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Applying Cultural Awareness to the Field of Psychology

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By Kathryn, YES Abroad 2014-2014, Turkey

My time in Turkey was instrumental to my interest in helping people through a career in psychology. I was first motivated to study abroad through an exchange student at my high school in New Mexico. They seemed to be enjoying themselves and I could see their steady personal development throughout the year. Inspired, I applied to study abroad programs. The mission of YES Abroad and the fact that it was a full scholarship opportunity were important parts to my decision to apply.

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Kathryn with her Turkish host family

Living in Turkey was a wonderful and life-changing experience. However, integrating into my host community wasn’t automatic. In the beginning, I found it difficult to make friends. Fortunately, a couple weeks into the school year, a group of Turkish peers in my class invited me to sit with them. Soon, I was engrossed in all of their conversations and after school activities. This small yet incredibly helpful act of kindness by them taught me so much about interpersonal connections and building meaningful relationships.

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Kathryn poses with her classmates at her host school in Turkey

Another adjustment that I experienced in Turkey involved challenging my preconceptions of the concept of time. Early into my exchange, I found I would get impatient when guests stayed late after coming over for dinner, or coffee outings lasted hours longer than I expected. Over time, I learned that in Turkey it is more important to spend quality time with loved ones than it is to stick to the schedule. The longer I lived in Turkey, the more I appreciated the value my host family and friends placed on relationships and quality time together.

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Kathryn on a visit to an archeological site with her host family in Turkey

I participated on the YES Abroad program as a high school junior, and completed my senior year of high school before continuing on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Macalester College. Influenced by my time abroad, I wanted to research the relationship between culture and psychology. More specifically, I was interested in understanding the impact culture had on individuals’ perception of mental health. Furthermore, I was curious to learn more about the relationship between culture and an individual’s response to treatment.

I am currently a Research Project Coordinator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My goal is to obtain a PhD in clinical psychology. Through my research, I hope to continue developing treatment plans that are more culturally responsive and inclusive of patients with different backgrounds. For example, a therapist might end their sessions exactly on time with a patient who values relationships over schedules. In this case, the patient may perceive an abruptly ended session as a sign that the therapist doesn’t care about them. Thanks to my time in Turkey, I am more aware about these cultural nuances and can hopefully be a part of positive improvements to the field.