Carmen Ayala, LCSW, was born in San Diego and experienced early life in the bicultural USA – Mexico border region attending school in Tijuana, San Ysidro, and Imperial Beach. She graduated from Southwestern College and SDSU, where she received a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master of Social Work with a focus in mental health. While an undergraduate at SDSU, Carmen worked part time as a receptionist at Alvarado Outpatient Mental Health Clinic. She became enthralled at the idea of psychiatric social work because of its focus on the individual within a family and community system. Her original plan was to pursue graduate studies in psychology, however, the systems theory in social work resonated with her interest and she pursued an MSW with a mental health focus. Carmen’s most memorable professor was her field liaison, Maria Sardiñas, who shared her passion for social work in the mental health system and engaged her desire to pursue a fulfilling career in this area. One segment of Carmen’s field placement was at Rady Children’s Hospital, where she facilitated a mother’s group in Spanish. She was hired upon graduation, and stayed until she was hired in the Radiation/Oncology department in the UCSD Health System in 2007. She kept a per diem position at Rady Children’s Hospital up until May of this year.
Carmen states she had a marvelous education at SDSU and she is grateful for the mentors she looked up to. She benefitted from exposure to now legendary clinicians such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir and Albert Ellis. Carmen attended talks and trainings given by these and other cutting edge mental health pioneers who stimulated her desire to explore resilience and positive psychology. She continues to explore positive psychology in the health system around issues of life, loss, grief and death. Her work at Rady’s included pediatric trauma and intensive care; at Radiation Oncology she works with pediatric and adult cancer patients and their families. She was particularly inspired by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer psychiatrist who integrated spirituality, love and grief work in clinical interventions; she had a great influence in helping Carmen develop her role within a team of healing professionals. Carmen learned to trust that her clients and patients will follow their own journey as she continues on her own path after temporarily joining them in their healing process. Letting go has been helpful in her intense, profound, and emotional work. She says that professionals in health care can learn techniques and boundaries that become part of a personal growth experience as we learn to respect the strength and ability of others to move forward in their life journey. Her professional life has been rewarding as it has allowed her to follow her calling and fulfill her desire to join sophisticated professional healing teams in health care. Her personal life was also rewarded as a proud mother of two children, a daughter who now resides in New York and a son in San Diego.
Because of the mentors she looked up to, Carmen was inspired to be a mentor herself. She has been a field instructor since the mid-1980s, she is happy to contribute to the development of young professionals and to see the world through their eyes. This helps her work stay fresh and current as she receives enthusiastic energy from her interns. Her own skills are enhanced with their questions, struggles, learning, and growth as she helps them gain perspective and develop their abilities. She speaks of the rewarding aspects of her practice when she can witness interns who have responded to their sense of calling and she guides them while they rehearse, get feedback, and receive her support as they move on professionally. In 2002, she was recognized for her service when she received the Outstanding Field Instructor award.
This month, Carmen will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for field instructors. She is happy to see many of her interns become field instructors themselves, and is very grateful for the opportunity to see them develop as professionals paying it forward to future generations. Her advice to social work students is to not be discouraged, follow your calling and your heart, and to continue to discover the rewards of the profession.
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Written by Kelly Reilly