If the last year has taught us anything, it's the importance of self-care and mental health. In early 2020, ECC added two new wellness professionals to serve the needs of our students. Prem Nikoniuk, LCPC., LPC., CCMHC., NCC, had a great first day at ECC on a cold January 2020 morning – with no idea what life had in store for her.
Nikoniuk recalls her first day as exciting and nerve-wracking. "Meeting with Dean Robinson helped put me at ease," Nikoniuk recalls. "He exuded a deep sense of warmth and care. I could tell then he valued every individual who pushed through these doors. I told myself, 'Here is a boss I could look up to.'"
Throughout the day, she remembers being greeted by many other ECC employees and was heartened by a welcome sign on her door and a readied workspace with an office warming basket from her new team. She added, "Nobody knows until now, but I cried with a full heart that day. It felt like home. It was an incredible first experience and ever so memorable."
Nikoniuk continues to be a source of light for students, even in a remote environment. Read on to find out how the pandemic and racial justice movement have only strengthened her commitment to being a safe space for students.
In your words, what do you do at ECC? What do you want others to know about your job? Or what would help others understand your job? I think of myself as a gatekeeper. In the capacity of a licensed clinician, I help guide our students on how to let the good stuff in and grow while understanding the bad stuff they encounter by filtering it through knowledge-based undistorted lenses. I bear empathetic witness to their pain and hold space, allowing them to find their true selves so that they can be their best selves. No one is broken. We are human. Ultimately, it is the power of one - you are the expert of you. I listen to their challenges and offer advice when asked. I equip students with self-sustaining, healthy life skills regarding acceptance, awareness, and the art of being. This honorable work is only made possible by a very generous and hardworking group of people known as our Wellness Professionals. Together with my colleagues Vinny Cascio, Mary Grimm, and Coresair Mack, Wellness Services at ECC provides our students with a plethora of solutions and resources concerning their mental health and general well-being with a focus on holistic care.
What is your greatest accomplishment since you've been at ECC? Counseling during a pandemic, a political crisis, and a period with the blinding spotlight cast on racial intolerance and inequity. I had to consider my own fears, doubts, and uncertainties while helping our students relinquish theirs. Honestly, I have never done anything like this before. Not under the universal umbrella of a blistering virus, societal upheaval, and a great purge of collective human pain. Now I have a book to write and a story to tell.
If you could instantly be an expert in one thing, what would you choose? I would undoubtedly choose Archeology because I like excavating the past, analyzing it, and learning from it. It helps carve a path forward for those that come after us. The 1999 discovery of the three Inca child mummies - found frozen on a mountain in Argentina - still thrills me to this day!
What do you enjoy doing outside of work (i.e., hobbies/interests)? Reading, singing, running, skiing, ghost hunting, inventing new smoothies, comparing political pundits on the telly, secretly learning how to play the guitar, and watching National Geographic and the yearly tracking of the sasquatch's whereabouts in the hills of Saskatchewan, Canada. So not much.
Where is the best place you've traveled to? Or where would you like to visit? It was not a measure of the "best place" I've traveled to but rather a place I had to witness: Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland. I was moved upon reading Viktor E. Frankl's original publication of "Man's Search for Meaning," which prompted the trip. That day, I felt small, and my troubles seemed inconsequential. Unforgettably, I embraced the truth that in suffering, one finds meaning.
I was born in Singapore and have traveled to Indonesia, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. My quick getaways are British Colombia and the surrounding Canadian Peninsula. I am saving my money now to visit Nepal - well aware that I will have a hard time returning home when I'm there.
You have to wear a t-shirt with just one word on it for an entire year. What would that word be, and why? Courage. Life can be scary. I have been scared more times than I would like to admit. The shirt will remind me to keep moving forward, despite my fears, and to live my best life every day because that is what courage is. Believe in yourself, trust in your abilities, and have faith that you will make it through any adversity.
Share a fact about you that might surprise people to learn. While I lived and worked as a psychotherapist on the island of Ketchikan, Alaska, I flew extensively in a floatplane to other islands spread across the peninsula. I did individual therapy and family counseling for hard-to-reach native communities, focusing on bringing children out of foster care treatment facilities and back home to their biological parents. The work was stimulating, but the floatplane rides over vast bodies of water, ice, and passing mountainscapes were debilitating. I have acrophobia and aquaphobia.
What job have you held (besides ECC) that was the most fun, interesting, or difficult? Explain why. I'm a psychotherapist in private practice. Before joining the ECC family, I held positions in Inpatient Psychiatric Care, Outpatient Community Care, Adult/Adolescent Residential Care, and in the Department of Corrections. I find working within our prison systems the most interesting AND difficult. The stuff you read about it in books and watch on television is the shorthand version. Nothing hits closer to home and validates the threat of losing your freedom like stepping into an adult state- or federally-run prison or youth correctional facility. I observed it firsthand while working at multiple facilities that the realities of our penal institutions are understated. The stench of days-old bologna mixed in with dried yellow mustard on your clothes picked up while walking through the hallways of prison is the least of one's worries.
What was your most valuable life lesson? You can always rebound and come back from anything because attitude means everything. I once was a child born into a life filled with the trappings of alcoholism and child abuse. I clambered, searching with fervor for the door leading the way out. And when I came upon it, I kicked it open and embraced change. I did not hesitate, nor did I look back. I did not allow fear to have the upper hand. Instead, I took it on and persevered.
Complete this sentence: "I enjoy working at ECC because …" Face it, ECC's got heart. A pillar of education is neither sterile nor generic. At every turn, I see Genuity, compassion, generosity, and grit. Behind their masks, folks are smiling, arms beckoning and ready to engage. They want to get to know you beyond the ordinary "Hey, how are you doing?" People care, and that strikes a chord in me. It leaves an unforgettable impression about an organization that I want to return to, to be a part of, to stay.