness was my office — a setting for engaging in traditional talk therapy, CBT, empathic listening, art therapy and narrative therapy. At other times, the wilderness was the therapist. The natural consequences that nature provides, the physical stress of hiking and taking care of yourself in the backcountry, the lack of distractions — all of these elements contributed to deep work on the part of my clients. In those instances, I was just along for the ride.

[] Humboldt State University’s Department of Social Work has a commitment to indigenous populations, emphasizing tribal social services and agencies. Can you describe how this population and its professional context differ from other social work clients and settings? What can social work students who choose to specialize in indigenous populations expect from their curricula and careers?

[Amy O’Connor, LCSW] HSU sits in the northwestern portion of Wiyot ancestral territory. The Department of Social Work respectfully acknowledges the Wiyot people and other tribal communities on the North Coast and in the northern California region. In consultation with local tribal communities, our program curriculum maintains an emphasis on working with indigenous and other rural peoples and is designed to assist our students to engage in “decolonizing social work.” To prepare students for this approach, we require all applicants have at least one course in Native American Studies.

Students can expect to engage in critical reflection throughout their studies. How does the traditional social work canon apply to day-to-day work in rural and indigenous communities? How does knowledge of historical trauma inform our work today? How can a relational worldview help us understand our clients, communities and selves?

[] How do social work theory and practice, which have been developed under “Western” paradigms, need to be adapted to better serve indigenous populations? How does HSU impart this to students?

[Amy O’Connor, LCSW] Our faculty and students engage in critical pedagogy-learning that challenges dominant structures through dialogue and seeks to raise social consciousness. Throughout their learning in the classroom and in the field, our students are challenged to think about the historical and geographic context for present-day challenges facing clients and communities. The Department of Social Work is committed to educating students to meet these challenges locally, while providing a curriculum that offers a global perspective on social issues and diverse societal responses. We emphasize demonstrating cultural humility and respect in all of our interactions.

[] How does geography play into the social work education and training delivered by HSU? Is location a defining feature of every social work program? How much attention should prospective students give to the settings of their social work schools?

[Amy O’Connor, LCSW] Our work is informed by place. HSU is situated in a geographic region with numerous community resources, including the social and environmental justice organizations and movements that have a long history of activism and involvement in local government. Another strength is the vibrant and committed professional relationships among staff in public and private programs and schools, including partnerships with local governments and private foundations to secure support in meeting the social and health needs of people in this region. There are abundant resources to be found in the love that people express for maintaining the natural beauty of the environment, the well-being of local communities, and the preservation of Native American tribal cultures.

The Department of Social Work has a long history of working with surrounding communities to assure that these resources continue to grow. The geographic area also is presented with the challenges of contemporary life problems (e.g. family violence, crime, substance abuse, homelessness and poverty) coupled with the stresses historically associated with rural and small town communities (e.g. isolation, underdevelopment and inaccessibility).

[] As an admissions coordinator, where do you see social work applicants having the most difficulty? Any advice for them?

[Amy O’Connor, LCSW] Many of our applicants are juggling multiple responsibilities — full-time work, children, military service and caregiving for aging parents. They want to earn their degree, advance in their careers, or make a transition. Many of them are rooted in their communities but there is no MSW program nearby. We developed a part-time online program to meet the needs of these students, and I would encourage applicants who think an MSW program is out of reach to learn more about online programs.

Thank you Amy O’Connor for your time and insight into social work!

Last updated: April 2020