My Time in East Texas

by Monica Ross

I wanted to take some time to write a post about my time here in East Texas. So the story goes that when I graduated from my master’s degree program in Austin in 2014 I struggled to find paid work as an intern. As an LPC-intern a person has to spend 3,000 hours gaining experience before becoming fully licensed to practice.

Because the market for counselors in Austin is so saturated, because of the fact that it is such a desirable place to live and work, employers know that they can pay you little to nothing to build up that experience. And that is, if you are lucky to find experience to begin with. When I graduated, I looked around and I didn’t find the type of experience I was really looking for, let alone paid experience.

I had coffee with a friend in Austin who told me about an opportunity to work in East Texas at a rural MHMR clinic called Burke and how her school was developing a partnership program with them. I thought this might be a good opportunity--being alone for awhile and out in the middle of nowhere--to really concentrate on building my skills as a therapist and to be able to work with a broad spectrum of people.  The clinic out here is the go-to place for all things mental health related. Burke itself serves a 12 county region.

And so, knowing that I could not afford to work for free I decided to apply directly to the agency to see about being brought on as a regular employee instead of being brought under the partnership program.  I had attended a different school and wasn’t eligible for the program that my friend’s school had with the agency. Had I been eligible for that, I would likely have applied.

I remember driving into Lufkin for the first time and spending the night in a hotel near what would later become the part of town that I chose to live in. Lufkin is 4 hours away from Austin. This was a part of Texas I had never explored.  On my way out here, I drove through towns that had dilapidated buildings and strip malls.

You could tell from the “for lease” signs that a lot of businesses were struggling out here in this part of the country. When the government labels an area “underserved” this is the physical manifestation of what they’re talking about—part of the visual of it. These signs appeared in buildings that were in the very center of town in areas that one would hope for the local economy would be thriving.

And then I got to Lufkin the city itself. There were mornings when I stepped outside my apartment and stared into the tall piney woods outside my door and really felt at peace with the nature surrounding me. There were also times when I felt compelled to seek out something/anything to do for entertainment by diving into the Houston or Dallas or even Shreveport areas which are relatively close by.   If you consider a two to three hour drive to be close.

My purpose here is not to make a judgment about Lufkin the place or East Texas the area. This is not a “thank God I’m headed back to Austin story” where there are plenty of things to do.  And when I run into people here that say I can’t blame you etc. for leaving, I feel a little sad in a way because while yes there are more resources and things to do in Austin, I feel very wary of setting Austin up to be some kind of utopia which it certainly isn’t.

As much as I love and lay claim to the city of Austin as my city, it could probably do well to humble itself a tad more. Setting these desirable areas up as the best places to live doesn’t really seem to move the conversation further, which maybe should be the intent. Why are some places more desirable to live than others and for whom? How can we take some of that desirability and reproduce it in the quote unquote less desirable areas, or not?

I think you can find meaning and purpose anywhere you live. Every city has it’s own charm. And there was something really nice about living in such a remote area, in a small town, with no traffic, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by pine trees. I grew a lot out here if that makes sense.

I gained valuable and rich experience working with clients.  I got called to crisis situations, I served as an expert witness in court, I saw 100s of clients sometimes in the clients' homes, I got to work with people across the lifespan and with a wide range of issues.  I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve out here. It was a good decision--a good move.

I found a local branch of the church that I attend and there I found like-minded people to do some of my socializing with.  I worked alongside coworkers who for all intents and purposes are diametrically opposite to me on the political and religious spectrum. And somehow it all worked.

That’s not to say that there weren’t moments when I felt my outsider-ness. I wouldn’t say that that feeling ever went away completely. But my mission and purpose for being here remained the same. My duty was to the clients that I served whom I viewed in the same unconditional and non judgmental stance.

And so now, I’m headed back to Austin. I’m headed back home. But I’m not the same in a way. These experiences, they change us for the better I think.

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