For most of his life, Austin Angiolillo has been in “some sort of therapy” for mental illness. Finding a caring, supportive therapist has been almost as challenging as the mental illness itself, though.

“I was assigned female at birth, but I have identified as a man from a very young age,” the 23-year-old from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, tells Healthline.

“I always found it very challenging to see new therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists without this part of my identity being questioned and invalidated. I constantly had to prove myself as a man and felt that no one took me seriously,” he says.

The struggles he faced in finding mental healthcare as a transgender, bisexual person inspired him to pursue a career helping the LGBTQIA+ community get support. Currently a second-year graduate student at La Salle University, Angiolillo has twice received the Making a Difference Award for LGBTQ Advocacy and plans to offer inclusive mental health services through an “anti-racist, queer, and trans-affirming lens.”

We asked Angiolillo about his studies, goals, and obstacles. Here’s what he had to say.

This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.

I decided to enter psychology because I have a long history of mental illness. I have been in therapy since middle school and have had to navigate the world living as a person with mental illness for as long as I can remember.

After years of facing discrimination as a transgender, bisexual person from the mental health field, I decided that I wanted to be the change that I hoped to see. I wanted other LGBTQIA+ people to have a more positive experience with mental health professionals. I wanted to make my younger self proud and to make other young people comfortable. That meant pursuing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and conducting research in the field that will benefit the needs of LGBTQIA+-identified individuals everywhere.

One of my biggest goals is to complete my doctoral degree and work with LGBTQIA+ populations. I want to practice clinical psychology through an intersectional feminist, anti-racist, queer, and trans-affirming lens.

My goal right now is to work in a university setting as a psychologist in counseling centers. From there, I would be able to have individual therapy clients and facilitate group therapy for different needs within the LGBTQIA+ community.

I would also love to become a professor and teach at the undergraduate and graduate level the importance of LGBTQIA+-inclusive psychological practice. I would love to teach classes on the history of LGBTQIA+ populations in psychology as well as where I see the field going in the future.

Far into the future I see myself creating and working in an organization that strictly provides mental healthcare for people within the LGBTQIA+ community as well as providing outreach and educational services for psychology programs and schools.

One of the biggest obstacles that I have encountered so far is navigating a career as a transgender person. There are still many barriers that exist for transgender people in the workplace.

I know of several people who are not supportive of the transgender community and therefore are unwilling to work with me in a professional setting, clinically or within research.

I have had my identity invalidated countless times while attempting to build myself as a professional, and it has been really challenging. I imagine this will continue to be an obstacle as I move toward my goals.

Another obstacle that I envision I will encounter is the challenge of finding a sponsor or getting a grant to conduct future research around LGBTQIA+ (but more specifically, transgender) populations. This is because of the immense amount of stigma that exists regarding these populations.

This research is important, however, and I will make it happen — even if it means funding it myself.

You are heard, you are valid, you are important. Never let anyone tell you that you have to be anyone or anything that you do not want to be. You will be successful; you already are.

I am proud to be a part of this community because I am always surrounded by so much love when I am with my fellow LGBTQIA+ siblings. I know how hard it can be to feel like an outcast, to feel like no one understands, and to feel like no one is rooting for you. I am standing with you, I understand, and I am rooting for you.

I want to work toward creating something that we can all be proud of. I want something built by us for us, and I will never lose my determination to make that happen. I am going to make the mental health field more accessible for people like us, and I hope that you will join me in that fight.

Joni Sweet is a freelance writer who specializes in travel, health, and wellness. Her work has been published by National Geographic, Forbes, the Christian Science Monitor, Lonely Planet, Prevention, HealthyWay, Thrillist, and more. Keep up with her on Instagram and check out her portfolio.