Jennifer Reesman played it safe when choosing an undergraduate college. She went to Mount Mary, a small all-women's college in her hometown of Milwaukee. Her stepmother was the school librarian and she planned to follow in her birth mother's footsteps with a career in education. For many, the story would end there--four years later you'd find her teaching, likely at a school in Milwaukee.
But not Reesman. She used the shelter of a small school to explore the world outside its walls and gain a wide range of experience that has shaped her career goals. After some psychology courses piqued her interest, she didn't just change her major, she got a job working with psychologists. And once she decided to pursue a doctorate degree, she didn't just take a test-prep class. She got a job as a research assistant at a local teaching hospital to prepare her for the experimental rigors of graduate school.
Even the standard foreign language requirement led her to an outside experience: She took American Sign Language (ASL). After two semesters, a teacher suggested she'd only become fluent by using ASL in the real world. She volunteered a few mornings a week at the Milwaukee Sign Language School, working with the physical education teacher. Her interactions with the deaf community led her to apply to the clinical psychology graduate program at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf in Washington, D.C.
She's now in her third year in the clinical psychology program at Gallaudet and fluent enough in ASL to teach introductory psychology to undergraduates. And according to her advisers, she's making a name for herself as someone who will quickly rise to the top of her chosen niche-working as a clinician in a medical setting.
She has a wonderful clinical sense, dynamic assessment skills and the ability to tackle a project quickly and expertly, says Reesman's externship supervisor, pediatric neuropsychologist Andrew Zabel, PhD, a clinician and researcher at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
In fact, rather than holding her back, her choice of a small, local undergraduate college was, in hindsight, a blessing.
"I realized that I could follow my own path not dictated by my university," says Reesman, who lives in Kensington, Md.,with her husband, Wayne, and their cat.
Her approach has paid off, says Reesman's adviser, Gallaudet psychologist Patrick Brice, PhD.
"Coming from a small school made her more aware of the importance of getting experience outside of school," says Brice. "And that has made her transition from undergraduate to graduate school very smooth. She knew exactly what she wanted to do and was ready to take on any project, unlike many graduate students who flounder for their first couple of years just trying to find their focus."
PURSUING PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE
Reesman found her focus by heeding the advice of her professors at Mount Mary to not only take courses that interested her but to find practical experience outside school. After landing a job doing in-home treatment through an autism treatment center, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in clinical psychology, working with children and families.
She also knew that Mount Mary couldn't properly prepare her for graduate-level research. To supplement her training, she got a job at the Medical College of Wisconsin as a clinical research assistant, helping with data collection, patient randomization and database design for studies of pediatric emergency medical care. There, Reesman realized the potential for the interaction of psychology and medicine and formed her goal of practicing in a medical setting.
Zabel doesn't doubt his advisee will reach her goals quickly. Having worked in a hospital, she felt at ease at Kennedy Krieger, a treatment facility for children and adolescents with developmental disabilities. In fact, Zabel says, when Reesman first started she happily tagged along with him on oncology consultations-where Zabel meets with a team of nurses, social workers and oncologists to determine which cases need neuropsychological assessments. After only a few times, "She'd taken over for me," he says, commenting that he's never had a student as young perform so professionally. "They all really respect her, and I trust her to represent our discipline."
Brice has the same kind of respect for Reesman when it comes to her research. For her pre-dissertation, she decided to study attachment in couples going through a high-risk pregnancy. The trouble was she had no relationship with the medical community in Washington, D.C., making recruiting study participants difficult.
That didn't stop Reesman from trying to turn that situation around. She has been tenacious, forging new relationships with local clinics and plying pregnancy-related Web sites, says Brice.
And although recruiting has been slow, in the end, she will have enough participants for an effective study and hopefully learn something new about attachment, he says.
Reesman will continue delving into issues of attachment in her doctoral research. She's working with pediatric neuropsychologist Ida Sue Baron, PhD, a faculty member at the George Washington University School of Medicine with a private practice in the Washington, D.C., area, to design a study that will examine attachment patterns of extremely low birth weight infants.
A WIDE LENS
Although most of Reesman's current research and clinical work is primarily with the hearing community, she hopes to capitalize on her training at Gallaudet to eventually build at least part of her practice around work in the deaf community. Even if she can't, she believes the training and experience she's gained from being at Gallaudet gives her a perspective that can translate into many different clinical communities.
"The language and cultural differences in the deaf community have allowed me to see how profoundly the community needs more culturally competent caregivers," says Reesman. "That need is true for any minority community."
"Jen is a model of being able to look at complex cases from a variety of perspectives," adds Brice. "A big part of our training [at Gallaudet] deals with how to assess someone when current assessments don't work well. There is no such thing as a straightforward case when a deaf person is involved. And Jen takes that with her when assessing all her patients."
He believes that broad perspective will help her succeed in her chosen field--likely, he says,as a clinical neuropsychologist working in a multi-disciplinary setting.
That job would suit Reesman just fine, she says. Right now, she's happy following the same path she set out on back as an undergraduate: pursuing the most potent experience wherever she can find it.
Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.