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Achievement from tragedy for married psychology graduates

Posted by Virginia on 26 April 2018

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Two family tragedies led to Tim and Maddie Christian’s decision to pursue psychology careers and make a difference for others experiencing grief. The couple, who have two young children, studied online and graduated in March 2018.  

Tim and Maddie Christian wore contagious smiles at the Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) Sydney graduation ceremony in March. As the pair gripped their testamurs in the venue’s buzzing foyer, joy and excitement for the future had replaced their pre-event nerves as they celebrated with proud children Connor, aged 11, and Imogen, aged nine, by their sides.

The Christians’ personal progress – from tragedy to aspiration, to graduation – is inspiring and touching, too. While their past four years have been devoted to full-time study (with more to come), the story behind their joint decision to forge careers in psychology spans fifteen challenging years of heartbreak, parenthood, solidarity, hard work, and now – relief.

Neither Tim nor Maddie completed high school, so with the firm decision in place to get started towards a career matching their passion, they were happy to discover ACAP’s Diploma of Counselling (now the Diploma of Counselling Skills), as a pathway to the Bachelor of Psychological Science. With both courses complete, Tim is now preparing to apply for the course’s Honours Degree program, and Maddie began her Masters of Counselling and Psychotherapy postgraduate degree in February 2018.

Inspiration from tragedy

The Christians are two of many ACAP alumni for whom life-changing events sparked a change of purpose and the desire for careers making a difference in other people’s lives.

“In 2006 Maddie was at the beach with her uncle, when she was caught in a rip,” said Tim. “Her uncle saved her, but he drowned.”

A year later, the Christians’ baby Lukah was born prematurely, at 24 weeks.

“He fought a strong fight but we lost him after one week,” said Tim.

“We already had a son diagnosed with autism and intellectual delay. We struggled to grieve the losses of Maddie’s uncle and our son Lukah, while our lives revolved around the needs of our eldest son, Connor. Trying to understand how he saw the world really sparked my interest in going into counselling. Seeing first-hand the gap in help children like him need, I decided to go into psychology.”

For Maddie, Connor’s Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses, her personal experiences of loss, and receiving counselling to cope with it all, were behind her decision to become a clinical psychologist.

“I wanted to be able to better understand what was going on with Connor. I hope that by studying the MCP I can focus on gaining more confidence when talking to people and learn the skills needed to provide excellent care to clients in the future,” she said.

“I want to learn the skills needed to adequately work with people who are experiencing grief and loss as this area is something I have personally experienced a lot in my life, from a young age. Having a premature baby at 24 weeks’ gestation and his one-week’s survival changed me as a person. I sought counselling, however my experience of it wasn’t good, so I want to be able to provide something better for others than I received at the time.”

Study support 

Sharing interests are fundamental to harmony in marriage, and studying the same courses at the same time provided the ultimate partnership for Tim and Maddie’s mutual support, with built-in convenience, too. They approached other learning challenges by calling on ACAP’s AccessAbility service, which provides adjustments for students in certain circumstances. A helping hand from extended family members and making small sacrifices within their household – with the long-term goals in mind – completed the kit of tools for the couple’s success.

“Studying together had its pros and cons, but the positives outweighed the challenges,” said Tim.

“Having someone close to you to bounce off ideas, challenge thoughts and look at things from a different perspective made me a better person and student. Learning together wasn’t necessarily easier, but it made our discussions at home deeper and our relationship stronger. To share this common journey was amazing. We both changed our perception of the world around us, and we challenged both ourselves and each other.”

Maddie agrees that having mutual support under the same roof made the general workload easier. She says her study highlights were sharing ideas and celebrating each other’s successes, but doesn’t deny there were struggles to overcome, with two young children to raise and entertain.

“Managing with both of us studying full-time made it hard to plan regular family activities and adventures, however I feel that our children appreciate the importance of education. It was a learning experience not just for Tim and myself but our family as a whole,” she said.

Tim concurs and describes how Connor and Imogen were exposed to the practicalities of study through their parents’ activities.

“Studying alongside my wife, it was challenging to entertain the children during our live online classes. On the weekends before an assignment was due, Maddie and I would be running around to libraries, making finishing touches to our work,” he said.

“The children had to entertain themselves or spent these times with extended family. They missed out on our attention, however they also saw the hard work we were doing and were involved in our success, which was great. We were so proud to stand up at graduation with Connor and Imogen, as they definitely made sacrifices for us. For our children to see both mum and dad graduate it will hopefully instil the passion for hard work in them that we both have learned to love.”

Online learning across the miles

Living near Newcastle ruled out on-campus learning for the Christians, as their nearest ACAP college, at Sydney, is a three-hour drive away. Tim was nervous and “a little scared” about online learning as he hadn’t studied for years, but found the portal easy to navigate after an introduction to the system by ACAP staff.

“It took no time at all before I was up and running, learning and completing my coursework,” he said.

“The flexibility to study online means less travel time and more time for the other important things in life. One thing I love about ACAP is even though I was an online student I was able to build amazing relationships with all my teachers. Not one teacher treated us like a number, but instead as individual students and people. I know from using social media that seeing lots of unknown people makes it easy to skim through and not really see them, however at ACAP each student is recognised and known.”

Maddie says studying online had minimal challenges, but if life got busy and she missed a session, she dedicated extra time to get the work done, to catch up.

“The lectures were easy to access and weekly tutorial classed were a great way to make sure you were on the right track,” she said.

“The biggest advantage of online study is that it’s flexible; you can watch lectures when it suits you. ACAP staff are great at making it a very interactive and supportive experience. The online library was fantastic and easy to use, with a large database of material. Correspondence with educators was via email and messages always got a response, usually on the same day, which was very reassuring and made study easier.”

Sense of achievement

Tim and Maddie are both moving to postgraduate courses at ACAP on different paths, but their reflections on graduation were about how far they have come since they challenged themselves – and each other – to the long road of study for rewarding professions.

“I was working as a fast food manager and also a night attendant at a service station,” said Tim. “I didn’t think about studying or changing my life to set up a career at that time. Maddie and I discussed it, but as we had not completed high school, we never thought we would have the opportunity. Thanks to ACAP, we have spent a wonderful, and sometimes challenging, four-plus years to better ourselves, grow, and mature into amazing adults, parents and hopefully one day, psychologists.”

Maddie said, “I became a stay at home mum when my children were born and decided to study so I could eventually pursue a career in something that interested me. I was excited when ACAP accepted my application, and very nervous, but the educators were supportive and I learned the ropes quickly.”

Psychology degree options

ACAP offers undergraduate and postgraduate psychology courses in on-campus and online study options, with three intakes each year in February, May and September. Find out more about our psychology course content and entry criteria, here