Emily Kersten on UMSL Campus

Emily Kersten, a senior, has worked as a desk attendant and intern at Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis while studying CAST and psychology. Kersten has also worked as a resident advisor and has held leadership positions in Psi Chi, including treasurer and president. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Emily Kersten had always been intrigued by the idea of becoming a therapist.

Though she didn’t have a specialty in mind until discovering the child advocacy studies program and the child advocacy center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

“I was like, ‘This is where I need to be because I love kids,’” she said. “I have a certain resiliency when it comes to those hard stories and the hard conversations of what children sometimes go through, experiencing trauma.”

Kersten, a senior, has worked as a desk attendant and intern at Children’s Advocacy Services of Greater St. Louis while studying CAST and psychology. But it’s just one area where Kersten has been involved during her time at UMSL.

She’s also worked as a resident advisor and has held leadership positions in Psi Chi, an international honor society for psychology majors and minors, including treasurer and president. It’s these roles that helped her find her place on campus.

A high school psychology class initially piqued Kersten’s interest in the discipline, as well as the mental health field.

“I thought if a lot more students, a lot more people, a lot more kids knew about all of these things – how their brains works, how their emotions work – I think we would all be a lot happier,” Kersten said. “I was like, ‘Why don’t I try to take what I have learned from my mentors, and from the classes I’ve taken and give it back to people.’”

The instinct to give back also comes from her family, who taught Kersten to be kind to everybody – no matter their story or where they came from. Her family was instrumental in her decision to attend UMSL, as well.

In 2018, the family moved from Moscow, Idaho, to St. Louis after Kersten’s father, Andrew Kersten, became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She can’t quite explain it, but she knew UMSL was the “right place” to be.

At first, Kersten felt a bit lost, but halfway through her freshman year, she joined the Office of Residential Life and Housing as an RA. The position opened her up to a variety of new opportunities.

“I met people who were in my major and people who were involved a lot more on campus, and I think it inspired me to put myself out there,” she said.

Through her coursework, Kersten found a mentor in Dana Klar, assistant teaching professor of child advocacy studies. After taking several of Klar’s classes, Kersten became a desk attendant at CASGSL and eventually an intern.

This summer, she accompanied Klar and group of UMSL volunteers on a trip to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation for the Cheyenne River Youth Project’s annual RedCan Grafitti Jam. The event is an invitational graffiti festival where indigenous artists and visiting artists from around the world convene to spray paint murals throughout the community.

Kersten and the other volunteers helped with housekeeping, cooking, gardening, yard work and leading kids’ activities. Throughout the week, they made connections in the community and gradually gained the trust of the reservation’s elders.

It was an affirming experience.

“There was a man who came and spoke from the behavioral health center,” she recalled. “He shared his own experience and why he became so passionate about working at a mental health center and helping his family, his friends and his community. It was really inspiring, and I felt like I connected with him on why he chose to go into that profession.”

As Kersten begins her final semesters at UMSL, she has stepped into a leadership role with Psi Chi and started an internship with Head Start, a federal program that provides high-quality education, child care and family support to low-income children and families.

She joined the honor society as a junior and became treasurer this past spring. Ahead of this school year, other members supported her appointment as president.

The organization’s first event of the year, which will be held next month, features Josh Rivedal, a noted mental health speaker who has authored several books about suicide awareness.

“I was super inspired by his story, and I think we all need some tips on how to stay mentally well during this time,” Kersten said. “I’m super excited that he’s going to come to UMSL and share his knowledge with everybody.”

Kersten added that Psi Chi is partnering with the National Eating Disorders Association for a walk in November to raise awareness about eating disorders and their prevalence on college campuses.

In addition to her studies and extracurricular involvement, Kersten recently began interning with the family support staff at Head Start.

If there’s a hotline call about potential abuse or a traumatic event involving a child in the program, the family support staff will help do intake for a forensic interview and connect the child and family with behavioral health resources.

“I’m in a unique position with the internship because there’s so many different people within that agency that I think I’ll be able to shadow,” she said. “I might shadow an intake specialist, or I might shadow someone who goes into the school and works with kids in the classroom.

After graduation, Kersten plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work. Ideally, she would like to work for a child advocacy center and be a therapist for children who have experienced trauma.

Kersten’s honed her plan for the future throughout her time at UMSL, and she has some advice for peers who don’t know what the future holds just yet.

“It’s OK if it takes you a while to figure out where your place is on campus and where you feel like you belong,” she said. “Give yourself some time to figure that out. Just know that there’s so many administrators and professors and staff waiting to help you with any sort of problem that you ever have.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe