Marty Viola: A BA/MA Graduate as Musical as his Name

December 7, 2016




It was a gloomy, rainy, cold, Wednesday afternoon, and if I didn’t grab an iced Americano, I might not make it through the rest of the day.  I wanted to be on the top of my game to meet Marty Viola. 


There was a line at Li’l Jay’s Café on L3, so I frantically rushed back to the 10th floor to be on time for the interview.  I quickly rounded the corner, catching the eye of a young gentleman with a fantastic pair of glasses and briefcase to match.  We smiled, and when I got to my desk, a co-worker informed me that my 2pm appointment had arrived.  I knew who it must be.



A native New Yorker and graduate of LaGuardia High School, Marty tried his chances at Tulane University for a semester.  It wasn’t for him, financially, academically, or culturally.  He longed for the Big Apple, at the center of the universe, so he returned to his city. 


Marty wanted to be a detective; “You can look at me and see, I’m not a tough guy by any means.”  We laughed.  But Marty knew he wanted to be in the psychology world since he was little.  He comes from a therapeutic family: social worker mother and a sister with a PhD in Psychology who now works with Harlem children, evaluating program advocacy.  So he started at John Jay, intrigued by its invaluable, social justice undercurrent.  “As someone from this city, I couldn’t have asked for a better place to go.”


Dr. Philip Bonifacio suggested the BA/MA program.  Marty feels super thankful for all the doors John Jay opened and opportunities he’s been exposed to.  Dr. Ma’at Lewis, a licensed counseling psychologist and associate professor of counseling, has been an invaluable connection.  Through collaborating with wonderful Dr. Peggilee Wupperman during his time at JJ, he worked his way up from an unpaid intern to a job at The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.


A typical day at work for Marty entails scoring intake packets for new patients, as records and tools for the therapists and partakes in the day-to-day in/out patient experiences of private practice.  He loves going to AICT’s case conferences each week, where issues and new therapy techniques are explored. 


Not only is he learning tangible things from Dr. Robert Leahy, a master clinician, but he’s also watching poised, graceful, and calm-under-fire therapists that have been doing this for years; it’s inspiring to him.  He is exposed to generalized anxiety disorder, depression, emotion regulation issues, and Dialectical behavior theory (DBT), among others.


Marty bartended to help pay the bills during school and loved the summer-camp vibe.  This community outside JJ grounded him, and relieved stress.  “I realized halfway through, I’d get far more value being inside the program than being outside of it.”   He didn’t have to take all the classes he possibly could in one semester; he thought he was on the fast track to success, but he knew he had to allow himself to slow down.


After I asked about course recommendations at JJ, he suggested filling my plate with as many skills-based clinical classes as possible: Assessment Therapy Techniques and MMPI courses.  A background in testing and assessment adds to his strengths.  He also loved his externship at Behavioral Associates, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) specialized private practice on the Upper East Side.  He had three clients and co-facilitated a DBT group.


The empathy and compassion he absorbed at JJ goes hand in hand with his love of DBT.  He also attended a DBT training at JJ through Excellence Fees.  A forensic speaker painted the picture of conducting a DBT group session with prisoners chained to the wall.  This perspective stuck with him and also reminds him to check his privilege; “Despite all odds, change is possible.  JJ always makes me aware of that.”

 He’s learned in the world of psychology, his role is to help make change and push people to do things they don’t want to do, or as his mother calls it: “Chutzpah!”
(My own mother often still takes a tough love approach with me; I fight at first, but wouldn’t you know, it always seems to work.  Please don’t let her read this).


Marty elaborated, “If you truly care about your clients, you give them the support and skills they need to change.  It’s not just about listening and asking how does that make you feel.”  He also realized some clients have spent a large portion of their lives avoiding thinking and experiencing what is investigated in a session.   “It takes a lot of individual strength to be a psychologist.”  He later added, “Don’t be afraid to use the things you’ve learned on yourself.”


Marty loves to integrate meaning-making into clinical practice, combining aspects like someone’s religion, spirituality, existentialism, or wisdom traditions.  He assimilates Buddhism and mindfulness, but notes mindfulness is not a cure-all.  He hopes to join forces with Mehmet Sungur, who integrates Sufism into cognitive behavior therapy.


Marty will apply to both PsyD and PhD programs next year, as he loves clinical work but now also interested in researching spirituality and its application to treatments AND teaching.  His first ABCT conference opened his eyes to the magic of research.  I am struggling with this battle myself: what do I want to do after graduating?  Do I want to work toward a doctorate or get licensed?  Marty assured me that titles don’t matter so much; it’s about your passion and how you do your job.


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