Oftentimes, our decisions and actions are influenced by experiences from our past. Whether it is our belief system, the way we clean our homes or the career we choose, these aspects of our lives can be traced back to someone or something. For Dr. Ali Wolf, the impact of a difficult childhood and lack of available help led her to pursue a career in which she could devote herself to helping others and making a difference.
Created by psychologist Carl Jung, the term “wounded healer” refers to an individual (healer) who strives to help heal those who are dealing with a situation similar to one experienced by the healer. As a result of her upbringing and experiences at home as a young child and teenager, Wolf is all too familiar with this term.
“My dad was in and out of my life for much of my childhood. He was incarcerated throughout my entire high school experience,” she said. “However, I loved my dad, and I was a true daddy’s girl, but my mom was essentially a single mother.”
Growing up in Connecticut and trying to find ways to deal with her father’s absence, Wolf admits that her experiences as a teenager were not typical of someone dealing with a similar situation. “I was an athlete and in dance, and I did a lot of things that most kids in the same position wouldn’t normally do because of the circumstances,” she explained.
The first in her family to attend a four-year college, Wolf pursued a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Virginia Wesleyan College before attending Old Dominion University and earning a Master of Education in counseling in 2006.
“Statistics show that only 13 percent of children who have an incarcerated father will attend college. That drops to one percent when the mother is incarcerated,” she said.
Remembering something her father told her as a child, “You have to be the best,” she took that message to heart and enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to earn a Doctor of Philosophy in counseling and counseling education in 2011.
Spending much of her professional career in the Washington, D.C. area, she worked in a variety of environments, including private practice, group practice, alternative schools, college counseling and emergency and psychiatric hospitals. Provided with a well-rounded view of the counseling profession and its ever-changing needs among varying ages, Wolf admits, her specialty remains among children and adolescents.
“When it comes to children, their language is ‘play.’ I love being able to incorporate playtime, art and other activities that help children to open up. They can’t sit and talk like adults; they get bored,” she said. “We can go to a playhouse and I can say to them, ‘show me what your family looks like,’ and when I see them put their dad in one room and their mom in another room, it provides me with some of the information I need to help that child.”
Admitting that many counselors in the profession avoid working with children or adolescents, she is pleased with the importance placed on children and adolescent therapy at Hodges. “It is much harder to work with these age groups because it’s not just the child you are taking on, it is the family, school and system,” she said. “Hodges has done a tremendous job in placing much more of an emphasis on this area.”
As an assistant professor in Hodges’ clinical mental health counseling program (CMHC), Wolf appreciates and embraces the clinical and experiential style of teaching and learning, which is not often found at other schools. “I’ve taught at seven universities and what we are doing at Hodges is unlike anything I’ve experienced in this type of setting. One of the things that attracted me to Hodges was that it is a teaching university,” she said.
Within the program, Wolf explains that students receive hands-on experience from professors who are currently practicing in the field, saying, “We make sure there is a balance of independence and support. As professors, we are sensitive and responsive, yet, we want our students to take ownership of their work, so I encourage students to ask for help and let us know what it is that they need.”
“I have individuals from agencies and organizations tell me all of the time that our students are so well-equipped when they graduate that they often ‘hit the ground running’ from day one,” she said.
In order to help facilitate internship opportunities for students in the master’s CMHC program, Wolf and her fellow professors have established 25-30 contracts with various agencies throughout the area. She explains that many of her students have received full-time jobs as a result of their internships, which are integrated into the curriculum.
“I really challenge my students to look at themselves, and I have very high expectations; however, it is such a rewarding experience to see my students come up to me and say, ‘Dr. Wolf, I get it. It worked.’ To be able to see the look on their faces and experience that moment with them, that, in turn, is a wonderful moment for me.”