From business to counseling: a midlife career change

February 22, 2018

Leslie Sullivan

MS in Mental Health Counseling

In 1982, Leslie Sullivan* graduated with a bachelor’s in criminal justice.

Her initial plans were to go directly to law school. But while working on her bachelor’s, she began using amphetamines to help her power through a full-time academic program along with two jobs. Amphetamines went from being an aide to being a full-blown addiction. “I was going to go to law school, but I ended up in a substance abuse rehab instead,” she says.

The experience changed her career path. “When I got out of rehab, I didn’t go back to school,” she says. “Counselors talked to me about how the addiction started with the stress of school. They advised me to stay away from school for at least a year and work on staying sober.”

*Actual Capella learner who agreed to appear in promotional materials for Capella.

Falling into a sales career

Sullivan needed to earn a living, so as a stopgap measure she took a job working security for a department store. But people kept telling her she had the personality to succeed in sales.

When she saw a job ad from a local car dealer, it caught her attention. “I had loans, I had a wreck of a car, and the ad said, ‘Salary and commission and training, no experience, plus we’ll provide you a car,’” she remembers. “I decided it was worth checking out.”

As it turned out, Sullivan did have what it took to succeed in sales, starting with the car dealership, later moving into realty, and then corporate outside sales. She also was offered opportunities to act as a sales trainer, which stimulated Sullivan’s innovative nature leading her to create her own training and development seminars.  As a sideline, she started a regional dating business for professional singles.

An itch for education

Even while building a successful career in business, she never forgot her goal of advanced education. “It was always on my bucket list to go back to school, but I was so busy and happy doing what I was doing plus balancing marriage and children,” she says. “Getting a graduate degree was not the most important thing at any given moment.”

Sullivan had also determined that law was no longer what she wanted to pursue. Besides her own rehab experience, she’d done some work on and off in a variety of levels of substance abuse care, including in a prison. “I started thinking about a counseling degree, but at the time [20 years ago], there was no licensure associated with a master’s degree in counseling,” she says. “To open a therapy practice, I would have needed a Master of Social Work, and I was less interested in that.”

Decision point

A major life event occurred in 2008: Sullivan was, for the first time in her career, laid off from a job. “I was over 50 and coming off a high-powered sales job,” she says. “I tried for two years to get a new job. I got really depressed. Various retail jobs with long hours for low pay did not seem like the best alternative.” Her husband encouraged her to return to school believing that maybe this was the right time to pursue her long-term dream of becoming a professional counselor.

When she looked into it, she found that licensing had changed, and she could work towards a private therapy practice with a master’s in Mental Health Counseling. She applied and was accepted into a land-based university, but was apprehensive; if her husband’s job changed, they might have to move, and she didn’t know how that would affect her academic progress.

So she began looking into online programs, particularly one with CACREP accreditation. Capella University fit the bill. But when she told others in her community about enrolling at Capella, she was warned off. “People told me I’d never get a decent internship,” she says. “But my career counselor at Capella helped me land a great internship working in a mental health and substance abuse facility near my home.”

Completing the transition

Sullivan began slowly in the spring of 2013, taking one course per quarter to make sure she liked it and could manage it while also balancing one child remaining at home and acting as the primary caretaker for a mother with Alzheimer’s. She and her husband worked out the family budget so she could concentrate on school without taking a part-time job. By her third quarter, she was taking more courses and still maintaining a 4.0 GPA.

She attributes part of her success to Capella’s staff and faculty. “Capella was so on its game from the beginning,” she says. “Again and again, I heard, ‘We’ll help you.’ And they did. Remember, this was scary for me. I hadn’t been in school in 30 years, I’d never done online learning, never done research in an online library. They helped me every step of the way. I couldn’t have imagined what a difference this education could make.”

When she completed her program in 2016, Sullivan quickly found a job as a substance abuse counselor—exactly what she was looking for. Today she’s working on getting licensed and is interested in furthering her counseling work to include areas like eating disorders, Alzheimer’s and aging, couple’s counseling and middle-aged female issues.

Sullivan also thought about pursuing a PhD, but concluded that what she really wants to do is counseling, not move into academia or research. That, however, doesn’t mean she’s not willing to consider other avenues. “I’ve always made plans, but I’ve also kept an eye for changing the plan,” she says. “There might be stuff I don’t know that I don’t know yet. You never know what’s going to happen. Remaining nimble has always served me well.”

Learn more about Capella University’sonline MS in Mental Health Counseling program.

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