How My Childhood Experience Inspired Me to Pursue a Master’s in Clinical Psychology

Learn how one student was able to overcome her childhood experiences to pursue a master’s in clinical psychology.
portrait of Shirley Sanguino
Shirley Sanguino
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Shirley Sanguino is a third-term masters student in the clinical psychology program at Pepperdine University. In her spare time, Shirley volunteers as a research assistant and author for a blog about childhood domestic violence. She currently resides...
Updated on May 19, 2023
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.
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Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D. (he/him), is a scholar, writer, and editor. Cobretti's research and writing focuses on the experiences of historically excluded students and faculty and staff in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal...
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I have always known that I wanted to help others. As a child, I wasn't entirely sure in what capacity that would be — whether it would be as a doctor, therapist, or criminologist. But each experience I had growing up led me to learn more about myself, how people work, and what motivates them to act in particular ways.

Deciding to pursue a master's in clinical psychology was a culmination of all the events that had drastically shaped my childhood. Though my circumstances growing up were less than ideal, they are what ultimately inspired me to pursue a master's in clinical psychology.

Bearing Witness to Domestic Violence

As a four-year-old, I used to think that my home country, Colombia, was the only place in the world. Like any other child at that age, I was naive and trusting. Yet, life proved to be full of twists and turns, not just flowers and rainbows.

My mom raised my two brothers and me, and my father was frequently absent. On the rare occasion that he was home, he was physically abusive towards my mother.

However, it wasn't only the violence that made him an unfit father — he also seldom paid our apartment's rent or provided funds for food. He wouldn't allow my mother to work, so we often found ourselves in nearby stores, asking if we could have some groceries that we would pay back when we could. Eventually, the storekeepers' favors ran out.

After agreeing to some terms with my father and receiving financial assistance from my mother's family in the U.S. for plane tickets and visa costs, my brothers, mother, and I flew to the U.S. and stayed in Los Angeles for six months.

During this time, we searched for an immigration lawyer to help us seek refuge in the States. When we eventually found an attorney to build our case for immigration services, our visa expired, and we had to travel back to Colombia.

A few months later, we were able to successfully renew our visa and establish legal residency in the U.S. Once we made our way back to California, we never returned to Colombia again. Unfortunately, despite escaping the violence of my father's hands, life in the U.S. would not be much easier.

Doing the Best We Could

I was six years old when we came back to the U.S. in 2006. While we were still getting accustomed to the new language and culture, my mom took any part-time job she could to support us.

Initially, we lived in her aunt's home, but we were forced to move out when the house was sold after her aunt passed away. With some funding from my mother's friends, we found a studio apartment; it wasn't in the safest neighborhood, but it would do.

From there, we moved to a hotel, a women's shelter, a friend's home, a one-bedroom apartment, a shared room, another hotel, and back to a studio. All of this happened while I was still in elementary school — I moved between ten different homes and three different schools in four years.

Sometimes, all four of us had to share a mattress. Other times, when mom didn't have enough money and had to choose between paying rent or buying food, we'd have to find food banks or buy the little we could afford.

One time, my oldest brother and mom began searching for a new apartment. They came back home with the news that they had found a one-bedroom apartment in the center of downtown Los Angeles.

I was thrilled. I remember tearing up and hugging my mom as she cried. It was the most beautiful place we had ever lived in. We shared one bedroom, but it was better than any other place we had lived. However, the impact of my childhood experiences was catching up to me.

Finding a Spark Within Myself

By the time I was 13, I had unknowingly developed depression. I started to slack off in school. I felt like I couldn't retain anything. I began listening to music that reflected how I felt inside and wore all black. There were days in which I did not want to leave my bed or go to school.

After some time, the school became involved and referred me to counseling. There, I was diagnosed with severe depression. Although life had become easier during middle school, I still had many challenges. I also developed anxiety and PTSD from the domestic violence I saw as a child.

Despite being in therapy, I completely lost myself — I felt like I was in a dark well and couldn't climb out.

Fast-forward a couple of years. I barely graduated from high school and received rejection letters from every college I applied to. I also began taking antidepressants. My then-boyfriend would shame me: "You bring my mood down with your depression," he'd say.

However, despite barely graduating and experiencing rejection from my ex-boyfriend and what felt like everything around me, I suddenly found a spark of light within me. I knew I had to do something. It was time for me to go for what I wanted. I applied to the best community college near me — Santa Monica College. Now, I am pursuing a master's degree in psychology.

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Pursuing a Master's in Clinical Psychology

There were many reasons why I decided to pursue a master's in clinical psychology. I became fascinated by how the brain works, especially after exposure to trauma as I had as a child. I also wanted to understand why people like my dad do the things they do and where that anger comes from. Knowing that mental health challenges can be stigmatized, I believe that children need intervention early on and victims of domestic violence need support.

After obtaining associate degrees in psychology and cognitive science from Santa Monica College, I transferred to the University of California, Irvine, where I earned a bachelor's in criminology, law, and society.

However, I knew I needed to pursue additional education if I wanted to make a difference. I applied to various universities for my master's, but I eventually landed at Pepperdine University, where I am now pursuing a master's degree in clinical psychology.

I am currently in my third year at Pepperdine. After I graduate, I hope to become a licensed marriage and family therapist. I am entering this field to help end the stigma of mental health challenges and provide more support to families, especially children and adolescents.

Every day, many children and teens experience trauma — and sometimes, violence — that will impact them well into adulthood. My goal is to be someone who can intervene and provide support and resources.

I am passionate about clinical psychology because I believe that we need to share more information about mental health conditions, domestic violence, and early intervention strategies.

I still deal with depression and anxiety. Sometimes, I can't help but think — what if I had received counseling sooner? Would I still have to deal with the myriad of mental health challenges and internal struggles I've had to face? Possibly, but maybe not.

All the hardships I've experienced are what led me to where I am today. I hope I can help mitigate the impact these types of hardships can have on other people. That is why I chose this path and why I am so passionate about clinical psychology. If I can make a small dent in alleviating the trauma we experience as children and adults, it will all be worth it.

Meet the Author

Portrait of Shirley Sanguino Ramos

Shirley Sanguino Ramos

Shirley Sanguino is a third-term masters student in the clinical psychology program at Pepperdine University. In her spare time, Shirley volunteers as a research assistant and author for a blog about childhood domestic violence. She currently resides in Palmdale, California.

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