Elmhurst College: Sharing the Lessons of a Troubled Time

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Sharing the Lessons of a Troubled Time

There was no easy fix for Jessica Mueller’s troubles.

She was a high school sophomore struggling at school and at home. She was failing classes, alienating friends and, at the bottom of it all, contending with the destructive consequences of her mother’s alcoholism.

“It was emotionally tormenting,” said Mueller, now in her second year at Elmhurst, of those high school days.

But Mueller had an idea, a way to help her understand and deal with the difficulties besetting her. And, best of all, her idea would help not just herself, but others in her situation.

Mueller started a support group for students at her high school, Maine West in Des Plaines—students who, like her, were children of addicts and alcoholics. She and a handful of her fellow students gathered weekly at the school, with the help of school social workers, to talk about their troubles, to swap experiences and, most importantly, to listen to each other. “There was this incredible energy of healing,” Mueller remembers of the meetings. “It was the most amazing part of my high school experience.”

The group proved remarkably durable. Members continued to meet on their own even over summer breaks, gathering at a neighborhood park for outdoor sessions. “Knowing we were so committed to each other created a sense of stability that most of us lacked in our home lives,” Mueller said. Four years later, with Mueller graduated and gone on to college, the group is still going strong—and still helping high school students get through their most difficult times.

The experience helped Mueller right her own life. There was nothing easy about it, and starting the support group was only part of her growing process. But things did get better. Her mother began treatment. Mueller got serious about her studies. And she applied to Elmhurst College, a school that she now describes as “a place where I could thrive.”

She has indeed thrived at Elmhurst. She earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average in her first year. She joined the College’s acclaimed Honors Program. And during her first year at Elmhurst, Mueller realized that others might benefit from her high school experience. So when she heard that the College was asking students to suggest service projects to benefit Mercy Home, a Chicago school for troubled children, Mueller acted. She drew up a proposal for a student support group, modeled on the one she had launched at her high school. Her plan impressed just about everyone who reviewed it.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, to have a first-year student with that kind of insight is special,’” said Dr. Mick Savage, Elmhurst’s director of Service-Learning. “When she described what she wanted to do, it wasn’t about her. It was about others.”

There were obstacles to be overcome, having to do with Mueller’s relative youth, the sensitive nature of her project, and the legalities surrounding discussions of personal health matters. But with help from Katelyn Dollard, coordinator of post-secondary options at Mercy Home, and from Dr. Mary Kay Mulvaney, director of Elmhurst’s Honors Program, Mueller convinced the staff at Mercy Home to give her proposal a chance. She secured funding from Elmhurst’s Center for Professional Excellence and Illinois Campus Compact, a group that promotes civic engagement among college students. And in early 2013, Mueller got the go-ahead to launch a support group for children of addicted parents at Mercy Home’s West Side campus for boys.

“I wanted to use my experience and my personal background to share what I had learned about coming to terms with a parent’s addiction,” Mueller said recently via Skype from Delhi, India, where she is spending the fall semester in a study-abroad program. So she began making the trip from Elmhurst to the Mercy Home campus on Chicago’s Near West Side, where, along with therapists from the school, she met with a small circle of high schoolers going through many of the same experiences Mueller herself had navigated.

She doesn’t pretend that she has answers for the boys. “This is something that takes years to process and understand,” she said. “You’re not going to make dramatic progress in five or six sessions.”

Yet she saw encouraging signs. She was surprised at the boys’ willingness to speak openly and honestly about their lives. The Mercy Home therapists were surprised, too, at the progress made. And Mueller, who aspires to someday manage a group home for troubled youths, took her own lessons from the sessions. “The therapists from Mercy Home have been a great example of how to interact with students,” she said. “They’ve helped me see what I’m doing well and what I can improve on.”

Mercy Home has asked Mueller to start a similar group at their South Side campus for girls. And she is eager to rejoin the boys’ group as soon as she returns from overseas.

In the meantime, she’s soaking up Indian culture and studying macroeconomics, Indian classical dance and the faith traditions of India—and preparing to spend Spring Term studying in Sydney, Australia.
Mueller said she was drawn to the spiritual life she has found in India, where she is volunteering at a Sikh langar, a community kitchen that follows the Sikh practice of serving free meals to all visitors, regardless of race, caste or religion. She has already learned to make chapati, the flatbread that is a staple of Indian food. “It’s interesting to see the ways religion affects everyday life here,” she said. “This has been just totally different for me, and I think Australia will be very different, too.”

In October Mueller traveled to the Netherlands, where she joined a team of faculty and staff from Elmhurst’s Center for Professional Excellence to present at the International Honors Conference at Rotterdam University. Mueller, speaking before a multinational audience of educators, outlined her proposal for Mercy Home and explained how the College had helped facilitate it as a service-learning experience.

“She did a fantastic job,” Savage said. “People were captivated by her candor, by her willingness to share.”

Mueller said presenting at the conference was unlike anything she’d ever done before.

“I was really stressing about it. I was so intimidated, this student presenting at this ritzy conference,” she said. She prepared extensively, practicing her presentation with Mulvaney during a long Skype conversation. And when her moment arrived, she said, she was put at ease by the attention paid by her audience. “People told me that it was inspiring. So now that I know I can do it, that’s a good reason for me to do more.”

Mueller is remarkably forthright about her family’s struggles. Talking honestly about what she has learned, she figures, might help others. “I have no secrets,” she said. She will tell you what it’s like to grow up as she did, an only child of a single mother working to overcome her problems. And she’ll tell you what she has learned from her father, a motivational speaker in California active with Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction-recovery groups. Though Mueller says he was not around for much of her childhood, he now supports her activities.

Mueller, who says she has not struggled with addiction herself, has learned to be independent. Eager to move on from her childhood home, she has lived on her own for the past year, though she has at times depended on family and friends to house her over school breaks. She has worked a series of jobs—swimming instructor, concession-stand cashier, student-worker at the College’s Office of Graduate Study, among others—to support herself.  But it’s her work at Mercy Home that has taught her an enduring lesson.

“I’m most happy when I’m creating something positive that can impact someone else’s life,” she said. “It’s so important to share things with others.”

That’s one reason why her journey to the Honors conference in Rotterdam meant so much to her.

“It gave me a new appreciation for my education and all the opportunities it’s given me. You don’t have to be super far along in school to make a difference,” she said. “I know now that my experience matters to people in the real world. Even the most negative circumstances can lead to growth.

“I hope that awareness is something that never fades away. “

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