Illinois State University alum Melissa Rocchi graduated in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science degree in art and a minor in psychology. She is now the director of clinical operations at Timberline Knolls, a residential treatment center for women struggling with eating disorders, alcoholism, co-occurring disorders, drug addiction, mood disorders, trauma, and post traumatic stress disorder.

Although an art therapy program is not an actual focus at Illinois State, Rocchi and many students in recent years have created their own path that has incorporated art and psychology classes. Some students discover their major while they are already in college, but Rocchi had art therapy in her sights at an early age.

“In all honesty, I can’t remember wanting to be/do anything else other than art therapy,” she said. “I recently found something from the 4th grade that asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I wrote down ‘art therapist.’ In high school, we had an art therapist come for one of our career days and that pretty much sealed the deal for me. From that point forward, I was on a path to figuring out how to become an art therapist.”

Knowing what type of career she wanted helped her choose what classes she would take at Illinois State University.

“Wanting to be an art therapist inspired me on what classes to take and how I approached assignments. I liked taking classes that involved the studying of people. I liked to do assignments that I got to involve the public.

“In a sculpture class in undergrad, I did a final project called Jarred Up,” she said. “I passed out nearly 100 mason jars and questionnaires and asked folks to visually depict their fear or phobia in it. I received just about all back, people did an amazing job, and I was blown away by people’s willingness to participate. The jars were then put on display with excerpts of their questionnaires. I guess talking to people about what was scary started then and continues to this day.”

After graduating from Illinois State, Rocchi went on to receive her Master of Arts in applied theology, specifically in art therapy and counseling, from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For her graduate thesis work, she focused on a project called Making Art to Mourn, for Survivors of Suicide.

“After losing a dear friend to suicide, I decided to invite others who had lost loved ones to make art as a part of the grieving process. This was a powerful experience, and the artwork we created was then part of a show to gain awareness about suicide. The work I do today is working with girls and women who are struggling with addictions, eating disorders, self-injury, and trauma. I believe that helping someone get in touch with their creative self is intrinsically a healthy self and art/art therapy is a perfect modality.”

The School of Art at Illinois State University continues to see students interested in becoming art therapists. Rocchi shared some advice for those seeking out this career.

“Don’t give up. The path was not always clear, and it is tough navigating your way. Look for mentors, and don’t be afraid to make yourself known.”