When Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of the national non-profit organization Give an Hour, accepted an invitation to speak at spring commencement for the University of Maryland’s Psychology Department, it caused her to reflect on the first time she stepped foot on the College Park campus.
“I thought I was in heaven,” Van Dahlen said. “It was this big, beautiful campus with all these colors and the big M. It was an amazing time to be a part of a university that was so vibrant and a real community.”
For a native Californian who’d never traveled east of Nevada, coming to UMD for graduate school was an opportunity to distance herself from a childhood punctuated by trauma and heartbreak: growing up with a schizophrenic mother; going through her parents’ divorce; grieving the loss of her brother who died in a drowning accident at the age of 15.
These experiences from her youth inspired Van Dahlen to pursue a career as a psychologist in order to help children and families deal with emotional pain and suffering. Then, while completing her master’s degree at UMD, tragedy struck again when Van Dahlen’s father passed away unexpectedly.
“Factors shaped me before (coming to UMD), factors shaped me during and what I did afterwards and how I dealt with that is really what has allowed me to do the work that I do today,” Van Dahlen said.
After receiving her master’s and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UMD, Van Dahlen went on to practice psychology privately in the Washington, D.C. area. In 2005, concerns about the mental health impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led her to create Give an Hour, a network of mental health professionals who provide free services to U.S. troops, veterans, their loved ones and their communities.
“I had no education—none, zero—in starting a non-profit. I literally read Non-Profits for Dummies in Barnes and Noble,” Van Dahlen said. “It took a tremendous amount of work and required me to draw on other skills and to reach out to people who could help me.”
Today, the network has nearly 7,000 providers who have collectively given more than 184,000 hours of care, valued upwards of $18.4 million. In 2012, Van Dahlen was named to TIME’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world due to her work with Give an Hour. Although she never would have predicted how her career path would play out while studying at the University of Maryland, Van Dahlen says she hopes to encourage the Class of 2016 to have the courage to continually take on new challenges.
“I really believe our lives are structured in chapters and the one you’re in right now, live it to the fullest, drive it as hard as you want—but be open, because you’re not necessarily going to know when you’ve turned the page and it’s time to start a new one,” Van Dahlen advised.
Van Dahlen is also passionate about changing the narrative and culture of mental health in the United States and is leading a nationwide effort called the Campaign to Change Direction. She credits the University of Maryland for helping her gain the tools necessary to change the direction of her own life.
“I’ve gotten to a place in life where I don’t feel like the unwanted step kid anymore,” Van Dahlen said. “Being invited to be a speaker at the University of Maryland is another excellent point on my journey that shows I’ve made it into the mainstream and that feels pretty good.”