Finding the Key That Fits: A Young Man’s Path to Psychology

A graduate student in psychology recounts how volunteering in India changed his career path.

By Seth A. Shaffer, MA

Seth Shaffer poses with a Harmony School student during his most recent visit to Dharamsala, India (2010)There are many different reasons why people choose to enroll in graduate school. Some wish to obtain a degree that they think will lead to a successful career, while others are unsure what they want to do with their lives and seek higher education in hopes of discovering what career path they want to follow. This article is a story about my journey as a 23-year-old young man from Chevy Chase, Maryland and my mission to create harmony through education. Currently, I am a fourth year doctor of psychology candidate at the American School of Professional Psychology at Argosy University in Washington, D.C. I did not study psychology as an undergraduate at Hobart and William Smith Colleges or living in Brooklyn while attending the New School University in Manhattan. However, there was a moment in time when I was volunteering in a rural area of India located in the foothills of the Himalayas when I decided to apply to graduate school and become a psychologist. Many people have such transformative experiences that help to determine their life course. For me, it was working with special needs children in India in the summer of 2006.

I grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, went on to college at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York before transferring to the New School in New York City. I transferred to the New School because I wanted to start an independent record company and produce music. After three years of running Catch Records, I became dissatisfied with this career choice and, like many young adults, decided to use some time to reflect on what would provide a deeper satisfaction for my life’s work. My curiosity about other cultures and study of Buddhist philosophy brought me to an old British hill station in the foothills of the Himalayas called, Dharamsala; home of the 14th Dalai Lama and 10,000 Tibetan refugees as well as local Indian merchants, where I decided to serve as a volunteer for five months.

Shaffer with the Harmony School staff and special-needs students (2010)There, I taught English to Tibetan refugees. I also worked with five special-needs Indian children. The children suffered from various challenges: mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and/or autism. Having no professional skills, I used life experience, common sense, and Indian cultural cues to try to help the children and their families reduce maladaptive behaviors, while improving speech, language skills, and motor skills. This transformative experience provided me with the foundation for a professional career, and the desire to go to graduate school to learn the necessary skills and secure a license to practice them. I also decided to create an organization that would help special-needs children in developing countries.

In 2008, my newly created organization, Harmony Through Education, opened its first school in India. The Harmony School serves 19 special-needs Indian and Nepalese children and their families, providing remedial education and training, parenting skills, and healthcare support. Harmony employs local Indian professionals full-time and utilizes culturally appropriate methods. The school has received support from the local Indian government as well as the Dalai Lama, who named the school, “Illuminating Loving-Kindness” School.

For the past four years, I have managed to be a full-time graduate student, raise funds to open and sustain the Harmony School, and return to India every summer to work at the school. I am able to do this because I love what I do. I decided to enroll in a graduate program because it would allow me to serve others in a way that would fulfill my professional goals and give me joy. My experience is similar to many other young adults across the United States. I started in one direction and because of a leap of faith, I pursued another career path. Sometimes it takes an experience outside of your comfort zone, without any preconceptions about where the journey will lead, to find your passion. The “take home” message is that it is not a problem to be dissatisfied with your first, second or third career choice; what is important is having the courage to take that leap of faith until you find the key that fits. Ultimately, I learned that serving others is what leads to a fulfilling life. This may not be the case for everyone, or the motivation that drives your choice, but you should be encouraged to experiment and learn what gives your life meaning.