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Performing in a New Role

A veteran singer-songwriter goes back to school to find better ways to advocate for students with mental illness and addiction.

Melissa FerrickVeteran singer-songwriter Melissa Ferrick, who has recorded 17 albums, couldn’t have predicted that her music career would lead to education. But after more than 20 years of touring and playing music with artists ranging from Morrissey to k.d. lang to Bob Dylan, Ferrick found herself at a crossroads. Entering the  middle part of her career and ready to tour less, she was looking for what would come next. Then, she was asked to teach songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston. As it would turn out, she found music isn’t her only passion.

Having come from a family of educators — including her father, who still teaches math (and who also had a foray at HGSE in the late 1960s, when he took a course from Professor Howard Gardner) — Ferrick admits she was nonetheless surprised that teaching resonated so strongly with her, allowing her to develop capacities she hadn’t known she had. “I fell in love with learning,” she says. “It was great to discover that I could be good at something aside from writing songs and playing music.”

Especially since Ferrick is particularly good at those two things. She’s an eight-time winner of the Songwriter of the Year award at the Boston Music Awards, and — in addition to those 17 albums — she’s released a documentary and an album of covers, and her songs have been placed in films and on TV networks including HBO, ABC, and TBS. In 2012, she was named one of the top 100 most influential queer activists by OUT magazine. According to her bio, she’s played more than 6,000 shows.
 
But as she settled into her role as a Berklee faculty member, Ferrick soon began to feel a real kinship with her students. As those teacher/student relationships grew, students started confiding in her. It became clear that many of these young people were suffering immensely.

“I’d run into cases of mental illness or [discover that] their parents were struggling . . .” Ferrick says. “So many students were in peril and freaking out.”

In one semester, six of nearly 90 students were placed in a mental health hospitalization or treated for addictions in rehab, she recalls. Ferrick is quick to dismiss the idea that this is a unique challenge for students who are artists. The number of young college-goers who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse seems to be on the rise across all fields, not just so-called “creative” ones like music — something Gardner has acknowledged in his new National Study of Higher Education.

Although Ferrick speaks honestly about overcoming her own battles with alcoholism and mental illness, she felt ill-equipped to help her students, especially on a large scale. “How do I help these kids?” she remembers thinking. “I’m not a counselor.”

Making matters worse, says Ferrick, was that even if a student recognized that she needed counseling, it wasn’t readily available on campus. There are not enough counselors and limited appointments available when students need that resource, she says — a problem that exists on many college campuses.

She recognized that there were limits to how she could help as an associate professor. “I realized that I couldn’t make change beyond one student, working just one-on-one,” she says. So she decided to advance her own education.
 
While exploring graduate programs in the Boston-area, Ferrick came across HGSE and saw unique intersections among art, higher education, and special studies. The flexibility and opportunity to work in several disciplines — arts education, higher education, and nonprofit management — attracted Ferrick to the Ed School, where she enrolled as a part-time student while still teaching a full course load at Berklee throughout the year.
 
“It’s been completely different than I thought,” Ferrick says of her time at HGSE, noting that she’s enjoyed the good, hard conversations, the diversity, and the friendliness of the community. “It’s been an unbelievable experience — worth every penny, and completely life-changing.”

She has spent her two part-time years at HGSE honing her leadership skills while learning more about how to increase acceptance and understanding of those with mental illness or addiction.

Of course, Ferrick hasn’t left music behind, even finding time during Professor James Honan’s Managing Financial Resources in Nonprofit Organizations course for a quick performance, with some lyric changes directed toward one of her favorite teachers. As she works toward finishing her final semester and graduating this spring, Ferrick is open to many opportunities — and dreams big about the future.

“My goal is to teach, mentor, and hold a position of leadership within higher education,” she says, noting that she will continue to work to help those feeling vulnerable on campus.

“I firmly believe that the university that supports those who have felt or have been silenced will ultimately flourish. The school that increases financial support and modernizes their facilities to accommodate and uplift the whole student will be the one that not just survives but the one that truly succeeds.”