(Laramie, Wyo.) – Education helped lift University of Wyoming doctoral student Avis Garcia from a family history of poverty and alcohol abuse to become a licensed addiction therapist who has helped hundreds of people on her native Wind River Indian Reservation and elsewhere in Wyoming.
Now, Garcia wants to help train others to become counselors so they can join the fight against substance abuse. She will receive significant help to achieve that goal from the national organization that certifies professional counselors.
Garcia is among 22 people from around the country selected for the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) Minority Fellowship Program. She is in Greensboro, N.C., this week to receive the honor from the NBCC, which aims to increase the number of professional counselors providing “effective, culturally competent services” to underserved minority populations.
Garcia, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe, just finished her first year in the UW College of Education’s doctoral program in counselor education and supervision. She returned to UW, where she earned a master’s degree in counselor education in 2001, after working for more than a decade as an addiction counselor on the Wind River reservation, for the Wyoming Department of Corrections and for Southwest Counseling Service in Rock Springs.
“I want to teach other people to be counselors,” Garcia says. “I feel I can make a bigger difference with a Ph.D.”
Garcia is in select company as an NBCC Minority Fellow. The 22 recipients for 2014 were chosen from more than 80 applicants. Eligibility requirements include holding the National Certified Counselor certification; being enrolled in an accredited doctoral program; demonstrating knowledge of and experience with racially and ethnically diverse populations; and committing to provide mental health and substance abuse services to underserved minority populations.
“What an honor for Avis to be chosen for this national fellowship award,” says Mary Alice Bruce, head of UW’s Department of Professional Studies in the College of Education. “Avis distinguishes herself as a knowledgeable and caring woman who makes a difference in the world, especially for the people of the Wind River reservation. The counseling faculty members, as well as students, are very proud to have Avis as part of our UW learning community.”
Prevailing through perseverance
As she looks back on her life and career, Garcia considers it a “miracle” that she has made it as far as she has. Growing up in Ethete in a family with serious alcohol addiction problems, Garcia did not graduate from high school (she earned her GED in 1983) and failed in her first attempt to take classes at Central Wyoming College in Riverton. Several years later, after retaking and passing the classes she had failed at CWC, she came to UW and received a bachelor’s degree in psychology, completing it via correspondence course in 1996. She returned in 1999 to pursue her master’s degree.
While she credits a number of mentors at UW and on the reservation for her success, Garcia has demonstrated remarkable personal perseverance in her struggle to excel in higher education. While pursuing her bachelor’s degree with two children, she experienced divorce and the death of her mother to violent crime fueled by alcohol. While working on her master’s degree, she juggled academics with work, raising her children, and dealing with the death of her grandfather and her grandmother’s illness.
It was her grandparents who provided a safe home for Garcia and helped instill a love for learning when she was young. Garcia’s desire to help those suffering from addiction, meanwhile, came from her family experience as well. In addition to her mother, three uncles died prematurely as a result of alcohol abuse, and another has been confined to a nursing home for many years. A brother committed suicide as a teenager, and a sister struggled with alcohol.
“As I was growing up, my head was full of questions like, ‘Why do people kill themselves? Why do people drink until they can’t stop?’ I wanted to find a way out of this cycle,” Garcia says.
Education, reliance on cultural ceremonial practices, the support of her grandparents and a desire to make things better for her children helped her prevail over the demons that other family members couldn’t overcome.
Since receiving her master’s degree, Garcia has worked directly with hundreds of people struggling with addiction on and off the reservation. She helped establish the drug court on the reservation; directed a federally funded substance abuse treatment program for three years; conducted drug and alcohol evaluations for felony offenders in six counties; worked as a school counselor in Rock Springs; counseled American Indian students at the Cathedral Home for Children in Laramie; and was a residential treatment counselor, primarily helping those with methamphetamine addictions.
‘A good place for me’
While Garcia sees the opportunity for career benefits in earning a Ph.D., her return to UW for a third degree was inspired in part by her husband of two years, Lloyd. She also has found great encouragement from UW faculty and staff members.
“UW is a good place for me. That’s why I keep coming back,” says Garcia, who worked as a graduate assistant for UW Multicultural Affairs this past year.
Her emphasis on education has had an impact on her children. Son Rain Chippewa is a student in the UW College of Law; youngest daughter Rayelle graduates this spring from Rock Springs High School; and eldest daughter Charmayne, who has two children, is enrolled to start classes at UW this fall.
“I told her that if I could do it with two kids, she can do it, too,” Garcia says with a smile.
Garcia and her son both are recipients of 2014 Chief Washakie scholarshipsat UW. The Chief Washakie Memorial Endowment helps students and educators with significant ties to the Wind River Indian Reservation community pursue degrees at UW — with the assumption that recipients will in some way further the common good of the reservation’s people.
Garcia says the combination of the Chief Washakie scholarship and the NBCC fellowship will allow her to do something she hasn’t been able to do in her previous college studies: focus solely on her coursework without having to hold a job at the same time. That will be especially helpful as she prepares for her last year of classes, an internship and her dissertation. One of her primary areas of study aims to find ways to improve the success rate of American Indian students at UW.
Garcia says she plans to explore a number of post-Ph.D. career options, but she definitely has an interest in serving as a consultant for the Northern Arapaho tribe, along with teaching.
–UW News Service