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Nancy Wender,  LCSW

Psychotherapy and the Fellowship Program

As a psychotherapist in private practice, it is not often that I have the privilege to expand my horizons in such a profound and meaningful way.  I have been able to do this by meeting with each of the past 24 Inbound Fellows for three sessions (later expanded to four sessions) of psychotherapy, pro bono.  Each Fellow spent one month in New York as part of apex’s cultural immersion program.  This essay will discuss the Fellows’ experiences, highlight some of my observations and discuss, from my vantage point, the efficacy of the apexart program.

My Role as Therapist
The 24 Fellows, comprised of six women and 18 men, some with fluency in English and others with rudimentary English language skills, hailed from 20 different countries.  They arrived to see me, in some cases, with preconceived ideas of what therapy is, questioning its value or wondering if the apex staff thought they were “crazy” and felt they needed to see a therapist in order to participate in their residency.  Nine of the Fellows had seen a therapist at one point during their lives for emotional or life concerns (i.e., job anxiety, money worries, relationship issues).  A few of the Fellows had a parent or other relative working in the field as either a psychologist or psychiatrist.  In some of their cultures, speaking with anyone, particularly a stranger, about his or her problems or important concerns was not sanctioned or encouraged.  I explained that we were there to have a conversation and to provide a stable platform from which they could venture forth during their time in New York City.  I also felt it was incumbent upon me, as with any psychotherapy patient I regularly see, to let them know that I would honor their confidentiality and would only alert apex staff if there were a major safety concern.

In part, I saw my role as trying to help them ascertain the value of the experience within which they found themselves in New York City.   Many of them felt alone, got lost often and had to grapple with the loneliness of missing their families.  Twenty of the 24 Fellows either were married or were currently in a committed relationship, and nine had children.  They were able to Skype with their families as often as was feasible and call when desired.  Families were encouraged to read the respective journals, as another window into their family member’s experiences.  This contact was very meaningful to them and provided some sense of grounding and familiarity while they were embarking on many new daily experiences.  They have stepped out of their regular lives for one month, could not work while here and were asked to focus solely on the activities they were scheduled to do.  Rare an opportunity it was, to put one’s life and concerns to the side for that length of time.  Disorienting for some, invigorating and freeing to others, to be sure.

I believe that part of my responsibility was to bridge the gap between their home and New York.  In psychological terms, their sessions with me were their transitional object, imbued with meaning on many levels.  They spoke at length about their families, wives or husbands, girlfriends or boyfriends, their children and friends.  We viewed photos of their work, their families and other images important to them.  The one-on-one time with me, three or four one-hour sessions each, gave them my undivided attention, support, encouragement and an opportunity for introspection and reflection.  They were afforded the chance to speak in English without being rushed or pressured and could do so in a quiet, soothing environment that would support their effort.

I believe that it was important to ask about their lives previous to coming to New York, and in recounting the narrative of their lives, they came away with a deeper appreciation for their own struggles and the resilience and courage that they brought to the apex experience.  I was able to bear witness to these heroic efforts. 

A few of the Fellows came into their sessions with important issues they wanted to discuss, be it a relationship issue, a career conundrum or confusion about the desired focus of their lives.  Others were willing to talk more generally about their lives and goals but without the desire to probe in a deeper manner.  Whatever was helpful to them was what I chose to honor.  Three spoke of their desire to find a therapist when they arrive home, as they noted that being in my office was an important touchstone going forward in life and trying to resolve conflicts with help from a psychotherapist.

Cultural and Language Differences
Several of the Fellows struggled with English, a few only having learned English prior to traveling to New York.  With a slower pace of speaking, they were able to communicate more effectively over the month they were here.   As the Fellows were not permitted to work on their own art while here, one Fellow wisely commented, “I can’t hide behind my work, and I had to speak first.” 

Culturally, I found some interesting differences:  South Koreans do not make eye contact when speaking with others, and over time, the Fellows felt more comfortable adapting and learning to do so. More than one Fellow came from a culture where women were expected to be in the home and tend to their families rather than work, this in stark contrast to our ever-changing roles for women in the States. One Fellow had not traveled out of his country nor had been on an airplane before his Fellowship experience. Another had not been away from his wife and son before this time. Others had family or spousal support, while others arrived with the skepticism and fear of their families looming large. Over time, this too was abated, and they were able to let those close to them know that they were doing well, were safe and were enjoying and/or being challenged by their experiences.

Fellow Journals/Blogs
Each Fellow posted blog entries detailing the images, thoughts and feelings about their activities, both in the New York area and in Washington, DC.  These were discussed and commented upon, and I was surprised that seldom did I see a similar photo or read descriptions that resembled another.  Each was unique, personal and wonderfully individualistic and idiosyncratic.

Several of the Fellows found volunteering to be very meaningful and important to them.  While not engaging currently in any volunteer efforts in their home cities, several now want to incorporate volunteerism into their lives when they return home.  In one instance, a Fellow did some research from here and could not find any organization that met his goals.  Therefore, he decided he might start a volunteer program with a specific organization to meet that need.  The opportunity to give back was a profound one and changed their outlook on how to give their lives meaning and purpose.

apex Fellowship as a Transformational Experience
More than one half of the Fellows found the Fellowship transformational in some way for them personally or in their everyday lives.  Perhaps it was a new way of viewing oneself—someone shy who was able to engage more freely with others and enjoy those experiences.  Another was considering a changed work/life balance upon arriving home.  They saw themselves capable of handling new situations and prided themselves on solving problems they encountered.  One commented on his realization that after his apex experience, he has confidence now that he could live and thrive somewhere other than where he is currently living.

Time took on a new meaning for them.  Plucking them from their everyday lives, families, schedules and goals, they were free to examine their lives in ways without pressure.  One female Fellow mentioned that her life at home is finely calibrated to get many things done in the course of a day, and by being here, she could suspend those activities and enjoy the freedom that was afforded her.  Also, she was able to reflect on the path her life was taking and perhaps make some changes upon arriving home.

One Fellow commented, “New York is heaven on earth…  I can take photos here, wherein my country, I have to ask permission to do that.”  Another reflected on the fact that within two weeks of being here, he was routinely being asked for directions.  He felt gratified by feeling at ease here, and others noticed his confidence of movement through the streets and on the subway and felt comfortable approaching him.

Each Fellow prepared, or in some cases did not prepare, for their residency before arriving here.  One purposefully did not watch videos or movies or read any books about New York, just wanting to arrive with no expectations, absorb the experience and take each day as it came.  Others spoke with friends who lived in or traveled to New York, so as to understand their experiences as a potential guide.  A few of the Fellows had been to the United States previously, so they had more realistic a picture of what they might encounter upon their arrival in New York.

One Fellow recounted that New York offers more freedom than he finds in his country, and people smile here.  Therefore, he noted there is less tension here, and it seems relaxed to him, vis-à-vis his home city.

I heard often their bewilderment about what the apex Fellowship was all about.  Was it a quid pro quo, for example?  They found it hard to believe that this experience did not call for them to give something in return, other than their willingness to keep to their schedule, be open-minded and attempt new things.  Some embraced the improvisation class, the karaoke event, singing with a group by the water, observation of a trial in progress at the courthouse, a volunteer activity, for example, while others had trepidations about participating.  In these cases, they felt it was okay to observe with the knowledge that they may have wished to be a part of the group, had their fear subsided.  I was amazed and delighted by their newfound confidence and growth, though, over the month’s residency.

We discussed what value the apex experience might hold for them, and I found it important to comment that it might only be with time and distance that this experience can be reflected upon and its value ascertained.  Several of the Fellows have maintained contact with me since returning home.  I have seen photos of their travels, news of their art activities and projects, updates about their thinking since we last met.  The Fellows were invited to Skype or e-mail should they want to pursue discussions about a particular topic once they were integrated back into their normal routine. 

How fortunate I was to have had this extraordinary opportunity to meet with the Fellows in a therapy setting.  I have been humbled by their honesty and willingness to face this complicated city while not communicating in their native languages in most cases.  I often mentioned that I would have been terrified had I been in their situation.

Things that the Fellows found interesting during their travels through New York City and the boroughs were fascinating to me.  The photos--the light, angles, objects and perspective from which they chose to shoot for their Journals--were things we New Yorkers take for granted everyday.  A reminder to view the mundane in a new, invigorated light.

Several Fellows commented on feeling such gratitude for the good things in their lives, despite, in some cases, some challenging situations from which they came.  This is the human condition but one that is valuable for us to keep in mind, as we strive to put life in perspective.

I learned many things during these sessions:  different languages, cultures, different worldviews, resilience in the face of unspeakable losses and grand triumphs.  I learned about Raku, the Japanese cracked glazes on ceramics, via a video the Fellow sent to me.  Another helped me understand the printing methods he uses in his work.  Another Fellow shared some of her wonderful writing with me, and the pieces gave me a wider lens with which to understand this Fellow’s inner world.

Efficacy of the apexart Fellowship Program
I learned that the apexart program is unique in many ways, and those ways support growth, reflection, change and reevaluation.  The Fellows became emissaries for New York and dispelled any preconceived notions of New Yorkers, or Americans, being self-involved, rude or unwilling to help.  Many have registered interest in returning to New York, with family by their side, at some future point, and a few of them have done so by the time of this writing.  Some have mentioned their desire, perhaps, to move to New York or send their children to college in the States.  One Fellow did return for a year and fulfilled a long-held dream—to have gallery shows here.   Others commented on setting a path for their children to emulate one day, that hard work can led to growth, change and a brighter future.

Several of the Fellows commented upon their desire to be hosts in their countries for the Outbound Fellows from the New York City area.  A tribute to the value of the apexart program.

I find it nearly impossible to overstate the positive impact on me from these experiences with the Fellows.  I was given a privileged glimpse inside their lives, had the opportunity to share their successes, uncertainties and insecurities and share their delight at experiencing new, enriching opportunities. 

For me, the desire to give back increased with each Fellow I saw, and I am grateful for this splendid opportunity and look forward to meeting with the future Fellows as they arrive for their upcoming month’s residencies.

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