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A Graduation Message for Psychology Students

Last year I gave the graduation speech for the School of Psychological Sciences at Oregon State University, and I think the message is even more relevant today.

Three lessons on aim, persistenceAnd community can help you navigate the next chapter of life. We know from psychological research that facts and figures have less impact than personal stories, so I’ll add examples from my own experiences along the way.

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Aim

Think back to why you decided to become a psychology student. Was it out of a desire to help people? An insatiable curiosity about human nature? Make a difference in people’s lives? For me it was all of the above.

Dr. Kathleen Bogart delivers graduation speech. Behind her, a sign says “congratulations to graduates.”

Source: Kathleen Bogart

I have been interested in psychology since I was born. I was born with Moebius syndrome, a disability characterized by facial paralysis and the inability to move the eyes from side to side. Very early on, I realized that my way of communicating was unusual, that people were confused by my lack of facial expression. I became fascinated with communication and social interactions.

These interests led me to study psychology as a student. Towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, I decided to write my very first university dissertation on Moebius syndrome. I showed up at the library expecting to find pages and pages of answers, but discovered that there were only a handful of psychological articles published on this! This was bad news for two reasons: first, I didn’t have enough sources to write my essay. Second, my chosen field did not include people like me.

I realized I was at a crossroads. I could give up and choose another path, or I could start developing psychological knowledge in this area.

I chose the latter. I knew I had the unique drive and insight to develop this field. So I applied to graduate school, but the first time I applied I was rejected from every program.

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Graduate psychology research training follows a mentoring model, and because there were few psychologists studying disability and few psychologists with disabilities themselves, I had difficulty finding an advisor interested in this topic. Eventually, I found supportive allies who were my mentors. I was the speaker at my own doctoral graduation ceremony, when my mentor, Dr. Linda Tickle-Degnen, hooded me. A little over 10 years later, I spoke at the graduation ceremony, where I am now a faculty member, and hooded my first doctoral student with a disability.

I have spent over 15 years studying ableism, or prejudice against people with disabilities. Nearly 20% of Americans have a disability, making them one of the largest minority groups in the United States and now somewhat less underrepresented in psychology.

My experience made me realize the importance of finding purpose to live a fulfilling life. Personally, my work provides meaning by helping others living in similar conditions and teaching students about a broader, more diverse part of humanity.

I encourage you to find meaning in your work. It doesn’t have to be as ingrained in your identity as mine, and it doesn’t even have to be related to your job. But find an area, project, or hobby that you feel intense curiosity about, enthusiasm for learning, passion for change, and it will drive you to persevere. Success will follow. Studies consistently show that individuals who find meaning and purpose in their work are more engaged, fulfilled and resilient.

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Purpose is your own personal mission statement. What’s yours? It could be to love your fellow human beings, it could be to help others. Prioritize actions that match your mission.

Mine is to make the world more inclusive, using psychology!

Persistence

Thomas Edison’s quote that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” rings true to me. My successes are due to simple perseverance, as well as a lot of support (see lesson on community below). What keeps me going is that I find great personal meaning in my work.

My day job is not glamorous. I spend my time working with students or sitting alone in a room and writing. I commit to writing around the same time every day. Disability rights advocate Cassie Winter calls this type of work “chair time.” This simply means creating a consistent schedule to work on your priorities. Sometimes this means staring blankly and thinking about ideas; other times it means writing furiously in a state of flow. My time in the chair creates a sustainable rhythm, instead of falling into boom or bust cycles, and prevents burnout.

Your work and hobbies may be different from mine. Swap time in a chair for time with boots on the ground, or whatever speaks to you. The point is to prioritize making time to work on the things that matter to you.

Research links perseverance to a growth mindset. It is important to note that healthy perseverance involves flexibility, not nervous stubbornness. Albert Einstein said it best when he said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Failure is feedback from which we can learn and grow. Change your approach and try again.

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For example, when I didn’t get into any graduate schools the first time, I realized I needed to change my strategy. I studied for the GRE using a different approach and retook it. I also expanded my search to other parts of the country and applied to master’s programs. I first completed a master’s program, which gave me the opportunity to hone my skills. I was then ready to move on to my goal, a doctoral program.

Community

In college and graduate school, I craved friends and role models who identified as disabled, but found none. My experience made me aware of the need for better representation of marginalized people in higher education.

Now, I teach a course at OSU on the psychology of disability, where I give students with and without disabilities the opportunity to see the representation of this important minority group and its intersections. I also co-founded the Disability Advocacy Research Network (DARN), an organization for psychologists and students with disabilities to find a community I didn’t have before in my career. Last year, I gave the speech at OSU’s first disability graduation ceremony. I am so comforted to know that the next generation will be better able to find community.

This brings me to my final tip. Find or create your community: a place where you can be authentically yourself.

As you enter a new stage of life, community will become that much more important. Look for mentors who can guide you. Likewise, you are now in a position where you can mentor people who are just entering college. Studies have shown that strong social connections contribute to resilience and overall life satisfaction. By creating them, we not only enrich our own lives, but also create a ripple effect of support in the lives of those around us.