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Katrina Llanillo Johnson

Name: Katrina Llanillo Johnson

Hometown: Cavite, Philippines

Undergraduate school and program: University of California, Merced – Bachelor's in Molecular and Cell Biology

Graduate school and program: Bay Path University – Master's in Applied Behavior Analysis

Graduation year: 2023

How did you come to learn about behavior analysis?

I was actually going into nursing, mainly in pediatrics. Originally, I was taking classes, prerequisite requirements, to get into nursing. I was thinking I wanted more experience with kids even though I'd already done a lot of mentorship and programs that dealt with children. However, I knew I needed to be more hands on, especially in my community where there are many underserved. We lack health professionals on every end because everyone wants to go to cities like LA [Los Angeles], San Francisco, etc. We're in the Central Valley, the rural area where the farmland is. No one wants to be here, so I was like, “You know what? I'm going to go ahead and try this out, this applied behavior analysis thing. I've never heard of this thing. Let’s go ahead and try it out.”

I went to training for two weeks and got my license for Applied Behavior Analysis technician. This was back in August of 2020, so just a little over a year ago. I came to learn more about behavior analysis. Did my research, talked a lot to my supervisor, and I thought, “Well, this is very interesting stuff, right?” I never thought there was such a field that involves such very hands-on training and helping children. That's my passion: to help kids. So, finding this field was very much a game changer in my career path because I was clouded with different ideas on what I wanted to do.

So why did you believe that this particular field was for you?

I was working with kids with autism already. Also, I had such really good supervisors and mentors in the field. I didn't think I was going to pursue a master’s at all, but the more I worked with the kids, the more I felt like this is probably where I wanted to be. After I graduated from college, I actually went straight into the workforce doing laboratory, you know, microbiology stuff. We were mainly focusing on food safety, seeing if food contained bacteria like E. Coli, listeria, etc., and I just did not find myself enjoying it. There were so many opportunities for me to be able to climb up the career ladder in it, but I was not having a fun time at all. I would always dread going to work. I even switched companies to see if I still wanted to do this thing. Then I was like, “No, I can't do it.” So, I was lucky enough to get laid off, I guess, in December 2019.

I thought, “Alright, fine. Whatever. I'll just focus on my studies.” So, I was taking some courses like Anatomy, Physiology so that I could move on to nursing. Then I found the job in ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis], and I felt inspired and motivated, constantly wanting to see my clients. How are they doing talking to their parents? And I’m so happy to hear from parents. They say things like, “You know he's never said ‘mom’ before, and I finally started hearing him say ‘mom.’” My response would be, “You make me want to tear up.” I am an emotional person. I love nurturing, as somebody who deals with PCOS [polycystic ovarian syndrome]. I'm married, and I want to have kids, but I can't. So, I'm living the dream, I feel, through this job. I know I can't experience the full thing, taking care of and putting the kids to bed and all that, but I could have some kind of feel for motherhood.

I just love it, and so I just imagine myself working better. I pursued a master’s because I want to become a BCBA [Board Certified Behavior Analyst]. I want to work more with the families to directly help implement aerial intervention. And make a bigger impact, especially here in the Central Valley of California, where there are, like I said earlier, no health professionals at all to be found around here. It's so difficult to find help, especially for kids with disabilities, so I'm passionate about health care and nurturing children because they are the future. We can't just focus on the adults so much more so than the kids. I feel like our focus should be on the future of the children.

I could have been a nurse, but I feel like there is a place for me in becoming a BCBA and just connecting with these people, with these kids and their families.

Now I'm going into you being actually in the program, and I know you said you just finished your first semester. What is something you are adjusting to?

I think what I'm adjusting to the most is balancing work, school, clinical supervision hours, and then having a family life. Those are the big things that are going on in my life, and I feel like it's really important for me to be able to prioritize, right? But I'm the kind of person who likes doing a lot of things, keeping myself busy. I actually am part of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee as well as an assistant volunteer coordinator for the Conference Committee at the California ABA organization. I want to keep going in the pursuit of excellence. I have all the assets that I'll be using in the future because I'm somebody who's actually wanting to do research in DI (Diversity Inclusion) in the future and mainly in the Filipino communities. I want to pursue a PhD, too. So, I have to make sure I have everything, but at the same time I have family to think about.

With adjusting to the grad program, I actually have a planner. I do decorative planning. I don't know if you're familiar with that, but it's like scrapbooking but using a planner to memory/rewind plan. I also have a regular day-to-day academic planner that I can reference to ensure that I’m on track. I’ve learned to juggle, even though I'm still constantly adjusting. But I feel like with the program that I'm in, Applied Behavior Analysis, we’re always talking about respondent conditioning, classical conditioning, and other psychological concepts and behavioral principles. These classes are helping me adjust and apply [these concepts] such as my behavior in my life and to myself. I ask questions like, “What am I doing to change my environment so I could better learn, or I could better schedule? Better prioritize?” and “How am I supposed to do this properly?” It’s really cool to see my graduate studies be applied in real life to myself because I never did that for biology.

I feel like I very well adjusted, but at the same time, this upcoming semester is going to be crazy because I am starting my journey of accruing 2000 hours as a requirement to sit for the BCBA certification exam in two years on top of my research class. How am I going to juggle all this work? Life, family balance, and taking care of myself too? I need to not forget about taking care of myself or else none of what I want can happen.

What is something you love or you feel you are good at in your program?

I’m a very sociable person despite me being introverted. I feel like it’s my ability to communicate what I say, feel, and think. I try my best to be as blunt as possible in the most respectful way because I feel like my communication skills are definitely one of the biggest strengths that I have. And it's important, especially in the field of ABA, where you have to be able to talk to your families, to the people, the clients' families. Also, I make sure that I translate my jargon, my ABA jargon, to the families.

This can help with that, instead of me just spouting out ABA terminology. I feel like it's very much my strength to be able to communicate as well as translate what the families need. It's important in any work setting to use communication skills. A lot of our kiddos enjoy verbal praises such as “You’re doing so great.” Positive reinforcements. A lot of people think, “Oh. You give them a piece of candy when they do something good.” Yeah, but there’s much assessing and understanding on what the kiddo really likes. Sometimes they like cuddles. Sometimes they like hugs. Sometimes they just want a high five, or sometimes they just want to hear you say, “Great job.”

Also, just being able to read the room to understand what they need. For me, I think I'm rather good at that, like understanding what they really need from me. How can I assist them? I'm always the person who, when sending an email to a supervisor or a colleague, says, “Hey, how are you doing? How's life going? I need this and this and this, but if you need any assistance at all in anything, I will do my best to help you.” It kind of goes against saying “no,” but at the same time I want to be there for people. I think I'm very much an empath.

My Filipino culture is rooted in hospitality, and so I need to be hospitable. I need to be servicing others. I'm always constantly wanting to serve; that's the biggest thing about me. Just giving myself to others I feel is something I truly enjoy. Also, I like being on a team, although sometimes it's hard to be with some people, but I like mediating. We need to talk. We’re human beings. We can talk; we can communicate. I think I'm a positive person, too. I like seeing the cup half full, not half empty.

So, I must switch off the school stuff and ask what's something that you enjoy doing outside of school?

I like playing video games. I enjoy a lot more of team video games like this one called League of Legends. I play with my friends who I actually recently met online. We’ve been friends about a year now. One of them just saw me in person just this week to visit. My brother was kind of sad, so [the friend] wanted to see my brother. He drove 5 1/2 hours from SoCal (southern California) to see us in NorCal (northern California) because he cares about us and wants to be there for us. It’s the sweetest thing. I just enjoy their company and love their genuine friendship.

Also, I do calligraphy since I run a small business on the side. I have a sticker shop like I told you earlier, for decorative planning. So, I write scripts such as words and stuff. Customers could put the stickers on their planner, scrapbook, etc.

I also enjoy watching anime. That's something my husband and I very much connect with. On Sunday nights, we just chill on the couch. It’s a day at church, and then the rest of the day is family time. So, we watch anime, and we play video games. We simply gather.

I like putting aside time just for me and [husband] James. I think it's really important to keep the relationship healthy and thriving and strong.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I see myself becoming a BCBA, hopefully, working with kids still here as well. My husband is graduating from college, too. He's doing Engineering in Material Science, so I don't know where we'll actually end up, but I definitely will continue practicing ABA. Hopefully, I'll be in a PhD program probably starting on research, you know, the big girl things. Also, continue doing what I love doing, which is interacting with kids, helping them learn about themselves, helping them grow and develop their skills. Hopefully, by that time we'll have a house, too.

The year 2023 is the goal. That's when my husband and I will get our education and have everything all figured out. I hope that by 2026, we will have kids.

What advice would you give to any student interested in becoming a BCBA but either they're doubtful in their ability to get into a program, or they have already failed to get into a program, and maybe they're doubtful about trying again?

Take your time. Life isn't a race. Sometimes I look at other people like when I'm on Instagram. I see people and that they're doing these things, big things: PhD programs and all that. Sometimes I personally feel behind, but in reality, there's no such thing as falling behind. We are all on our own timelines. Take your time; enjoy what you're doing. I know it hurts to fail, but if you take a step back and think about figuring out where you should focus yourself, then you'll understand where you need to improve.

I took two years to figure out [ABA] is where I want to be. That’s ok. Especially for undergraduate students, who typically think, “Oh, I need to graduate in four years, and I need to go directly to grad school or med school or whatever school.” But in reality, you need to give yourself time. You need to take a break. It's ok to take a break. You'll be fine. No one's going to tell you, “Wait, you shouldn’t be doing that at this point in your life.” And if they do, then remind them to mind their own business.

I always tell the people who I still talk to or are still in college that if it takes you six years or seven years to graduate from college, then fine, whatever. You have your whole life ahead of you. Take care of yourself because what's going to kill you is if you don't take care of yourself. Refocus yourself. Where are you right now? Just think about it. Jot things down. Brainstorm for yourself.

There are so many career pathways, but if you're going into ABA, you need to learn about your environment more and how these environmental factors affect how you think, affect how you do, and maybe you need to change something to improve. Learn that maybe “that's the thing that made me fail, or that didn't help me in the end; maybe I should get rid of that.” It's ok to get rid of things. You’ve got to keep going. It's ok to take your time. I mean, there are some people out there who are graduating with their undergraduate, bachelor’s at 60 years old. Those are awesome people. You don't have to go from undergraduate to grad school right away. You could take some time in the middle, find yourself, travel the world, get married, have kids, etc.

And then you could go to grad school because ABA is a field where you really need to understand your environment. And you need to learn how it affects you, because if you can't apply it to yourself, then you're going to have a hard time applying it for the kids that you should be helping. The people don't have to be kids. They can be elderly people with disabilities. Or young teenagers, etc.

So, that’s my advice. Just take your time and assess your environment.

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