Ever since he was a young WMS elementary student, Ross Johnston has been interested in what makes the mind work. As a 12-year-old, he had already decided to pursue a career in psychology: he wanted to become a therapist.
“I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I was always very interested in why people do what they do and helping people, but I was also really attracted to the mystique,” he said. “Why is it that therapists seem to be all-knowing, wizard-type people who can fix your problems?”
By his sophomore year of high school, he couldn’t imagine himself doing anything but becoming a therapist. He briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist, but when he learned psychiatrists do less therapy, he knew clinical psychology was the right profession.
Fast-forward 11 years, and Ross - now a doctor of psychology - is in his post-doctoral fellowship year as a therapist at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where he treats students at the on-campus counseling center. He’s the youngest therapist on staff at the center.
“I love it more every day - I know I’m very lucky,” he said. “I was privileged enough to stay on the path [to a profession in psychology] and not have to diverge at all.”
Ross and his twin sister, Mallory, started at WMS in kindergarten in 1997, in part because his parents were attracted to the Montessori educational model and they knew WMS would keep him and his sister in the same classroom.
Ross recalls how much he and his classmates learned about diversity and individuality, which has remained one of his greatest takeaways from his time at WMS.
“With WMS it was pretty clear there is such a big emphasis on acceptance, celebrating differences, loving each other for who we all are,” he said. “I wouldn’t be effective in my work if I didn’t have that instilled in me at an early age.”
During those formative years at WMS, he also benefited from learning time management skills and having the flexibility to learn at his own pace, which provided him a firm foundation for middle and high school. After graduating from WMS in 2004, Ross went on to attend Springer Middle School and later Mount Pleasant High School.
He and Mallory had an easy time adjusting to middle school because “the work we had been doing was miles ahead of what was being taught in public school.”
Ross realized he was struggling with time management and distraction in school and convinced his parents to let him undergo a psycho-educational evaluation. He was diagnosed with ADHD in high school.
“No one even knew that was an issue because I had never been in that situation before,”he said. “I had such a strong foundation going into middle school and high school - that carried me for a while.”
With help from medication and learning new behavioral skills, Ross made it through high school, graduating in 2010. He went on to attend University of Delaware (UD), where he earned a degree in psychology with a minor in Spanish. From UD he went to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to pursue a five-year doctoral degree in clinical psychology at Nova Southeastern University.
After an initial year of coursework, Ross began a series of therapy rotations that included work in an anxiety clinic, an in-patient eating disorder clinic and a community counseling center. He also worked part-time at a residential program for patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. For his fifth year - an internship year - he headed north to Dover, New Hampshire, where he served as a therapist at the University of New Hampshire on-campus counseling center.
From Dover, Ross recently made his way to Wilmington, North Carolina (“I’m recreating Delaware,” he joked.), where he works in a similar role at the UNC-Wilmington counseling center. He underscores the importance of student access to mental health services.
“There’s such a wide range of difficulties that students come in with,” he said. “I think it’s such a critical time in an emerging adult’s life - they have so many new responsibilities. It’s also when a lot of really serious mental health issues can crop up.”
Ross hopes to continue working in university counseling when he completes his post-doctoral fellowship, but he’s also open to the idea of working in a group private practice. Ideally he’d like to practice anywhere that gives him freedom in the flexible way he prefers to approach therapy.