When Austin Mariasy was laid off in 2020 as a staff photographer at a university in Indiana, he turned that setback into an opportunity to explore his career options and goals.
During the pandemic, he took whatever jobs he could find.
“I sold furniture for while. I worked with people with developmental disabilities as an office staff person. I also had an entry level job as a mental health counselor/coach – technically, a skills trainer with a nonprofit organization,” Mariasy says. “I was positioned in the schools working with kids with mental health issues, mostly helping them improve their performance in the classroom.”
Working with those students sparked something for Mariasy. He realized he wanted the training and knowledge to more effectively benefit the students. That coupled with his work with an LGBTQ+ advocacy nonprofit he founded in the conservative community where he lived led him to pursue a degree in social work at the University of South Carolina.
“One of the big things that came out of that experience was that I saw we need queer therapists where we can feel comfortable talking about our queerness and get help,” he says.
After being accepted to the College of Social Work, the Ohio native and his husband moved to Columbia so he could pursue a degree through the college’s part-time master’s program.
“Moving to South Carolina has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. I just absolutely love the state,” Mariasy says. “When I decided that I wanted to pursue social work as a career, USC was the only place I applied, and I was ecstatic when I got in.”
We asked Mariasy about his decision to switch careers, his experience as a student at USC and his goals once he earns his social work degree.
Were there other influences that helped drive your decision to study social work to support LGBTQ+ students and adults?
One of the big reasons I decided to leave full-time photography is that I felt like I wasn't doing enough to truly help people. I've been out of the closet since seventh grade. I’m close with my family now, but like a lot of LGBTQ+ people, it took a while to get to the point where they were comfortable. In the past, I’ve had some suicidal thoughts and ideations, which is also common among LGBTQ+ people. I am passionate about turning around to help the next person, so supporting the queer communities has always been important for me.
You’re in the part-time study program. What has been your experience during your first year in the College of Social Work.
Incredible. All the professors have been very helpful, and they are able to take complex concepts and theories and make them easy to understand. I feel like I can reach out to them with any issues that I have. For financial reasons, I wasn’t able to be a full-time student. I have to work (including using his photography skills as a freelancer), so without the part-time option, it wouldn’t have been feasible for me to attend the university.
How do you feel like you’re being prepared for your goals to work with LGBTQ+ people?
One of my classes right now is about diversity, intersectionality and the challenges of demographics that you may not have experienced. As a whole, the college is giving us a broad of education on how to help any demographic. I also am in the Drug Addiction Studies Certificate Program, so I will be qualified to become a certified drug addiction counselor. The LGBTQ+ community has disproportionate rates of drug and alcohol abuse, so it’s important to have that training as well.
Once you complete your degree, what are your specific career goals?
There are certification classes to become a licensed certified queer therapist, so I also would like to get that certification. I want it to be a badass queer therapist helping queer people with their queer issues. After I get some practical experience, my goal would be to direct my own private practice offering therapy for queer individuals with a focus on teens to young adults. I want other people to become the best they can possibly be and to help them gain the confidence – regardless of whether they’ve experienced negativity or discrimination – to be a success in whatever field they decide to pursue.