When Personal Experience Meets Psychology: Samantha Michaels

While lectures and classroom discussions certainly affect our understanding of a given topic, applying classroom insights to life experience takes that knowledge to another level.

Such is the case for two of our own – graduate student Mark Koranda and undergraduate Samantha Michaels. Each leads a student organization that was launched through the thoughtful pairing of personal experience and psychology. To learn more, read on and then visit the Student Organization Fair on Tuesday, February 11 at the Kohl Center to meet Mark and Samantha.

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September 2019 gathering of Survivor’s Best Friend

It is a warm September day, and the sun is setting in the distance when two young women stand to address a crowd of nearly 100 UW–Madison students seated on Library Mall. A few leashed dogs rest in the audience, including one retriever mix named Mac who belongs to psychology major and organizer of the event, Samantha Michaels. The group has gathered to learn about Survivor’s Best Friend, a national nonprofit that connects sexual assault survivors with shelter animals and whose UW–Madison chapter Samantha founded in the fall of 2018, nearly two years after she was sexually assaulted during her freshman year. In the aftermath of the assault, Samantha struggled with an eating disorder, low self-esteem, anxiety attacks, and a PTSD diagnosis. “I took it as defeat. I thought I was never going to graduate, never going to make it, never going to be successful.”

In working with a therapist, Samantha identified a potential career path. “I wanted to give that same kind of help to people in need, and I saw psychology as the most fitting major to do that.” Her classes not only provided insight on things she personally experienced, but exposed her to the struggles of others, which reinforced her professional goals.

Then, in 2018, she received an email about an art fellowship through Survivor’s Best Friend. The organization pays for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence to adopt shelter dogs and cats free of charge. They also fund costs for adopted pets to become emotional support animals, in addition to providing long-term support.

The strength of the bond between humans and dogs is well-documented (see the Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine’s story on the Super Bowl ad featuring Scout), and Samantha knew right away that she needed that animal connection and comfort. “I learned to depend on dogs as a little girl – those animals that see you as a leader, someone strong, someone who cannot be beaten,” she says. “I found myself looking at the Dane County Humane Society website over and over and over. Mac was listed as a sweet one and a half year old retriever mix from Alabama. We met each other and the rest was history.”

Samantha and Mac

“Having Mac around relieved some anxiety and depression for me. I had a new sense of obligation and motivation.” When Mac needed to eat, she remembered to eat. When Mac needed to take a walk, she got some fresh air with him. “I was so grateful to not be alone.”

The UW-Madison chapter of SBF now has more than 100 members, with 450 people expressing interest over email. “SBF gives the ability to spread the word further on campus about sexual assault,” says Samantha,” talking not only about how to prevent it, but also what happens afterwards. It gives another outlet that is informational, social, and philanthropic, and creates a community around a subject that needs support. Most importantly, we are raising money to look beyond ourselves and help the lives of survivors.”

Now in her senior year, Samantha is applying to social work and counseling psychology graduate programs with a hope to work for justice in areas like sexual assault and domestic violence.

When asked what freshman Samantha would think about senior Samantha, she said, “I’d be surprised that I found something that could help.” Then she adds, smiling, “And probably really proud of her.”

Visit survivorsbestfriend.org to learn more.

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