Heather Halko knows the challenges of trying to get quality mental health care in a rural area.
The University of Montana graduate student who earns her doctorate this weekend grew up in Sand Coulee, outside Great Falls. She remembers the difficulties after her younger cousin and a family friend unexpectedly passed away around the same time.
The losses of both had a significant impact on the community, but Halko said most of the children and families who endured the trauma couldn't get the mental health care they needed.
"The limited access they had to services was pretty profound," Halko said.
The experience made Halko want to help. She's doing so with her degree from UM, and she recently became member of an elite group. After earning an undergraduate degree in psychology from UM and her doctorate in clinical psychology, she heads to Harvard University to complete postdoctoral work.
Halko also is not the only doctoral student from the UM Department of Psychology going on to do work at noteworthy institutions.
Zach Shindorf, in the school psychology program, heads to Brown University, and Katie Ahlers, in the clinical psychology program, heads to the University of Washington.
Faculty member Anisa Goforth said the three already have written book chapters and journal articles, and UM psychology students generally have a record of being competitive. For example, in 2013 the Training and Education in Professional Psychology journal identified the Missoula flagship as one of the "hidden gems" in clinical psychology training programs.
Part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, the department provides comprehensive education for students to be "scientist practitioners," psychologists in both the clinical setting and the research arena, said Goforth, associate professor and director of the school psychology graduate training program.
Plus, these three students were motivated.
"They came together as a group really passionate for advocating for kids with mental health issues and disabilities like autism," said Goforth, their adviser and mentor. "And they were all really driven to develop their dissertations that really would enhance our knowledge base about kids with disabilities and kids with mental health issues."
Originally from Ohio, Shindorf has been kicked, bitten and spit on in the face in his quest to improve the lives of children with autism and those on the spectrum.
He was drawn to UM because the outlook on life is different in the mountain town. He'd been used to answering emails within minutes, but in Montana, Shindorf said, "you can take a breath over the weekend."
As part of his studies, he's helped youngsters learn to make friends, use different terminology for bodily functions with friends versus parents, and know that their changing bodies mean it's time to take a shower.
"Especially with kids on the spectrum, you really need to line it out," Shindorf said.
The physical outbursts come because some children are accustomed to acting out to get their way, and some parents give in to the behavior. The students might end up removed from the classroom, but Shindorf said the goal is to teach them appropriate behavior to keep them in the room.
He said the reward comes in watching the child have "a really, really good day," and some parents who "aren't used to seeing that ever."
"They come to us, and we help mold or teach that behavior," Shindorf said.
Goforth placed high expectations on him, he said, but she also guided him to meet them, and she provided opportunities for him to explore the things he was good at — and ones he wasn't.
"She's not training me just to get through graduate school. She's training me for whatever future direction I go," Shindorf said.
Some colleagues outside Montana thought Shindorf had gone to study in the middle of nowhere in the Treasure State. He said the program at UM is small, but the quality is high.
"I have a much clearer idea of who I am as a professional because of the tools I gained from Anisa," Shindorf said.
Ahlers said she's always been interested in chronic conditions and the relationship between physical health, chronic conditions and a person's psychological well being. Through a grant, she became more interested in working with children with autism.
Her research highlights that psychologists may not be prepared to assess children with autism who have experienced trauma, which is innovative work in the field, Goforth said. Generally, psychologists are focused on just autism, or just trauma.
From Connecticut, Ahlers and some other students got tossed a curve ball partway through their doctoral studies. Their adviser left UM. The situation was stressful, but Ahlers said Goforth and other faculty supported them so they could complete their degrees.
"They really stepped up and filled that space," Ahlers said.
She said Goforth in particular is always ready to write an excellent letter of recommendation or connect a UM student with a helpful colleague across the country. She said the result is a high licensure passage rate and high "match rate," or internship placement.
(The UM website notes internship placement was 100% last school year for clinical psychology, and the percent of doctoral graduates who became licensed in the last decade is 84%.)
"She (Goforth) sets an example through her work as someone who is driven and hard working and very involved with her students," Ahlers said.
In her upcoming fellowship, Ahlers will work with the University of Washington and the Leadership, Education and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities, or LEND, program. She plans to be both a researcher and clinician as her career advances.
"I think it's really important that our clinical work is informed by research, so I think there will always be a place for research in my career," Ahlers said.
Halko has been completing her internship at the University of New Mexico, and when she learned she was accepted at Harvard, she and her husband went on a hike in the Santa Fe National Forest.
"It looks a little bit like Montana, which is what we love. So we celebrated in that way," Halko said.
She wants to make sure people who endure trauma have access to effective treatments and, especially in Montana, that likely means working with schools. After Harvard, Halko is hoping some options will open up for her to return to the Treasure State, where she appreciates the education she received at UM.
"It's really exciting to have a program here in Montana that really does provide such quality training in both research and clinical practice so that we can hopefully just advance the type of care that children and families across the state of Montana can receive," Halko said.
This weekend, the three standouts from Goforth's lab will receive their doctorates at the 2019 commencement.
Goforth said the reason she became a faculty member is because she wanted to have a greater influence on the lives of children, and she sees that impact through the work of Ahlers, Halko and Shindorf. She's looking forward to celebrating with them at commencement and bringing closure to their academic accomplishments at UM.
"We have empty seats when we first arrive, and then we introduce them individually and talk about their dissertations and their future work," Goforth said. "And then we invite them to come sit with us for the whole ceremony.
"That's part of the prestige of being able to get your Ph.D. and join us as colleagues (and) no longer as students."