SUNY Oswego graduate student Michelle Mourino lost both of her parents, but found a will to keep going and succeed -- and a plan to help children professionally.

Mourino’s life as a child in Valley Stream, Long Island, was pretty typical. She would play with her best friends, Caitlin and Erika. With a chuckle, Mourino reflected on the past of when they found a box of kittens when they were 11 years old. 

“We brought the kittens to my house and my mom did not want them to stay," Mourino recalled. "She told us that we needed to find them homes. We did. We gave them to our friends and Caitlin and I each got to keep one. My mom named our cat Babie.”

As the months passed, Michelle Mourino’s mother became ill. The family dynamic changed dramatically. Her mother was the anchor and support system in the family. At the age of 12, Mourino lost her mother to cancer. 

If being a preteen was not difficult enough, her peers added to the turmoil. She was self-conscious of her weight and was bullied for not having a mother. Finding a way to grasp with her loss was something Mourino was unable to do. 

Several years after her mother’s passing, the family was dealing with a new crisis. Mourino’s father was now ill with cancer. The news was crippling. Her father had become withdrawn and was spiraling into depression as they were experiencing severe poverty. Her life was a shadow of what it once was when her mother was alive.

As the winter gray clouds gave way to spring’s blue sky, Mourino’s father passed away. She was 16 years old and it had only been four years since her mother’s death; her life seemed bleak.

Mourino recounts her darkest moment at her father’s funeral when she said to herself, “I now have no one.”

She became the ward of the court and had no clue of where she was going. Caitlin’s family wanted to adopt her, but Mourino’s brother, who is 20 years older, wanted her to live with his family. Waiting for a decision was agonizing. The court had the final say and determined she would live with her brother.

It appeared as if curtains were being drawn and darkness was setting deeper into her world. Mourino now had to leave the community she had known her entire life and move to Queens. As she was loading her personal belongings into her brother’s car, he made one adamant request that would leave Michelle gripping with pain. She was to leave her cat behind with Caitlin.

Babie was the one thing that reminded her of an innocent childhood and of her mother, who adored the cat. The cat was her mother’s comfort and support as she struggled with cancer. In other words, holding onto Babie was holding onto her mother.

Michelle expressed the next two years living as awful. She said the verbal abuse, toxic environment and unreasonable punishments resembled the story of Cinderella. Her saving grace was that she loved being around her three young nephews.

Starting school at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, with over 4,500 students, was a new experience beyond her comprehension. Getting lost and trying to navigate a large campus just added to Mourino’s stress. 

“I was experiencing depression, anxiety and was doing self-harm," Mourino said. "I had bad habits, such as smoking and drinking. I was in a very bad place.”

One day, as she was wandering through a sea of students, she walked through the doors of the guidance counselor office and found her first of many mentors, Georgia Gailas. Mourino came to the office begging Gailas not to change her schedule, because she finally made a friend. In that moment Mourino broke down and told her everything. With concern and a loving heart, Gailas recommended Mourino to see the school psychologist. 

Mourino went with an open mind knowing that her parents’ death and moving to a new school had put a toll on her inner strength and health. Unfortunately, her experience with the school psychologist was uneventful, and she instead returned to Gailas’ office and met with her on a regular basis.

“After having such a bad experience with the school psychologist, I knew at that point I wanted to be a school psychologist,” Mourino explained.

Mourino did not know how to pursue her passion. Her sister-in-law Katie, who is a guidance counselor for a high school in the Bronx, stepped in and told her she needed to apply to the Educational Opportunity Program. The program provides access, academic support and financial aid to students who show promise for succeeding in college, but who may not have otherwise been offered admission. 

She received several acceptance letters, but she visited SUNY Oswego and knew this was the place she wanted to start her college career. Mourino jumped in with both feet and became involved on campus. 

Her first experience was as a volunteer for Mentor Oswego. As time passed, her personal growth flourished and she became the president of the Sociology Club and coordinator for Mentor Oswego and Adopt-A-Grandparent. Currently, she is employed as a graduate assistant for set-up crew at Campus Life and is the circulations director for The Oswegonian.

When she arrived at the college during the summer, she met other students in EOP. A friendship flourished with another student, David Seecharan, whose mother passed away before he graduated from high school. Over time, their friendship blossomed and they started dating. 

Mourino’s life was starting to change. The darkness that had surrounded her since she was a teenager was starting to show beams of light. Her junior year, she moved off campus and became in charge of her own life. She had a loving boyfriend and friends who always supported her.

One day, she noticed a cat wandering outside her rental. The animal had a tag, but the owners informed her that they did not want the cat any more. Holding onto the cat gave Mourino something that she had been missing for years.

“My cat Titus is my emotional support," Mourino said with a smile. "He is my son. Many people might not know that the sound of a cat purring can relieve stress.”

Mourino now knows that she needs to talk about her past. She is currently seeking counseling, because her battle with depression is seeping into her daily life. Getting out of bed in the morning is a severe challenge.

“David is a big influencer for me," Mourino said. "He is always supporting and telling me to get up. ‘This is not how your parents would like you to live.’ I don’t know where I would be if I did not have David, Caitlin and Erika in my life.”

Also, staff and faculty at SUNY Oswego have had a profound effect on her college career. Grace Maxon-Clarke has been very inspirational to Michelle as the facilitator of the EOP Women’s Support Group. The group consists of young women who meet weekly to discuss their transition to college. 

Mourino also speaks highly of Dr. Laura Brown, professor of human development, as someone who guided and encouraged her to pursue graduate school. Her advisor, Dr. Laura Spenceley, has been Mourino’s biggest supporter while in graduate school, always motivating Mourino to do her best.

The importance of helping someone motivates Mourino and gives her the desire to work with children. During her college internships, she has worked at two schools in Oswego County and each location has helped foster growth. She especially enjoys working with elementary children and is driven to ensure students who need early intervention receive the appropriate services. 

Currently, Mourino is working with children who are experiencing trauma and behavior issues. She has an opportunity this summer to take courses to help children who have suffered a traumatic event.

Although Mourino explains she does have a clinical preference, “I love high school students. Their attitudes are so funny. I can empathize with them, because I was an angry teenager, too.”

Mourino plans to graduate in 2021 with a master’s degree in school psychology from Oswego, and her future has endless possibilities.  Although her past resembles shattered glass, each broken piece is a story that she can share and inspire someone to fulfill their dream.  Unbeknown to her, a plan was developing with every connection she has made, which was preparing her for a blessed future.

- Kelly Perkins, SUNY Oswego Office of Campus Life; this story originally appeared in Campus Life News.