Emma Vaughn-Matthews ’19 Builds Programs that Support Mental Health at NAMI in Portland, OR

A quarter of the way through my internship with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness, which works to improve the lives of those living with mental illness and the lives of their families) in Portland, I, Emma Vaughn-Matthews ’19, have been given my own desk (!!!) and work cell phone (!!!!!!!!!). I have also learned a few things; here are some.

People working 9-5 jobs email in two ways: a) they either sit at their computers reloading their inbox page to pounce on new messages instantly, or, b) they neglect communication just until it is borderline unacceptable (like, what could Carol have possibly been up to for the last 47 hours?). Either of these scenarios provokes slight anxiety in me—in situation “a,” I feel the need to keep up emailing pace and thus answer immediately; in situation “b,” I want to make up for time wasted and thus, again, answer as quickly as I can. This aggressive communication style often compels me to start cranking out emails first thing in the morning with 0mg caffeine in my system. I aim to chill out with my email habits a little.

But all that emailing is essential. I work at both the state- and county-level offices, (that is, NAMI Oregon and NAMI Multnomah, respectively), and I have a set, long-term project at the Multnomah office: I am resurrecting an old program called Evening with the Experts. I am forming it as panels of multiple community members who can speak to specific topics in mental health/illness. The first panel will be on June 28th and is about mental health and houselessness. I’ve found it really nice to be able to do something for a nonprofit that might not otherwise have the resources. I work out the budget (an anonymous donation), brainstorm topics, and do PR, but the main thing I do all day is figure out who will be on the panels, where they will be, and how they will go. That leads me to the second thing I’ve learned:

Portland’s nonprofit community is like a small town—everyone knows everyone. For the first panel topic, my supervisor alone came up with five individuals and even more potential organizations that might be interested in speaking, just out of people with whom she’s had recent contact. I was in awe, but soon found this was the norm for people in the nonprofit scene. All of these connections make networking extremely efficient, and it also means that, like in a stereotypical small town, there is gossip and tension aplenty. Overhearing juicy tidbits about the politics between people and organizations keeps my day interesting. When I work from home instead of in the office, I miss out on those, and I miss being around people in general—

There are pros and cons of working in an office, and similarly of working from home. I usually am only at the office for 5-6 hours at a time, which is partially due to scheduling and partially due to the fact that I get uncomfortable very fast in an office environment: the fluorescent lights make my eyes all red and sitting down for hours makes my body ache. It’s good to know these things for the future. That said, my supervisors and coworkers can focus intensely all day long—they say it’s because they’re so passionate about what they’re doing. That’s inspiring to me, and that’s the way I want to feel about my career in the future. When I work from home, I can move around like I want to and can make myself breakfast etc., but I don’t get to interrupt my supervisor to ask for advice or share overly personal details about our lives.

This all and more has been great experience to shape my ideas about how I want my future career to be. I’ll prioritize being able to distance myself from my email during some hours of the day, I’ll want to be somewhere I can make valuable connections, and I’ll need to be able to move freely when I need to. And, I can accept a job that doesn’t come with a work cell phone—it’s a step down I’ll likely have to take.


Experiences like Emma’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff.

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