Image: Painting by author Kateri Collins
Here at ESN, we love to share accounts of how emerging scholars discover new things about their vocation at every step of their careers. Kateri Collins participated in ESN events at Urbana 15 while in her graduate school application process. Here, she shares the story of discerning which graduate program she was called to, including how her carefully planned graduate school search process yielded a surprising—and satisfying—result.
In my junior year of college I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school. I was inspired by various areas of interest in social psychology, but specifically the issue of prejudice drew my attention. As an African American woman I have learned and heard so much about prejudice, but to learn about it through the lens of social psychology gripped me. Along with my passion for research, I was compelled to write about something I had personal experience in, but also that many African Americans in various regions of the United States have to confront. I decided to write my class research paper on prejudice within the health care system that dealt with African Americans.
I became passionate about this topic and, after some encouragement from my professor who said that I was writing at a graduate level, I decided to pursue the topic further by doing an independent study with him the following year. I knew that I loved doing research and I was convinced that I wanted to get a PhD. I began researching PhD programs in social psychology in Massachusetts and began to contact various professors to see if their department was doing any research on this topic so I could do follow up research in graduate school. What I found out was that none of the schools I contacted were doing any of the research I was interested in. I was a little disappointed, but after conversations with fellow graduate students and further research, I realized what I was interested in was under public health rather than social psychology. By this point I was not far from graduation and I knew it would be too stressful to try and apply to graduate school while trying to finish up senior year while writing two theses!
About six months after I graduated I entered a mentoring program through Intervarsity Black Scholars and Professionals Women’s Fellowship in the Boston Area. The interim Regional Director of GFM/NE, Dr. Alice Brown-Collins, set up a women’s mentoring program for the women in the fellowship. Since I was interested in public health I was set up with someone who had been in the public health field for many years. I was extremely excited to be paired up with this wonderful woman of God because she worked for the CDC and had previously been in academia as a professor. I was looking forward to getting to know her, but also learning a lot. We spoke on the phone a couple of times a month, always starting our conversations with prayer. After we talked about my research interests, she began to tell me about the public health field and how my research interests were a match for a specific part of the field. She helped me narrow down what part of the field I would be interested in. She would send me top researchers in the field to look up and read their research. About 5 months into the mentoring I was instructed to begin looking up schools I might be interested in applying to and their various requirements. Before I had done that I had signed up at various school interest email lists. Since I am an organization freak, I created an excel spreadsheet with all the schools I was interested in applying to and their requirements. Because of various schools’ requirements, I only had the qualifications to apply to their master’s program; with others I could apply to the PhD program. I included all the information I needed as well as classes I might need to take.
However, throughout this whole process I was extremely overwhelmed and stressed. Though I hadn’t even gone through the process of applying, the process of looking up everything was extremely overwhelming, confusing, stressing, and unsettling in my spirit. Though it seemed like I was “pursuing” a degree I was highly interested in, nothing I was doing seemed exciting. In fact, why was I so upset if this was really a discipline that I supposedly loved?
Then it dawned on me that I was completely neglecting a whole other side of my personality that was ingrained in me since I was a little girl. I am a very artsy person, I love to help people, and I love the mental health field. I figured I could make mental health changes through public health, which I am pretty sure would have been possible, BUT it wasn’t my calling. That is why I never had peace when researching and learning about public health. I love the artsy side of myself and would be unfilled in just getting an advanced degree in public health. For example I love music; I have been playing the flute for close to 20 years now and, in general, music soothes my soul. I love theatre, especially musical theatre, and I have been in seven productions and miss it so much. I love the visual arts; I am an abstract painter and love being able to create pieces that tell a story. Lastly I love poetry; I have been writing poetry since I was in middle school and it is a way for me to express myself in a way that makes sense to me.
This led me to my current degree of choice, which is Mental Health Counseling with a Specialization in Expressive Art Therapy. Expressive Art Therapy is a therapy tool that helps people heal through the arts; whether that is through art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, dance therapy, or poetry/bibliography therapy. I prayed about it and I knew this was the perfect degree for me.
I was completely at peace when deciding to apply for a degree in Expressive Art Therapy. I will not deny that applying to graduate school can be a very stressful process, but I can tell you that I was excited, stress free, and not even close to being overwhelmed when I found out what my calling was and stopped trying to find just a career. In addition, I found all types of support, including a mentor. I was so excited and confident about the process that I got my application in two months before the deadline. I will admit, getting your application in so early is good, but the anticipation of hearing back is a killer because I had to wait about three months before I heard anything!
I would like to encourage anyone that is going to or thinking about going to graduate school. Do not be afraid to find your passion, which means you must pray and know what God is calling you to do. Also there is no harm in talking to people who are in the field you are interested in to get clarification. Though I did not pursue public health, I think because of the mentorship I realized that it was not a field for me. The mentorship gave me the clarification I needed to know where to go and not go. Also have people pray for you while you are in this process. It is a very stressful process and going to graduate school is like preparing for “American Ninja Warrior”; it’s tough but rewarding in the end! Whatever you do, though, have fun in the process. Apply to places where you can learn extraordinary things. Listen to God and your heart, you never know where is might take you!