English Ph.D. Alumni Spotlight: Denise Ayo ('13)

Author: Blake Holman

Denise Ayo

Denise Ayo is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate who provides individual therapy to adults and adolescents at Recore Counseling in Mishawaka, IN.

After graduating with her Ph.D. in 2013, her academic publishing included "Do You Want to Build a Childhood Trauma: Parental Agency and Authority in Disney's Frozen," a chapter in Social Order and Authority in Disney and Pixar Films. She also worked in university administration and advising at Notre Dame while teaching. She is particularly proud of her course on video games and gender. That work informed her more recent specialization in working with gamers and incorporating video games into therapy. She returned to graduate school in 2019 to pursue an M.S.Ed. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

When asked about the value of the English program in her life and career, Denise writes:

I like to say that a Ph.D. in English is essentially a Ph.D. in Empathy. Literature asks us to experience, in deep and profound ways, the thoughts and feelings of others. The work of finding patterns, exploring new perspectives, staying curious, and striving towards understanding is as relevant to a therapist as it is to a literary scholar. Not to mention, I read the majority of Freud's work for my comp exams, which shaped my theoretical approach to counseling and informs my work with clients on a daily basis. Likewise, delving into gender studies as a Ph.D. candidate inspired my passion for supporting members of the LGBTQ+ community, and my experience as an academic has made me uniquely qualified to work with university students, faculty, and staff.
Alt-ac career paths, such as the one Denise travels, are not usually obvious before they are walked. Abandoning her dreams of a tenure-track position was, by her own admission, a difficult and painful experience. But it's also an encouragement to cultivate openess to opportunity and to see where you can go, with the intellectual capacities engendered through studying English. Denise warns against making your profession your identity.
Her primary focus since the summer of 2022 has been building her practice, including developing a specialization in working with gamers and incorporating video games into therapy. You can learn more about her practice at deniseayo.com and how she uses games at https://www.deniseayo.com/videogames/. She hopes to return to writing in the future to further explore the intersection of pop culture and mental health.