Editor’s note – This article is one of a series of feature stories from Southern State Community College highlighting alumni and the specific degree programs they completed.
It was not until Mariah Patton dug into her coursework at Southern State Community College that she realized substance abuse counseling is her passion.
“I loved it,” Patton said. “I would do it all over again.”
Patton graduated in May from Southern State Community College with an associate’s degree in human and social services with a focus on chemical dependency, and is now a full-time substance abuse counselor in Batavia. The 20-year-old from Peebles said she leads two recovery groups during the week and one on Saturdays, during which participants share their experiences and do related activities.
“I am so happy to be here,” Patton said.
College was not easy for Patton; she said she lost several family members and totaled her car while enrolled at Southern State. With help from family, classmates and professors, she was able to complete her degree and find her passion along the way.
“When I first got into the program, my heart wasn’t totally set on it. As I went through, I realized it is my passion. I just love helping people,” she said. “I love breaking the stigma of addiction.”
Charlie Gorman, who oversees the human and social services program at Southern State, said the college offers a social service track and a chemical dependency track. Those who complete the social service track qualify to register as a social worker assistant. Those who complete the chemical dependency track can become a licensed chemical dependency counselor after 2,000 hours of supervision at a counseling agency.
Many students are already working in their fields well before graduation, Gorman said, thanks to partnerships with area facilities and a need for staffing in the area.
“There are just not enough qualified people in the field,” Gorman said. “It doesn’t take rocket science to realize just how many clients there are and how few people there are to help them. There are too many people and not enough providers… It’s reaching a crisis state.”
Gorman said with partnerships between Southern State and other four-year universities, students who want to pursue higher education in their field are able to attain a bachelor’s degree in two years after graduating from Southern State.
According to Gorman, associate’s degree graduates can go into the developmental disability field, children’s services, mental health counseling and chemical dependency counseling.
Gorman said some students come from a recovery background themselves wanting to help others who have experienced the same thing.
“Some of our students have been caught in the cycles of domestic violence, the cycles of poverty,” he said. “They are coming from the very groups and systems they are going to be working in.”
Gorman said his students often “become very connected to one another and help each other through the stuff of life over the two-year period.”
Gorman said when he began in the counseling field in 1987, 80 percent of the client population he served abused alcohol. When he left the field to pursue teaching in 2005, the majority of the client population were polysubstance users.
“Why I chose to come here was the fact that I knew my contemporaries were getting older and we needed to put new people in the field – people with a high sensitivity to our clients and who won’t discriminate against those who use drugs or alcohol… We like the idea of training these students to take our place.”
Patton said getting an education of any kind is not easy, but she encouraged would-be students to follow their dreams – just try higher education.
“I would just say go for it and don’t give up,” she said. “There will be challenges, and there will be days when you want to give up and quit. But in the end, it’s so rewarding.”
For more information about Southern State’s Human and Social Services Program, visit www.sscc.edu, email Charlie Gorman at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 800.628.7722, ext. 4625.
David Wright is a local journalist and freelance writer.