Hi I'm James, a senior at the University of Washington pursuing my BS in psychology and aspiring to become a practicing psychiatrist. I was temporarily homeless for my first quarter at the UW. Since overcoming this difficult obstacle I have thrived with the support of faculty and the UW community. I traveled abroad and studied Chile's public healthcare system with Dr. Jaime Olavarria. I'm working on three projects as a research assistant in Dr. Kate Comtois Mental Health Services Research Team at Harborview Medical Center. I am also currently the President of Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology. I am hoping that by sharing my story and opening this organization I can encourage others to overcome their own difficult times and assist in the achievement of their academic pursuits..
Contact me anytime!! I'm happy to talk.
If you'd like to know my full story, please continue reading....
Studying rural healthcare in Patagonia, Chile.
My desire to help co-found this organization and to assist homeless college students is fueled by my own firsthand experience of temporary homelessness during my first quarter at the University of Washington. However, it wasn't until reflecting on my past that I realized my journey to opening this organization and helping others started long before that tumultuous first quarter at the UW.
I had previously attended Cascadia Community College shortly after high school while working full-time. However, in the winter of 2004 I was laid off from my job and just a couple of months later I was in mourning over the death of my grandmother. I was struggling financially and dealing with great personal strife. At that time I chose to withdraw from my classes and focus on building up a secure foundation again. However, this led me down a path without reals goals or motivation; merely drifting day to day and nearly letting life slip by.
For nearly the next 7 years I had witnessed great job instability and rotated through various positions of my own. Then in 2010, as an after effect of the great recession, I was once again laid off from my current position. It seemed to me that without an education I was doomed to repeat these struggles, constantly dealing with the tumultuous highs and lows of the job market. Fortunately, during my long academic absence I began to realize the lack of direction in my life was causing me internal discord. This emotional and cognitive dissonance couple with yet another career strain led me to pursue something greater.
Luckily, throughout the years I have retained a thirst for knowledge and continually strive to quench that thirst. My curiosity led to many fields but I found psychology and medicine to be truly compelling. I would read articles addressing twin dream studies, the effects of dopamine in the brain and how people deal with depression and grief. I was familiar with older works such as Freud, Jung, Pavlov and Skinner but wanted to explore many of the unanswered questions that continue to arise in the field and learn medicines role in clinical and therapeutic practices.
Another diving factor leading me to pursue psychology and medicine was that throughout my childhood, and even now, my friend’s little brother suffers from OCD, Bipolar Disorder and ADHD. Dealing with his behavior over the years has left me a deep desire to further understand what is happening in his and others’ brains. However, I was a bystander of the all too common practice of what I consider inadequate care. I routinely heard stories of his psychiatrist merely discussing symptoms and providing medication accordingly instead of developing skills to combat the dysfunctional emotional regulation and other issues. My interest in psychology and medicine coupled with the obvious gap in adequate care left me an aspiration to make the difference and pursue psychology and medicine as a psychiatrist.
Instead of feeling victimized from my recent lay off, I used my free time and new self-awareness to fuel me. I returned to Edmonds Community College in 2011 and started on my new journey into psychology and medicine. One thing my life outside of academia did afford me was real world work experience and to learn from my friends, those who had previously been successful or floundered in their pursuits. I knew I needed a firm game plan in order to attain my goals. This meant, for me, putting school unconditionally first.
At Edmonds CC I excelled, with my new found prioritization, persistence and dedication I found myself on the Dean’s List for academic achievement all five consecutive quarters of my enrollment and I was accepted to the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. In addition, I maintained involvement in the Triton Transfer Club for my final two quarters so I could assist students prepare for their transfer to a university. I was also involved in the International Student Services sponsored Conversation Partner Program my final quarter. This entailed helping international students assimilate to American culture while fostering new friendships; aiding in their understanding of the English language verbally, grammatically and in social contexts. These experiences and the relationships I developed with faculty and students culminated in June 2012 when I graduated with Academic Honors and received my Associate of Arts degree. In all honesty I had some doubts coming back to college after so many years away from academia. Now with proof in hand, my doubts had quickly faded and I have realized that I have unlimited potential to achieve my goals.
Things had turned around and seemed to be going so well. I had applied to a few universities and was awaiting acceptance letters. I had my hopes set on the University of Washington but was forced to accept other offers as backups in case I was not accepted. Time seemed to be ticking down and I still hadn't received a letter from the UW, I had made a decision to pursue another institution with an uneasy feeling residing in my gut. I had spent money on a plane ticket and two weeks accommodation until I could find my own place to live; financially I was committed but had an uneasy dissonance. A mere two weeks before I was to leave for my new life I received an email indicating I received a financial aid award from the UW. I was astounded and confused as I still had not received my acceptance letter.
This new news was debilitating. On one hand I had fully prepared myself for a new life but on the other I was given the opportunity for the life I felt I truly wanted to pursue. However, somehow, I new forfeiting this opportunity was not an option for me. I took the financial loss from my previous commitments and prepared myself to readjust and figure out how to make ends meet.
I probably could have over extended myself and gotten into a tremendously overpriced place to live in the University District but just as I had decided before returning to Edmonds CC, my academics must come unconditionally first. Without a job or steady income I relied on the support and generosity of friends and family. For my first quarter at the UW I primarily resided on one of my close friend’s couch, occasionally sleeping at the library and showering at the gym to relieve my feelings of becoming a burden on those close to me. I didn’t reveal my situation to anyone, only those closest to me knew my predicament. I would attempt to make light of the situation when in reality I was ashamed and constantly reminded of the stigmas associated with homelessness as I walked past the less fortunate homeless that pepper the university district.
I had to block it all out and focus on my future. In the past I let personal and financial strife stop my pursuit, justifying that I needed my life in order before I can move forward. I realize now, I don’t think life ever gets that “order;” it is ever evolving. The only way to cope is to develop your own form of resiliency and push forward. I new mantra I recently developed is: the past gives you perspective but only the future gives you answers. Fortunately my living situation improved shortly after my first quarter and again I had a bed, a room, a sanctuary of my own.
Using this focus I again excelled, receiving a 3.85 GPA during my difficult first quarter. My perseverance was further rewarded when I was accepted to a study abroad program to Chile studying their public healthcare system. I pooled my resources of hard work and truly began to see the benefit of networking. The professor running the study abroad program was my Biopsychology professor, Jaime Olavarria, from my first quarter and I asked my Spanish professor, David Quintero, if he would provide a letter of recommendation for. Everything seemed to align perfectly.
Studying Chile’s public healthcare system was truly amazing and inspiring seeing the sense of community their Latin American culture encourages. When I returned from this adventure I sought out more ways to become involved and prepare for my future. Upon my return I attained a research internship at Harborview Medical Center in Dr. Kate Comtois’ Mental Health Services Research Team. The goal of the lab is to study the efficacy of Dialectal Behavioral Therapy with PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder patients that suffer from server suicidal behavior/ideation.
During this time I was also working as a teaching assistant for my advisor, Carrie Perrin. The class we instructed was aimed at helping incoming transfer students adjust to colligate life. We provided them with information and ideas on ways to build a sense of community in such a large and diverse place. We also helped encourage students’ involvement on campus, in the community and just in their own lives. Informing them of internships, research and study abroad opportunities; all of which I now had personal experience. I thoroughly enjoyed talking with students on how to get involved and make the most of their experience at the university. I even encouraged a few to apply for the same study abroad program I had so enthusiastically told them about throughout the quarter.
As if being a TA and doing research wasn't enough, I was also elected Vice President of Psi Chi Honor Society for Psychology that very same quarter. With this leadership role I am afforded the opportunity to continue to encourage and help students at the UW make the most of their experience. Our goals are to connect students to professors to talk about what interests them and what research they are involved in. Setting up lab tours so students can experience the diversity of lab environments and explore what my fit them best. We also organize graduate student panels so undergraduates can get up to date information on the application process and insight on choosing the right mentor, program and institution.
It was this past December, 2013, that my friends and I were introduced to a CNN Money article by Blake Ellis, Homeless college students seek shelter during breaks, reported that “58,158 college applicants indicated that they were homeless on federal financial aid forms for the 2012-13 academic year, up 8% from 53,705 in the previous year.” Although I experienced homelessness firsthand, as a psychology major I was inherently provoked to further inquire into the effects that homelessness has for young adults and found much supporting evidence of its negative connotations. I found articles indicating a range of problems; poor school performance (Feitel et al., 1992), drug abuse as a common coping tool (Adlaf et al., 1996), supporting themselves through “panhandling, prostitution, survival sex (food for sex or shelter), dealing drugs and theft” (Greene et al., 1999, Hagan and McCarthy 1997, Kipke et al., 1997) and “that perception of discrimination based upon negative stereotypes was related to feelings of worthlessness, loneliness and social alienation and suicidality” (Radkowsky and Siegel 1997). My personal experience as a homeless college student combined with these staggering statistics and stigmas has ignited a passion in me to tell my story allowing me to help and encourage other students in need.
Now as we are in the midst of opening our organization, building our volunteer staff and raising awareness I find that I couldn't be happier. Helping others is a truly rewarding experience, a far cry from the dissonance I felt so many years prior. I am still in the pursuit of medicine and helping people in a clinical and therapeutic sense. However, helping and encouraging students has quickly became a passion and I will always remain involved in helping others achieve their dreams. Homes for Students of Higher Education couldn't be a better gesture to our youth, showing them explicitly that a strong sense of community is crucial to individual success as well as societal success.
Thank you for taking the time to read my story.