Even a doctoral student with a high level of passion for his dissertation topic can benefit in unexpected ways from working with a mentor—especially when that mentor shares his passion.

Passion for Nature

Steven DeMille grew up in the outdoors hiking and camping, so he knew first-hand the healing properties of nature. After high school, he worked in an organization that brought at-risk youth on outdoor adventures for the basic goal of having fun, and to give them the chance to experience how nature can be a form of mental health treatment.

These experiences led DeMille to pursue graduate degrees, including a PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision at Capella University. Choosing a dissertation topic wasn’t difficult, as he knew he wanted to study an aspect of outdoor behavioral health treatment.

“I wanted to look at the effects of traditional counseling in a nature setting,” DeMille says. “What factors impact treatment? What helps?” In particular, he wanted to look at the effect gender has in nature-based counseling experiences.

An Equally Passionate Mentor

DeMille had already started on his research before being paired with Dr. Marilyn Montgomery from Capella’s Harold Abel School of Social and Behavioral Sciences Department of Counseling.  He found Montgomery to be an invaluable resource as he continued his work, due in part to her own passion for the topic.

“As a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I was always interested in wilderness therapy, and I wrote an article with another colleague on using wilderness therapy as an adjunct to traditional counseling,” Montgomery says.

“I’ve seen again and again how the outdoors can help people find their way. So when I saw what Steven’s dissertation topic was, I thought, this will be fascinating.”

Combining Passion with Expertise

DeMille found Montgomery’s mentorship critical to his success. “She was my guide into the professional world,” he says. “I had been a counselor, but not a researcher. She helped introduce me to the arena that I was going to school to become part of.”

Montgomery helped her mentee see the larger framework of the study. “I had the background to know how to bring statistics into play and illuminate specifics,” she says. “I told him, ‘You know that it works, but not how or why it works, or who it works for.’ It’s a different way of thinking, and it required him to seek a deeper critical understanding of assertions that people make about treatment. The outcomes may seem to be what we hoped for, but where’s the evidence?”

Montgomery adds, “He’s a wonderful student—he immediately began pursuing those concepts and put in a massive effort to answer those questions.”

“She taught me how to take what we were doing practically and attach it to theory for the broader professional world,” DeMille says. “She guided me into developing a more rigorous program evaluation.”

A New Partnership

Their work together led to collaboration on a presentation at the International Society for Research on Identity conference in the Netherlands in May 2017. Strong interest in the topic from other groups has encouraged them to branch into other projects, including preparing a presentation for the World Psychological Forum in the Czech Republic and the Pan-African Psychology Congress in South Africa, both in September 2017.

There’s more work to be done, they both say. “Marilyn connected with authors who have been doing other work on wilderness therapy in adolescents,” says DeMille. “That’s led us to branch out into other projects to investigate outdoor behavioral interventions more deeply. Are we really changing the teen’s developmental trajectory?”

They both foresee more research together going forward. It’s work that will be formative for DeMille’s career as the executive director for RedCliff Ascent, a wilderness treatment program.

Factors in a Successful Mentorship

While having shared passion certainly helped cement this mentor-mentee relationship, DeMille doesn’t see it as being the primary factor in his success. “I learned a lot from Marilyn about a different way of thinking about things,” he says. “She provided me a lens through which to evaluate what I was doing professionally. Her way of drawing me into new ways of looking and asking were even more valuable than the shared passion. She taught me to look at things the way researchers do.”

Montgomery also points to consistent contact as critical to success. “We had regular, frequent communication,” she says. “We had weekly calls to keep the project going. Even just 15 minutes going over the project status had great value.”

She’s thrilled with the work DeMille has done. “From a mentor perspective, it’s so very rewarding to work with a mentee like Steven,” she says. “He’s really contributed to his career and to his field. I feel proud and privileged.”


Learn more about Capella’s PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision program.