Karen Barnes Kaplan
Offering Help, Finding Inspiration: A Conversation with Radwa Mokhtar
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Each week, Radwa Mokhtar and her co-facilitator log into zoom and open a meeting for any Mountainview student or alum who wants to join. Here, she shares her impressions of the people that shape this space, and how it is influencing her vision of community health. The following is edited from a conversation this past fall.
I am a student clinician at the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology Program at Rutgers University - New Brunswick. My connection to Mountainview* is through my being a counselor or co-facilitator of the Mountainview support group. It is offered every week to NJ-STEP and Mountainview students and alum.
It’s an amazing space, for sure. The group itself has been going on for over five years; maybe closer to ten. There have been a number of different co-facilitators in the years gone by. I took over the role in September because the two people who’d held the role for a year or two had graduated. I’ll be here through the academic year, and I hope to continue next year.
Until this fall, I had not worked with those who are formerly incarcerated. So far it has been a very enlightening and uplifting experience for me. I’m a third-year student in my program, so I’ve had some clinical experience working with college-age students as well as adults, with a range of presenting issues. With this population, it’s been such a moving experience for me. I’m struck by how willing they’ve been so far to be so vulnerable. And their ability to connect with each other in such a profound way--after this short amount of time in the academic year. A lot of the members had not met before, and being able to find that connection with each other, in ways that nobody else will fully understand because of their painful experiences, has been very meaningful for me. This group is the highlight of my week every week.
It still gets hard sometimes: they face so much, and have faced so much, and they’ve been so open to sharing that with me and my co-facilitator as well as the rest of the group. They share in a way that’s very striking and emotionally tangible. We all can feel it. It already feels like we’ve created this family within the support group. Their willingness to share obstacles that they’ve faced and continue to face, and also what drives them: their aspirations. Desires. What they imagine themselves being able to achieve in the future. Their resilience is amazing. It’s a very powerful space every single week.
Before the pandemic, the support group was only offered in person on the New Brunswick campus. Now, it’s offered virtually--which turns out to be a benefit, because Camden and Newark students have the opportunity to join in. I email the Mountainview community every week to remind them that we’ll be here, and that it’s completely open and not structured in any way. My co-facilitator and I are there from 6:00 to 7:30, and if someone wants to join for just the last five minutes, just pop in and say hi, it’s completely open to them. Even if nobody shows up for the first 45 minutes, we’ll stay on until 7:30 just in case someone comes in for the last 10 minutes. And some of them have.
So far, the group conversations have been a mix of both specific problem-solving needs and more general sharing about how they’re doing and feeling. The space is what they create. My co-facilitator and I don’t have anything we bring to the group initially--it’s really up to the participants. So it could be a specific question, like someone asking how to connect to financial aid, or an incident that came up for them that they want to talk through and process with the group. And sometimes it’s more general. Students have mentioned experiences like not connecting well with family, or feeling more isolated since they returned home, or figuring things out during the adjustment period. It’s up to the group members, how they want each session to look.
Because it’s a very open thing, support can be given in many ways. Whether it’s something practical and tangible, like directing them to a resource for technology support, or sitting and processing together an incident of racism they experienced: the group is about helping them take critical steps in the adjustment and transition process. That could be answering questions about laptops, or it can go to the other end of the spectrum where we’re reflecting on something much deeper based on an experience in their past, in ways they can all connect to.
All of the group members so far--the ones who’ve attended a session or more--are very interested in making sure they understand what resources are available to them, and they are willing to seek out those resources for themselves, to be successful. They’re so ambitious and hard-working. They’re a persevering group of people.
So part of our work as co-facilitators involves making sure they understand what’s out there for them and helping them through the process -- especially since many of them are recently released and just starting this adjustment period. We also have some participants who’ve been taking classes for some time. We even had an alum on a recent call, someone who graduated some time ago. They’re very involved and they help each other out. Whenever someone had a question, they’d just jump on board to be able to help them.
They’ve all, every single one, mentioned that what propels them is being able to provide for others. They want to be able to take on the role of providing support for people who may be dealing with the issues they’ve dealt with. So, for example, if they suffered from a broken family, they might be looking to develop a system to reunite families; if they experienced police brutality, they may be working to become an advocate for criminal justice reform. They want to transform their experience into something positive for others.
Our group members are dealing with so much. Like technology: some of our community were incarcerated for decades, and they’re entering a new world in which technology is essential. They’re often overwhelmed by having to learn how to use it, when everyone else is 500 steps ahead. Many of our students need to take a certain number of credits to qualify for the financial aid they need--on top of working to earn money and taking care of family, all while adjusting to an entirely new life. Even making sure they have a place to live can be a challenge. And they deal with bias and microaggressions, and racism--yes, even on the Rutgers campus.
The problem of isolation comes up a lot. It’s hard for them to find spaces that offer the opportunity to connect with true peers. The support group is great, but there aren’t many other ways they feel they can connect at a meaningful level, really engage with people who have shared experiences. It’s also hard to find true mentorship, given their past and current struggles.
I’ve always been interested in community mental health, particularly working with marginalized communities--people who are typically not considered when it comes to implementing meaningful mental health services. I’ve run workshops, seminars, and more structured group sessions where I would be doing a lot of the talking. This is my first experience with an open process group, where it’s really up to the group to create the space that they need, and we’re there to help facilitate it all through. It has shaped my aspirations to continue to work in these group settings, and to invite those that typically don’t have a space there. So, the experience has definitely influenced me; I want to continue to work with and provide these kinds of groups in my future. I’m still figuring out what specifically that would look like. But I see myself continuing to do this kind of work, as long as I am able to and the opportunities are available.
The measure of their resiliency is something I’ve never seen before and it can really affect us in the most beautiful way. I’m struck by how giving they are, not only to each other but to us, the co-facilitators. Every week, we feel so fulfilled by what they’re able to offer and what they want to do with their lives. Almost all of our members have goals to create some kind of opportunity that was never made available to them. So others don’t have to go through what they went through. They want to find ways to offer things to people that will contribute something to their lives -- especially those that may have experienced the same hardships they have.
For me, this has been a one-of-a-kind opportunity. It’s only been a little over a month, yet I’ve learned and grown so much already, based on how they interact with each other and how they’ve been willing to share. Being able to learn from them is such a privilege for me. It's something I will always carry with me, with everything I do going forward. They’re very beautiful people.
*Mountainview community serves those who are formerly incarcerated and beginning or completing their higher education journey; it is part of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program.