I started my graduate program in school psychology after I graduated with a useless degree - Family Life with an emphasis in Human Development. More often than not, I revise the major to just Human Development because it sounds a little more legitimate. At Brigham Young University where I got my degree, people joke that it’s the MRS degree - the degree women get to learn how to be a mom. Hilarious.
And the stigma around the MRS degree kind of fit me at the time. I had gone to BYU with every intention of getting married and absolutely no intention of having a career. I was a product of my culture. My place was to be in the home and graduating with any degree in and of itself was all I needed to accomplish.
Human Development wasn’t what I intended to study when I went to college, though. English was my first major and it felt like an obvious choice. But away from the comfort of my high school peers, many of whom I had known since elementary school, I struggled to focus on anything but worry about what other people thought of me. Am I measuring up? Do I sound smart enough? Am I supposed to be here? It was moments like the time when I was called on in class to use the word “supplant” in a sentence and I did it incorrectly that seemed to answer all these questions: No.
I moved into education where I thought I could teach. This lasted until I read through the syllabus for one of my courses at the beginning of the term, finding in horror an assignment outlining the requirement to create a video of me actually teaching. My heart raced to the unhealthy rate of a sedentary person in the middle of a marathon and I knew with absolute certainty – there was no way I was making a video of myself. Which left only one option. I had to quit the program.
Since I was three years into college with absolutely no idea what I wanted to do, I deferred to efficiency. With my transcript in one browser window and a list of programs with course requirements in another, I combed through the lists to see which program aligned with the courses I’d taken. I just needed to graduate. I settled on the degree that most closely matched the courses I had already taken and the one I could consequently graduate the soonest with.
I graduated with absolutely no plan for the future and no real understanding of myself or what I wanted. After a few feeble attempts to get a job at places I would’ve hated working, I started exploring the realm I felt most comfortable in: education. I looked for another degree (I was very familiar with the course catalog by this point) so I could stay safe in the familiarity of assignments and away from the unknown of work life and the reality of independence.
And that's how I stumbled upon school psychology. I hadn't ever heard of school psychologists before but after a few weeks of googling, I felt like I had a solid (read: glaringly naïve) understanding. I read through vague descriptions of what they do, researched salary expectations (a step in the right direction), and brought my preconceived assumptions about what anyone with the word “psychologist” in their title might do. Counseling! Helping people! Kids! These were all things I could get behind. The more I read, the more noble it sounded and the idea of one-on-one work seemed like a place where I could really thrive.
My struggles, though, began during the application process to the program. The day of the all-day interviews for the program I almost didn’t go because, you know, interviews. It took everything in me but I resisted the urge to email the program coordinator to please disregard my application. I was determined to conquer my insecurities and, in what felt like pure heroism, I showed up. And I got in.
Turns out, it wasn't just interview-anxiety but (surprise!) general-everyday-anxiety-that's-never-going-away. Every semester I hit a point where I felt like it was the wrong fit for me. I talked to one of my professors and shared my thoughts of quitting more times than I can count. I couldn’t tell if I was just being hard on myself or it truly wasn’t a good fit. I began to realize that my sure-fire system for making decisions was failing me. How could I rely on feelings when my feelings could convince me of two different things at once?
I kept going in the program. I almost quit, I cried, had panic attacks, and sat in my car during my practicum, willing myself to go inside but pushing against a wall of anxiety just to get in the door. I finished my thesis and presented at regional, national, and international conferences. I got awards for my work as an intern. “You’re so good at what you do,” people would tell me. “You’re barely making it,” I’d tell myself.
It’s not until now that I can look back and see so clearly the irony in my college experience. My educational choices culminated in becoming a school psychologist, an advocate for students with disabilities. It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, but it was my own disabilities that led me there. With each fork in the road, I chose the path that seemed most manageable with my (then-partially-diagnosed) mental illness. I was just trying to not dread every day of my life. I wish I could say I learned to mute these voices or self-assuredly push them aside. You know, the anxiety that told me, “If you do that, the worst possible thing will happen and you’ll regret it forever.” And the depression that said, “You’re just not good enough and you shouldn’t even try.” They were the voices spoken confidently, consistently, predictably. And ultimately, I can’t deny that my mental illness played a starring role in leaving the profession altogether.
Decisions are rarely made for a single reason and my choice to stop being a school psychologist was multi-faceted. We were trained in my program to try to prevent burn-out, to practice self-care, leave work at work, and do things to actively decompress. I did my best to follow these recommendations but I ended up still internalizing a lot. I hated the weight of being considered an “expert” in something as complicated as behavior and I constantly felt I wasn’t able to help enough. I was dissatisfied with the system – the lack of progression in public education despite dramatically changing student demographics – and struggled to provide resources to fellow educators trying desperately to meet student needs despite the nation’s blatant neglect to invest in education. Work was taking over my life and yet it didn’t feel like I was making a difference. It wasn’t the kids – it was never the kids – it was everything else. I struggled to maintain my own mental health while trying to encourage positive mental health in others.
I was in the middle of my fourth year when I got an email from a community college about a job I applied to previously. They had another opening for an instructional designer and wondered if I wanted to apply. It was exactly the type of pivot I needed. I was excited about educational technology. I loved collaborating on the design of instruction, curating effective instructional materials and engineering opportunities for student engagement. It was a job I had to take.
True to my nature, leaving my job as a school psychologist brought with it a whole host of feelings of inadequacy, doubt, and failure (maybe if I had just tried a little harder. . .). These thoughts reverberate even now but in the end, I choose to frame it as advocating for myself in the same way I did so naturally for students. It felt like the best form of self-care I could give.