It wasn’t until Antonia Villalba immigrated to Canada from Eastern Europe in the 1990s that she came to understand her true calling in life.
“I was faced with many life challenges following my transition into Canadian society, from the loss of my family and friends back home, to learning a new language, finding new friends, parental separation, and just finding a place where I belong,” said Villalba, who was recently named valedictorian for this year’s Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology graduating class.
“That’s when I realized I wanted to help others who faced challenges in their lives, too.”
Since then, she’s earned a Human Services Counselling diploma in Mental Health & Addictions from George Brown College, a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Ethics and Environmental Studies from York University and spent 18 years working with adults, youth and children in various capacities – from counselling and case management, to project management and program delivery.
“I found employment at Ontario’s largest youth network and was able to design skill-specific training for marginalized youth that later allowed for their long-term employment,” said the 38-year-old mother of two.
“I found such fulfillment knowing that many of the youth transformed their lives, found friends, employment, a home and a purpose.”
But then life threw Villalba another curveball. After an accident left her with a mild traumatic brain injury and chronic neck pain, she decided to take some time off to dedicate the next few years of her life to her young children.
Once they were off to school, however, she decided to continue her “journey as a helper” by enrolling in the MACP program at Yorkville.
“I am proud to say that the last three years of my life have been transformational, and I am really excited to continue my journey, so that I can serve humanity,” she said.
“I believe in the power of human connection and the humble act of compassion, the stories of struggle that often lead us to places of conviction and purpose.”
Villalba recently sat down to reflect on her time at Yorkville University and her plans for the future. Here’s what she had to say:
1. What brought you to Yorkville University? Where were you in your life/career when you decided to continue your studies with us?
I had just sent my youngest son to school and decided that it was the right time to continue my journey as a mental health professional. Yorkville University had the online platform that I needed because I could not imagine going to in-person classes with two small children and the time and energy that was required for their care. Yorkville University was my hope, that I can continue my academic journey and still have enough time to be with my children and family.
2. What made you decide to pursue your Masters of Counselling Psychology?
Since my immigration to Canada in the ’90s, I faced many life challenges and I knew my purpose was to serve humanity. No one in my family has acquired post-secondary education, but I always wanted to. I wanted to be that prime example for my children that education was important and achievable. I wanted to teach them that age is not a factor in one’s life goals and that anything is possible!
3. What is the most important thing you’re taking away from your studies at Yorkville University?
I have learned that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. Life presents us with many challenges but it is up to us how we face them. I believe in the value of diverse life experiences and I know I was extremely fortunate to meet some of the most knowledgeable and passionate professors and fellow students. I have developed deep and meaningful connections with many of them and I plan on continuing to work and collaborate with them.
4. What are your plans after graduation, both immediate and long term?
During my practicum at Elpizo Counselling Services, a family-owned private counselling practice, that just opened a non-profit community connect division, I have had the privilege to work with and learn from a diverse team of therapists. I have been blessed to been supervised by two exemplary and visionary mentors that have dedicated their lives to serve humanity. I am extremely pleased to join their team as an associate and plan to join a few other clinics that serve youth and athletes for the next few years. For the long term, I plan to have my own practice one day. I have come to value the power of the present moment and I am embracing this moment!
5. If you offered one piece of advice to an incoming student, what would that be?
I would tell them don’t give up when times get though, because they will, and keep going! There is always a light at the end of the tunnel! Growth happens when we challenge ourselves, don’t stop growing, be a visionary and a mentor for others along the way! Reach out when you need help and support, so that others can support you! This is something I learned from a dear fellow student who I can proudly call a friend now; others won’t know you need help if you don’t tell them. There is no shame is asking for help, in fact I now believe it is a courageous act!