Toby Dennert came to the counseling profession through a route that seems perfectly unplanned. After graduating with an undergraduate degree in political science and almost 15 years as a successful manager in the restaurant industry, the father of two was considering a career change.

The idea came to him after about a year of leading a support group in his church. “I realized I was enjoying the two hours a week at the church more than I was the 50-plus hours at the restaurant,” he recalls.

Toby Dennert in his office

So he reached out to his pastor to find out about becoming a counselor. “I wanted to be one of those people who helps people,” he says. “I asked her, how do I do that?”

Without a background in psychology or formal experience in counseling, Dennert wondered what type of graduate or licensing program might be a good fit.

Putting the Pieces Together

What he found was the U of M’s Master of Professional Studies in Integrated Behavioral Health. “You don’t have to have a degree in psychology or counseling,” Dennert says. “So I thought maybe this is the best program for me. I didn’t have to take any prerequisites; the program is all inclusive.”

He soon realized that his undergraduate degree in political science actually did apply to the field of mental health. “I was used to studying how people make decisions on a macro level, and now I’m studying how people make decisions on a personal level. I thought, I can use some of that.”

"Find something that you are passionate about, what motivates you, what breaks your heart, and throw yourself into it.”

By taking classes over the summer, Dennert hopes to graduate by the end of the year. Eight to ten credits a semester is a tall order for a typical student, much less a working parent with nine additional private clients.

To stay balanced he advises students to, “plan your schoolwork ahead of time, practice self care, and do activities that get your mind off things. Recharge your batteries and get outside, or you’ll burn out.”

In Practice

Dennert was recently hired full-time by his internship, Minnesota Alternatives, an adult outpatient clinic that provides mental health and substance use treatment and consultation services.

“Some might think working at an outpatient clinic is easier, but it isn’t necessarily. You don’t always know where your clients are. You call them if they miss an appointment. Sometimes they call you back, sometimes they don’t.”

Toby Dennert

Most of his clients, he explains, are there by choice, but some are not. “But if they have to go, they come to a place like this.” Why? “Because we are focused on harm reduction not abstinence.” Harm reduction emphasizes modifying a person’s behavior based on manageable, client-directed steps.

“Forcing people is not the answer,” Dennert says. “Each goal is personal. Some people want to quit, but some just want to cut down. With this methodology you may be able to reach more people. Some people decide that cutting back is working and decide to quit, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. A big part of the IBH program is being accepting of different philosophies.”


Dennert received the Bridge the Gap Scholarship from The Quell Foundation, whose mission is to lift the stigma of mental illness by encouraging people to share their stories, increasing access to mental health services, providing a pipeline of future mental health care professionals with scholarships, and expanding training for first responders. (Read an interview with Quell's executive director.)

“I believe in Quell’s mission,” Dennert says. “Everybody has something they can work on. We all have moments of depression and anxiety.” The scholarships also provide networking and training opportunities, mentoring, and internships, as well as access to events.

"A big part of the IBH program is being accepting of different philosophies.”

After years of accumulating business and human resource experience in restaurants, he now has the unique ability to motivate and lead others. “I could see myself in an advisory position, developing my leadership skills and creating more leaders. I like to work in teams and discuss cases. A team can do more than one person alone.”

Dennert is further proof that you sometimes have to take a little detour to find your true path. 

Favorite Courses

  • Motivational Interviewing
  • Human Lifespan and Development


Dennert is a recipient of the Nolte-Miller and Mucke-Roff scholarships.