For over 30 years, Kathy Clark has put her Saint Leo psychology degree to good use in various roles dedicating her life to helping people of all ages and backgrounds.

Clark, 70, is a native of Manhattan, NY. She now calls Gulfport, FL home. She originally had three children and also has a grandson.

Pursuing Higher Education as an Adult Learner

She admits that she dropped out of college to get married and start a family. Her husband at the time was in the military, so she learned about Saint Leo University (then Saint Leo College) thanks to its former education center location at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle.

“There really wasn’t much else available for college in my local area at the time,” Clark recalls.

In the fall of 1982, she enrolled with Saint Leo to embark on the bachelor’s in psychology degree program as a 28-year-old mother of three. At the time, she got to take one free class from the college to see if she liked it. She opted for Intro to Psychology.

“I really wanted to help people, so I thought I would try out this type of class,” she recalls.

She liked the eight-week courses and the fact that she only had between 15 and 20 fellow students in her classes, making for a much easier learning environment. As a young mom, she says pursuing a college degree was doable with a little juggling.

“I got up early before the kids woke up and stayed up late to do my reading and studying,” she says.

Outstanding Professors in the Saint Leo Psychology Degree Program

She will never forget one of her professors, Dr. Robert Gurney, who taught psychology.

“He really inspired me to learn and get the knowledge I needed to have,” she says. “He was a character and made every class fun. I remember he gave every student a funny nickname based on their personality. He called me ‘Columbus’ for some reason, but I don’t really remember why.”

She also recalls a course taught by a longtime mental health counselor who had his own successful practice.

“We were videotaped counseling each other, and then we reviewed the sessions and talked about what we did well and what we could do better.”

Another faculty member, Prof. Tom Patton, taught philosophy. She also remembers a priest teaching some of her courses. She can say that all of her instructors were engaging.

“They weren’t boring and never put you to sleep. They had lots of career experience to share.”

In 1987, she graduated summa cum laude from the Saint Leo psychology degree program.

Reflecting on Her Saint Leo Experience

Clark cannot stress how helpful her instructors were, especially since they specifically catered to adult learners at the education center location she attended.

“The professors were very approachable,” she says. “They wanted you to succeed. They would answer any questions, and there was no such thing as a ‘dumb question.’ They understood that almost all of us at that location were adults who had gone back to school.”

And why would she highly recommend the university to prospective students?

“Saint Leo provides a very good educational environment in which to learn,” she says. “I know even today, they still offer many electives you can take that aren’t necessarily in your field of study, giving you different viewpoints on things. Plus, the faculty and staff seem to really care about the students succeeding. You are not there just to get a grade. They really care that you will finish your degree and go on to achieve success.”

After completing her Saint Leo psychology degree, she would go on to earn a master’s in psychology from the University of West Florida in 1995.

A Rewarding Career of Helping Others

Clark began her career in the late 1980s working at a mental health hospital for children and teens. She then took a job at a prison working with children in the juvenile justice system. For a decade after that, she worked as a substance abuse therapist at the Bridgeway Center. She was also an evaluator and supervised multiple programs in this role.

“I decided to work for the state and found a job working as a foster care counselor around the year 2000,” she recalls.

This position with the Florida Department of Health ultimately led her to work in the Healthy Start Coalition program, an organization she has remained with ever since. Healthy Start is a free home visiting program providing education and care coordination to pregnant women and families of children under age three.  According to its website, the program is intended to lower risk factors associated with preterm birth, low birth weight, infant mortality, and poor developmental outcomes in children.

She started out in the program as a social services counselor. She then transitioned to become a program manager. She originally worked in Okaloosa County in the panhandle prior to moving to the Tampa Bay area in 2007.

“Having been a military wife with nobody to teach me how to be a mom was tough. This is why I have enjoyed teaching about parenting and providing support to our clients. The support we give is immeasurable. I really love our program.”

Working out of the St. Petersburg, FL office, she manages four supervisors and three different locations in the area. She recently won Employee of the Month for her work.

“I got a free parking spot, shirt, hat, cup, and my picture was posted online. It’s really nice to be recognized for the work we do.”

She would love to reach the 30-year mark at Healthy Start, but if not, another four years would be very satisfying, she says.

Advice for Working in a Helping Profession

And what advice does Clark have in order to succeed in a helping profession?

“My mother used to say that it could be any of us in these situations. You have to have enough empathy and understanding for those whom you are supporting. We might not think what they are doing is right, but we have to listen to them, guide them, and be understanding. You have to try not to impose your beliefs and values on them.”

She offers up some wise words for those interested in a psychology-related career based on personal experience.

“Try not to take things home with u after work,” she advises. You have to learn separating work from personal life. You have to learn boundaries and putting things aside in your mind so they don’t affect your family life.”

While her roles have put her in many challenging situations with clients, she would not trade her career for anything.

“There’s something new every day,” she says. “It’s never boring. With the different positions I’ve had over the years, you learn from each 1 and they build on each other. When you think you have heard it all, you have not.”

Free Time Fun

When not working, Clark loves reading anything by James Patterson. She is also a huge fan of America’s favorite pastime.

“I have been to every minor league and spring training baseball facility in Florida,” she says. “I also have a big collection of baseball bats, balls, hats, bobbleheads, and other memorabilia. I even have an autographed baseball from [former Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher] Alex Cobb. I love my Yankees and Rays.”

Photo credit: The photograph included in this blog article was provided by Kathy Clark and is used with permission.