From Fashion Model to Psychotherapist: A Career Change with Columbia’s Help Inspires a Bequest
When Laurie Gehen Marsden ’98GS ’99SW decided to transition from a career as an international fashion model to a career in the “helping professions,” which provide health and education services to individuals and groups, she knew she needed a college degree—maybe more than one.
“I was living in New York and at a crossroads in my life,” recalls Laurie, now a psychotherapist living in Australia. “I had left modeling and was doing some writing and wanted to help women in some way. I had one year of college and thought, ‘If I am going back to school, I should go to one of the best.’ Columbia’s School of General Studies not only accepted me but offered me scholarships so that I could go full-time. While there, I immersed myself in the Columbia experience.”
Grateful for the financial support and the education that launched her career as a successful psychotherapist who developed the first online therapy program for women, Laurie is giving back to Columbia—with annual gifts, volunteer work, and a gift in her estate plan to both the School of General Studies and the School of Social Work. She currently serves as the School of General Studies chair for the 1754 Society Participation Drive, a university-wide initiative to encourage other volunteers and donors to consider including Columbia in their estate plans—like she has.
Dreams of the big city, beyond, and back again
Laurie Gehen grew up in a small town outside of Buffalo, New York. She graduated from high school at 17 and was already in demand as a fashion model, but she promised her parents she would go to at least one year of college first—which she did at Canisius College in Buffalo.
“A day after my final exams, I moved to New York,” Laurie says.
For the next 11 years she globe-trotted around the world as an international fashion model, working in France, Italy, England, Germany, Brazil, and Australia and appearing on the covers of Town & Country, Vogue, and Bazaar. When not on the runway, she immersed herself in the arts and culture of the many lands she visited. But it was not all good times. She saw how models were sometimes used and mistreated. In response, she is currently working with the Model Alliance to improve labor practices for the modeling industry.
After more than a decade of modeling, Laurie decided she wanted out. She briefly engaged in a business venture that didn’t work out and then decided to go back to school and study for a profession that helped women. For the next four years at Columbia—pursuing both an undergraduate and graduate degree—she immersed herself in her studies and in women’s issues.
“I loved being at Columbia,” Laurie says. “I loved the professors, and I loved the students. The professors were approachable and interesting and they were interested in students’ insights and opinions. It was about being part of this intellectual community, but it was even more than that: It was like a family in a way. I finally felt like I had found my tribe, and that was very moving for me. I tell people all the time that my Columbia years were some of the best years of my life—and I had quite the glamorous life before.”
As part of earning a master of science in clinical social work, Laurie interned at an inpatient psychiatric unit caring for critically ill mental health patients. After graduation she went to work at a mental health clinic in Harlem and eventually started running groups for women patients.
“I had an interest in working with women going back to my days as a model,” Laurie says. “Modeling creates all these images that negatively affect women’s self-esteem. I found that women, no matter how sick they are, tend to have trouble with the same underlying problems. And that is what you work on in therapy: you treat what is underneath.”
She went on to open a small private practice in New York and then married Australian Richard Marsden and moved across the world. While raising their two children (now 16 and 18), Laurie worked for a counseling service for Vietnam veterans and opened a private practice in Brisbane—again focusing on seminars and group counseling for women. After a decade the family of four moved back to New York.
“I then began developing a program to help women improve their mood, increase their self-esteem, and build healthy relationships,” Laurie explains. “I noticed that at that time, in 2013, there were not many online programs available, and none dedicated to women, so I decided to transition my class online—and it became the first online therapy program for women.”
Laurie decided to offer her program for free during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Like a lot of people, I felt helpless in a way with so many suffering from stress and mental challenges during the pandemic,” Laurie says. “I made the program free because I just wanted to do something.”
Supporting women in need and Columbia from across the world
Laurie and her family moved back to Australia in December of 2019, just before the pandemic hit. Although she is happy to be back in Australia, the country’s closed borders have also meant not traveling to the U.S.—though she continues to volunteer virtually for Columbia and is putting in many hours for the 1754 Society Participation Drive.
Laurie calls it “an honor” to chair the legacy society drive for the School of General Studies. She has also participated in many other volunteer activities for both schools, including making a humorous video promoting the 1754 Society, speaking to the GS winter graduating class of 2019, and presenting a mental health webinar to the SSW. During the pandemic, Laurie created a video for alumni overseas and gave a presentation to a GS and SSW joint audience called "Keeping It Together: Mental Wellness During the Pandemic."
“In addition to volunteering, a bequest by beneficiary designation in my retirement plan is the best way for me to give—and it’s probably the easiest way for a lot of people to support their school,” Laurie says. "Some people may be a little hesitant about giving because they are uncertain what their needs will be in the future, but with a bequest you really don’t have to worry about that. You leave something for your children or other loved ones and there’s always room to give something in your estate planning to Columbia. No matter the size, you’ll make an impact.
“The thread throughout my life has been the desire to help people, especially to help women deal with trauma and live healthier lives. Columbia enabled me to be able to do this professionally. I feel so blessed to have had a Columbia education and to now be able to give back.”
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