Navigating the System
Psychology alum uses deep, meaningful relationships to rehabilitate juvenile offenders
by Ben Pok (’19)
Jillian Burkley (’12) isn’t your typical therapist. She’s a mentor, advocate, friend, and extended family member who makes herself accessible 24/7—and pays no attention to billable hours. Through the practice of multi-systemic therapy (MST), she doesn’t just work with her clients: she works with their families, friends, schools, and community members.
Jillian works with juvenile offenders ages 12–17 in Greeley, Colorado. MST views the youth as embedded within multiple interconnected systems, recognizing that a client’s peers, family, schools, neighborhood, and culture play an integral role in their development and recovery. Jillian helps walk her clients and their families through complex environmental systems to break the cycle of criminal behavior.
“Westminster greatly prepared me for graduate school and is still benefitting me in my current role,” reflects Jillian. “I practiced critical thinking with the ability to break down an argument and have an open mind to explore the facts before coming to a conclusion; I am able to learn so much from the multiple diverse perspectives I encounter day to day.”
Jillian’s work can be extremely challenging. Sometimes families see her as The System (which technically she is in her role as a social worker), but she makes it clear that she is working for her clients’ well-being. Jillian sees herself as an advocate for the family but also as an activist, working to improve and change the systems to open up pathways to healing for her clients.
Practicing MST in not a typical 9-to-5 job with clearcut responsibilities: it requires flexibility. Jillian recounts multiple occasions when families need evening sessions or late-night calls. Despite the late hours, she has to be present and available. Jillian utilizes the academic and emotional education she received at Westminster to better connect with and treat her clients.
“I learned vulnerability through my experiences at Westminster, and this skill has been powerful in my work as a therapist,” says Jillian. “Whether it was through my weekly resident advisor check-in with my supervisor or feedback from a professor, these interactions opened my mind and willingness to see the good and bad in myself and allow others to accept and guide me. This skill is hard to teach and can only really be modeled and practiced; this was done very effectively at Westminster.”
Similar to the way Westminster faculty approach learning, Jillian builds trusted relationships with her clients and their families through consistent and deep engagement in their lives. She spends anywhere from two to five hours, twice a week, for up to six months with each client. Sessions are usually offsite and can involve meeting families in their homes, accompanying them to court hearings, or visiting the clients’ schools to meet their teachers or principal.
“The most rewarding part of my job is hearing the families share their raw experience of how I as a clinician—and the model I utilize—have impacted their family in a tremendous way,” Jillian says. “That’s a reminder of how awesome my job is, and it’s exactly why I do what I do.”
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.