The making of a therapist

As she built a life in America, international student Amy Henderson found her vocation in USC Rossier’s Marriage and Family Therapy program.

By Margaret Crane

Portrait of Amy Henderson on the USC campus.

A master’s student in USC Rossier’s Marriage and Family Therapy program, Amy Henderson will graduate this spring. (Photo/Rebecca Aranda)

“I didn’t know anyone in the United States when I first moved here,” says Amy Henderson. “That was really scary, but at the same time, I was learning to create my own community.”

Henderson is completing her second year of USC Rossier’s Master of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program. The daughter of British parents, she grew up in Dubai and left home in 2016 to attend the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), as an undergraduate.

She had been taught almost nothing about American history at her British school in Dubai. Upon arriving in the United States, Henderson was catapulted into the midst of America’s tumultuous 2016 election year. The day after the presidential inauguration, she watched the first Women’s March unfold in cities across the nation. Having grown up in a majority Muslim country, she was deeply disturbed by the ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S., enacted via executive order by former President Donald Trump.

Being alone in a new country created mental health issues that led Henderson to undergo therapy for the first time. “That opened my eyes,” she says. “College-age students are going through huge transitions. This is one of the reasons why I’d like to work with them in the future, whether on a university campus or in a community health agency.”

Motivated to create change, Henderson volunteered as a sexual assault response team advocate at the Center for Community Solutions (CCS), a rape crisis center in San Diego. “I sit with sexual assault survivors during their forensic exams, along with nurses and police officers,” she says. “They represent the legal system. I’m there to support the victim.” Since coming to USC, she has continued to volunteer at CCS.

“Working with rape survivors increased my desire to practice within the community and to focus on those who have the least access to care,” she says.

Henderson graduated from UCSD with a BA in social psychology in 2020. Inspired by USC Rossier’s mission to advance equity, and by her own growing commitment to social justice, she chose the MFT program for graduate school. Hearing a presentation from USC Rossier’s Mary Andres at an orientation, Henderson was encouraged to develop “a wider viewpoint of the profession. I fell in love with the emphasis on not only being well-trained but also socially aware.”

Experiences during her first years in the U.S.—encountering a polarized America, confronting loneliness, volunteering with rape survivors—inform her perspective as a therapist in training. Working as a clinical intern, she brings skills acquired during this transformative period of her life to the clients she treats.

For her fieldwork, Henderson interns with two nonprofit community health agencies in the Los Angeles area. At the Maple Counseling Center, she sees clients from ages 18 to 60 for a range of mental health disorders. “Every session is different,” she says. “I might talk to someone about anxious thoughts and then, in the next session, discuss incidents of childhood abuse.”

Henderson also draws on experiences from working at UCSD’s Human Experience and Awareness Lab, which explores mindfulness and well-being. She employs mindfulness practices in her own life and creates calm transitions between therapy sessions using an app to cue brief meditations. When appropriate, she uses mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises with her clients.

Henderson will receive her MS degree this spring. Postgraduation, she plans on becoming a licensed marriage and family therapist, after passing the California state exams and completing the requisite hours of clinical work.

Her life has evolved since her first tumultuous months in America. “Where I once felt completely alone, I have so many people who I can lean on and who I support,” she says. “I now know that I can go anywhere and create a community.”

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Spring/Summer 2022 issue as “The making of a therapist.”