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How Student Jessica Bjerke Found a Mentor in Alum Carlos Castañeda

Carlos Castañeda and Jessica Bjerke

Palo Alto University (PAU) counseling student, Jessica Bjerke, was at wit's end last September when an exhaustive search for a practicum site in her hometown of Austin, TX, came up short. Bjerke, who is pursuing her masters degree in clinical mental health counseling, discovered Austin has limited practicum sites, and all the slots had been taken. Feeling desperate, she contacted counseling faculty member and department chair Donna Sheperis, PhD. “I knew Dr. Sheperis lived in Texas, and I was hoping she could help,” said Bjerke.  

The next day, alumnus Carlos Castañeda, PhD, owner of the Missing Peace Clinic (PLLC) in Austin, received a phone call from Dr. Sheperis. “Donna reached out and told me about Jess,” said Dr. Castañeda, whose clinical expertise focuses on individuals with autism, victims of trauma, and transitioning through difficult challenges. Bjerke and Castañeda met, and Bjerke was able to discuss her competencies in working with individuals with autism. Coincidentally, Dr. Castañeda was in the process of creating a new program called Project SpectrUS which makes mental health services accessible and affordable to all by offering low-cost sessions conducted by a highly capable and experienced student practitioner. And so, Bjerke joined the Missing Peace Clinic as an intern and helped launch Project SpectrUS.  

“What I love about this connection is the full-circle nature of the training we do here at PAU,” said Dr. Sheperis. “From their very first class, our MA Counseling students are aware we are helping them succeed both as students and as future colleagues. We want to refer clients to them and, after a few years, refer practicum students to them for supervision.” Dr. Sheperis said she had the privilege of teaching Dr. Castañeda throughout his masters, and they kept in touch as he finished his PhD and opened his private practice in Texas. “Now, as a faculty member for Jessica, I can pair the two,“ said Dr. Sheperis.

Both Bjerke and Dr. Castañeda praise the faculty for their support and mentorship. “PAU has been a great experience,” said Bjerke. “I have loved getting to know everyone. All the professors have been so helpful.  They are willing to help you in any way possible.” 

Dr. Castaneda said the support he received from PAU faculty was amazing. “The opportunity to have mentorship and support from Donna and other professors really inspired me and led me down the path of a clinician, yes, but also as a counselor educator. PAU made this all possible,” said Dr. Castañeda. He recalled that when he was a student, he felt so fortunate for the help he would receive from Dr. Sheperis and would ask her how he could return the favor. “She would say, ‘Just pay it forward.’ That’s what inspired me to take a PAU intern,” he said.

Since graduating from PAU in 2019, Dr. Castañeda has earned a PhD in Counselor Education and is now a visiting professor at St. Edward’s University while running Missing Peace Clinic.  

As for Jessica Bjerke, when she graduates this spring, she plans to continue working at the Missing Peace Clinic and earn her licensure. “This opportunity has worked out better than I could have imagined. The mentorship that Carlos has provided, makes me super excited about growing as a clinician.” 

Dr. Castañeda also sings Bjerke’s praises. “Jess is not just getting in her practicum hours, she is changing people’s lives, and she is already having a positive impact on the communities here in Austin,” he said. “If we get lucky, there will be another PAU student in Austin, and we’ll see if they’d like to join us as well.”