“I want to be the support system I wish I had”: Why Makenna Welch decided to take on working with youth

Counselor Makenna Welch’s journey from aspiring doctor to therapist

From left to right: Makenna Welch, Ivan Hernandez, Ricardo Gone and Damien Quintino pose for a picture after winning first place for their final competition in Bakersfield as seniors in November 2014. After graduating high school, Welch came back and volunteered as a drum line instructor. (Photo courtesy of Makenna Welch.)

Makenna Welch started working as UPA’s Support Services Specialist in January 2021. She helps students who are struggling mentally and academically by connecting students with school counselors and holding meetings with their teachers to find the best way to support them through the end of the semester.

“I do one-on-one check-ins with them,” Welch said. “I give them a space to vent and talk about whatever’s going on, either academically or in their personal life.”

When not working with students, Welch works closely with Executive Director David Porter, helping him plan and execute projects for his Instagram page. Welch also works with Attendance Clerk Dorene McClung, collaborating on which students to pick for Foodie Fun Friday, working on attendance and managing lunch if McClung knows a student who does not have lunch for the day.

Welch works on My Green Lunch, a new hot lunch program at UPA, where she communicates with the providers and coordinates lunches for the students.

As a teenager, Welch’s mind was set on becoming a doctor, but a high school teacher encouraged her to keep other options in mind.

“In high school, I had my calculus teacher tell me, ‘Makenna, I see the way you talk to people and interact with others and I think you’d be a great counselor someday,’” Welch said. “I never believed him because I didn’t see that in myself.”

Welch was days into her first year of college, taking her Intro to Psychology course, when she began to take her calculus teacher’s suggestion seriously.

“It was that ‘Aha!’ moment for me,” Welch said. “I felt like a light bulb had gone off and this was where I was supposed to be. This is the field that was meant for me. I went and changed my major and haven’t looked back since.”

Before changing her major to psychology, Welch had planned to be a pediatrician; helping youth was always in the cards for her.

“As I went through my high school years and even my college years, I realized that was the time in my life when learning healthy coping skills and learning how to set boundaries and important things that came out of therapy would have been useful,” Welch said. “That’s why I’m really drawn to that group.”

During her junior year at CSU Monterey Bay, Welch was required to go to a job fair to have her resume reviewed by professionals in her field and experience the process of finding jobs for her professional development class. From there, she was hired as an in-home therapist for teenagers because of her personality and experience with volunteering at her old high school as a drumline instructor and for a migrant preschool program, Welch kept this job for two and a half years.

“When I graduated college, I was still working in that position and had already started working my way up,” Welch said. “I think it’s a really rare experience to already graduate with a job in your field, and I’m very grateful it worked out that way.”

Makenna Welch graduated from CSU Monterey Bay with a Summa Cum Laude for her Psychology degree on May 2019. (Photo courtesy of Makenna Welch.)

Working at At-Risk Youth in Monterey County from 2018 to 2020, Welch created plans for a variety of adolescents to help them meet the goals created when they first entered the program. At-Risk Youth, JDT Consultants, Inc. is a non-profit organization that specializes in at-home and in-school behavioral health services.

“[The work] was kind of like a wide umbrella,” Welch said. “It could be kids that were having trouble with school, struggling with their mental health at home, kids with more aggressive behaviors and kids with severe depression.”

Welch thinks people have to believe they can help someone in order to impact their life, recalling a 7-year-old boy she once helped when she questions if she is leaving an impact.

“I had seen him go through the foster care system and live in a group home and working, back to being able to live with his mom and his siblings,” Welch said. “I think that was the most rewarding moment for me as a clinician.”

Being a therapeutic behavioral services provider (TBS), Welch helped people with different types of experiences, but it was hard at times because they affected her emotionally.

“It is challenging in the sense of working with clients with sad backstories,” Welch said. “But it’s really rewarding to go on that journey with them and I think that’s the reason I’m still in this field. It’s taking that journey with the client and helping them have their moment of ‘I can do this and I can succeed. I just needed a bit of guidance to get there.’”

Wanting a change in career from her job as a therapist and realizing she never worked in a school setting before, Welch came upon UPA on a job search. UPA’s unconventional and dedicated approach to student success piqued her interest. 

“This job is less intense emotionally,” Welch said. “I’m happy about the change that I am understanding how the school works so much better. There are times when I do miss doing the one-on-one therapy, but I’ll get back there.”

Though it is less intense compared to her previous job, it has been difficult for Welch to form relationships with students she works with because the one-on-one meetings, where they talk about issues with school and mental health, are currently on Zoom. Spotty internet connections and delayed responses have contributed to the difficulties of virtual check-ins.

Makenna picked up a hobby in painting with her cat, Mushu, during quarantine. This is an unfinished piece of Baby Yoda holding his soup. (Photo courtesy of Makenna Welch.)

“Over the screen, it’s hard to come off as genuine and form a connection with them,” Welch said. “I’m new to this school, so I’m a stranger emailing these kids and telling them I’m their point of reference now. It’s a little off-putting [for them] at times.”

Welch wanted to gain experience in what happens behind the scenes of a school to understand how to become a more effective therapist. One of her goals is to become a college counselor that leads a program focusing on reducing student burnout because of the lack of attention towards high functioning individuals that also need support. Before she reaches that goal, she hopes to leave an impact behind at UPA.

“Honestly, I want to be the support system I wish I had when I was going through middle school and high school,” Welch said. “I feel like those are really challenging years and I want to let students know that someone is advocating for them, pushing for their success and willing to hear them out.”