Dominique Elston took an unconventional path to becoming a therapist. A native Californian, she studied communications at Alabama State – on a bowling scholarship, no less – with plans to become a news reporter or talk show host. But after working with a social worker during a summer internship, she found she felt her best when helping others, and after moving back to Los Angeles she decided to pursue a career in counseling.

Ten years later, Elston now specializes in substance abuse and LGBT affirmative therapy, working with adolescents and couples throughout the Los Angeles area. For the past year she has also taught "Bringing Recovery to Diverse Populations" as part of the UCLA Extension substance abuse counseling certificate program, and this spring will also teach a course on diversity in public health.

We spoke to Elston about her experience and what she thinks students should know about counseling as a career. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

What motivated you to get into counseling?

Really it came as part of my own healing journey. Growing up I never really saw therapists who looked like me, as an African American queer woman. Representation is important, but even beyond that I recognized how essential it is for people to be able to speak to someone they feel comfortable with, whatever that entails. I started working first as a counselor and now have been a therapist for the last 8 years or so. A majority of my work is in community mental health, providing aid in places like substance abuse or juvenile probation centers and group homes. I truly love my career and being able to help people.

Why is understanding diversity important for people considering a career in counseling?

Recovery has no race, has no age, has no gender. I’ve worked with so many people who are different from me, or who are the same race as me but whose life experiences differ from my own. It’s not one size fits all. Being able to understand, speak and listen to people of all different backgrounds is so necessary for what we do.

What students are learning in the classroom at UCLA Extension is ultimately preparing them to have uncomfortable conversations. A lot of the time what I teach in these diversity classes is to talk about your biases, get all of your stuff out there. Never be afraid to have the conversation around race, for example. Especially if a client is struggling, we need to be able to talk about these issues, rather than avoiding them.

What do you hope students will get out of the Extension course?

At the end of the 11-week course I want my students to know that it’s OK to have, and try to understand, personal biases, but that it’s not OK to project them on our clients. That is something that needs to be learned and only comes with awareness.

I also want them to see and embrace the patience required to do this work. It’s not our job to change people’s minds, it’s just our job to help people along their journey. That means sometimes you don’t get to see what the end result is. But just being part of somebody’s life, when they are going through the hardest part of their life – that work couldn’t be more important.

What would you tell people who are thinking about starting the field?

This is a career that, if I never got paid, I’d still do it all over again. Your heart has to be in the right place. But there’s a real need as well – there just aren’t enough mental health professionals out there. So I always tell people thinking about coming to the field, the more the merrier. We need you.