Hosting group counselling sessions for battered women isn't what Alexandra Fassas thought she'd be doing in her late forties after 25 years as a full-time mum, but she found the transition came naturally.
Fassas is a counsellor who hosts 'Giving women a voice', a group counselling session at a women's refuge in Sydney. She works once a week, alternating between day-shifts and night-time 'sleep-overs', as part of the roster of 24-hour counselling support at the women's refuge.
"The women I counsel have been abused and are homeless. They've received little compassion from the world and need strong emotional support to help them through their time of crisis," says Fassas.
Fassas worked at the refuge as part of her student placement when studying towards her Counselling and Psychotherapy degree at the Jansen Newman Institute (JNI). She was offered a permanent position as a support worker, ahead of her graduation in July 2011.
She knew counselling was the right path for her because everyone, including friends, family and even strangers, would seek her out to listen and provide advice for dealing with events in their lives.
"I wanted to continue to use my natural listening skills and propensity to help others, but turn it into something more formal, so I felt I was giving qualified advice.
"The bonus it that counselling is also a job I can do as I get older. I've started late, but I'm proof that it's never too late to study and take on new challenges.
"By working in the refuge and helping the women to move on with their lives and take control of their future, I am empowering myself to do the same; on a very different level," says Fassas.
She credits the group counselling sessions at JNI for giving her the confidence to organise and run the group session.
"I found the group sessions at JNI such a practical way to learn how to be an effective counsellor. The emotions that emerge in group therapy are real and can be confronting, but it's a safe supportive environment.
"I felt it was important to provide this type of encouraging environment to give the women the opportunity to openly discuss the -whys' and -hows' of domestic violence. These ladies, all over 50 years old, sit and crochet while they share, laugh, cry and work through their experiences together," she explains.
"My goal for these group sessions, the meditation sessions I lead and the one-on-one counselling, is to help each woman begin to turn her focus toward caring about herself," adds Fassas.
The women can stay at the refuge for up to three months, giving Fassas time to build a relationship with them, and she says it can be hard to see them go.
"When one of the women leaves the refuge, she receives a blanket made out of the crochet squares which everyone has contributed to making. It's symbolic of everyone supporting and helping others through tough times, and is very moving," she says.
Fassas has also done counselling for the homeless in Sydney, dealing with mental illness, drugs and alcohol abuse, which she found very intensive. She says whatever the circumstance, counselling requires an inner strength.
JNI's courses in Counselling and Psychotherapy, Community Services and Human Resources Management have been developed in consultation with leading academics and industry bodies, such as the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia and Counsellors and Psychotherapists Association of New South Wales. The Bachelor of Applied Social Science (Counselling) is accredited by PACFA.
Applications for 2011 study are now open and are strictly limited. On-campus and online courses include: Bachelor of Applied Social Science with majors in Counselling, Community Services and Human Resources Management
Masters of Counselling and Psychotherapy (only available on-campus).
All Australian students applying for Bachelors courses can apply for FEE-HELP. For more information please call the Jansen Newman Institute on 1800 777 116 or visit www.jni.edu.au
Question: What made you decide to go back to part time work?
Alexandra Fassas: When I left school I did odd jobs for a couple of years and then I wanted to be a counsellor, I have always wanted that. It was also diagnosed that I wouldn't be able to have children and when I was married at 22 years of age, I fell pregnant and I never had the opportunity to have a career. I had been a full time mum for years and when the children were older I started realising that they were going to get on with their lives and get jobs so I started to study. I decided I needed a future.
Question: What originally inspired you to head back to school to get a degree in Counselling and Psychotherapy?
Alexandra Fassas: Counseling is what I really wanted to do and I did a diploma at Relationships Australia for two years and when I finished that I realised you need a degree to be a counsellor. Studying Counselling and Psychotherapy was about investing in my future.
Question: What did you enjoy most about heading back to school?
Alexandra Fassas: It was exciting because I am 47 and when I started at 40 years old it was exciting going back to school to learn how to spell (laughing), hand in assignments and generally re-educate myself. School was a challenge that I loved. After I completed the diploma, I realised I had to continue because I knew this was a journey, counselling is what I love and my heart was in it – it was like getting on a bus, there was no turning back.
Question: What advice do you have to other mums who want to re-enter the workforce after being a full-time mum?
Alexandra Fassas: It's never ever too late to re-educate yourself. I waited until my children were close to finishing high school because when children are little they're too demanding and it may be difficult to do a degree as well as having a family and children to look after. When the kids are a little bit older I see no reason not to re-enter the workforce. Australia is the perfect place for people to re-educate themselves and make their careers and dreams come true. Jansen Newman Institute gave me the opportunity to achieve my career goals.
Question: How do you juggle part-time work and motherhood?
Alexandra Fassas: My biggest tip is to focus on what I am doing now, that is the biggest tip because if I get up in the morning and think about everything that I have to do, I panic and then you go into a state where you are constantly thinking -what do I do now?' and you often loose the plot. I put on the hat – if I am at home I put on the hat to do the washing and cleaning, I am a Mum. When I am at school I switch off home life and focus. Whatever I am doing I give it all I have got – it's about being in the here and now, I don't think of home when I am at school or work when I am at home. Focus keeps me going, I don't let the other bits and pieces get into my mind. Focus is the big tip.
Question: How do you children deal with night-time 'sleep-overs'?
Alexandra Fassas: At first it was exciting and the family thought it was great now the family has started to say -you're not going again are you?' but it's only once or twice a month so it's not too bad.
Question: Can you talk about the group counselling sessions you run?
Alexandra Fassas: I run groups for domestic violence victims and that enables the women to understand the cycle of domestic violence and that they're not alone. Domestic violence is a cycle and the behaviours are evident; there is a honeymoon period where it is quite and then the tension builds up and there is an explosion. Once the woman can see the cycle it helps them understand -this is what has been happening all these years'. In the group counselling sessions we do a lot of self care, healing and meditation for self-esteem.
Question: How do you hope your story inspires others?
Alexandra Fassas: If I can change my career at my age and I can go to University and receive a degree and go out and help people, other people can do it as well. The inspiration is that my job is rewarding, it is soul work to give yourself to others. Having the degree gives me confidence to help domestic violence victims who are in severe situations and I have the confidence to help them and they have confidence in me because I have a degree.
Interview by Brooke Hunter