One of the first displays of affection Phillip Reed Jr. remembers seeing was in a TV commercial.

It was 1979 and he was 23 years old. Living on the reservation in Window Rock, Arizona, a member of the Navajo Nation, Reed "didn't exactly grow up in a normal way," he said. Work was hard to come by, and drugs and alcohol were all around. Like his parents, he struggled with addiction.

But when Reed saw a mother kiss her son on the cheek in a California tourism ad, the trajectory of his life changed. In that small gesture, a different future seemed possible.

"My family at the time wasn't very loving or understanding, so it was overwhelming for me to see," Reed said. "That’s what motivated me to stay in treatment and come to California.”

It took years of false starts and small victories for Reed to put his addiction behind him for good. But on June 23, 2023, he'll graduate from UCLA Extension's alcohol and drug abuse counseling certificate program, 17 years clean and sober and one big step closer to accomplishing his goal of becoming a licensed substance abuse counselor.

"I want to help people learn to understand themselves, to save themselves," Reed said.

Reed started working at a residential alcohol and drug treatment program in Long Beach, CA, in 2010 and learned more about pursuing counseling as a career from United American Indian Involvement (UAII), a support organization based in Los Angeles and a partner in UCLA Extension's CareerBridge program. Seeing clients come in and out of the treatment program ultimately motivated him to enroll at UCLA Extension. As part of the program, in addition to his classes, Reed worked as an intern, shadowing professional counselors and passing on lessons he’d learned both in life and in the classroom.

"A lot of people I've met, their addictions separate them from their families and their kids, and that's painful to see." Reed said, "I just try to give them better advice so they can get reconnected together in a loving manner."

Finding support was a big part of Reed's own journey to getting clean and sober. He overcame his addictions after praying and participating in traditional Indigenous purification ceremonies, he said. Counselors from Native American aid organizations such as UAII, the American Indian Counseling Center (AICC) and American Indian Changing Spirits (AICS) offered crucial support and showed him a path forward.

It hasn't always been easy. Friends at times mocked his decision to quit drugs and alcohol and pressured him to keep using; it has taken continuous work to keep substance abuse at bay.

One benefit of his education at UCLA Extension has been to better understand the social dynamics of addiction and learn to set boundaries in his own life, Reed said. Those lessons have helped him teach others to navigate the challenges he's spent a lifetime trying to overcome. But he isn't finished learning. Even after graduating and eventually becoming a counselor Reed plans to keep taking classes – and finding ways to give back.

"It's a deep feeling within myself to want to teach these guys. It's a blessing to see them love their families, to love their kids," he said. "I want people to love themselves. That's what it's all about."