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A part-time work-study position at The Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill quickly turned into more than just a job for MaryAnne Tatum ’15. Tatum, a Wilmington, NC native and graduate of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, has spent nearly a decade as an undergraduate student, full-time staff member, and graduate student working at The Graduate School in roles ranging from administrative to communications. “I call everyone at The Graduate School my family. They’ve been there for me when I needed them,” she said.

A collage of photos with Sarah Tatum and her twin, MaryAnne Tatum, and butterflies. Butterflies remind MaryAnne of Sarah.
A collage with photos of master’s degree student MaryAnne Tatum ’15 and her twin sister, Sarah. MaryAnne said butterflies remind her of Sarah, who died in a car accident just prior to her graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2015.

Tatum’s story began in 2015 when a month before her graduation, her twin sister, Sarah, died in a car accident. The accident also severely injured Tatum, who was also in the car and was left with a traumatic brain injury. The accident forced her to learn how to write, talk, and walk again. “After the accident, I had a lot of medical and health issues, but I also dealt with the emotional issue of not having my sister. My self-confidence was at an all-time low,” she said.

Despite the challenges Tatum faced, she recalled The Graduate School as an instrumental factor in her recovery. “I think it says it all that I call them my family. Even when I wasn’t working there, I still kept in contact.” In August 2015, just following the accident, The Graduate School offered her a temporary position, a role she held until December 2016. “They were very attuned to my needs and what I could handle, but they also genuinely cared about not overloading me,” she said.

When the position ended after 18 months, Tatum decided to take time off to travel alone, including visiting 22 countries—a trip inspired by Sarah’s love of travel that she and her sister had originally planned to do together. After returning to the United States, Tatum struggled with finding a job that mirrored her experience at The Graduate School. A negative job experience led Tatum to consult a therapist, an experience that ultimately inspired her to pursue a career in clinical rehabilitation and mental health counseling.

Tatum entered a master’s degree program offered by the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, beginning in fall 2020. Tatum explained that her bachelor’s degree in journalism provided a jumping off point for the field, because communication is a critical skill for both areas of study. “Mental health counseling centers around communication,” Tatum said. “It made sense given my skill set and educational background, but it also really made a difference to me in my own life.”

The rehabilitation counseling master’s degree program is ranked #9 in the country, according to the U.S. News & World Report, and is among one of the first programs in the U.S. to become fully accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Tatum currently studies under the division director, Eileen Burker. “I was really drawn to the dual nature of the program. You get training and education with clinical rehab. That’s what made such a difference with me, and hopefully, I can make a difference with someone else.”

Tatum commends staff at The Graduate School for giving her the skill sets she needed for other fields. “We have so much on our plate, and I’m amazed when I hear about other grad students doing additional programs and additional research projects. We have such a high caliber of learning.”

Beverly Wyrick, The Graduate School’s director of finance and administration, hired Tatum as a first-year student. She said Tatum has taken on a variety of opportunities, including administrative jobs, supporting major events, and to helping with communications.

“I offered her a job on the spot,” Wyrick said. “I somehow just knew that it was going to work out, and it did.”

Wyrick said Tatum is responsible, hard-working, and motivated. And that she’s also fun to be around, too.

“I would keep her as part of our Graduate School family for as long as possible, but I know she has to move on and grow and make her own mark on the world,” Wyrick said. “I have no doubt she will be a tremendous counselor and all those who cross her path will be glad they did.”

Tatum has explored careers in a hospital setting following her master’s degree program. She stressed the importance of interdisciplinary care in a patient’s treatment plan which should address both physical and mental needs. “I felt kind of like an empty shell, but I felt supported in the hospital, and I felt like they could address all of my physical needs there. But after I was released, […] I had to take care of my mental health.”

While Tatum said she still experiences some long-term effects from the accident and the TBI, she is hopeful she can make a difference as part of an interdisciplinary health care team that works with clients holistically. She plans to spend her upcoming practicum experience working at the UNC Medical Center Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, where she recovered following the accident.

“A lot of people experience hardship or adversity; I’ve just tried to make good from a bad situation. And I think this program is helping me doing that.”

The Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences, part of the UNC School of Medicine. Eileen Burker, PhD, CRC, is also a professor in the division. Burker is an outgoing member of The Graduate School’s Graduate Education Advisory Board. At Carolina, Sarah was a student in the Department of Communication.

-Hanna Williams, public relations and communications intern

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