J. Sophia (aka Sophie) Nam, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at the Lynch Graduate School of Education, is anything but geographically constrained. She was born in South Korea, moved to the Czech Republic, and then in high school left her family to move to the United States. Like most high school students, Nam faced the typical teenage girl challenges, except she had to learn how to deal with them on her own, away from her family.
“I didn’t come with my entire family, just my older sister in the same grade, so that was a big adjustment. I suddenly had to be my own manager, where it wasn’t like I’d just come home after school and work on my homework. There were multiple things to juggle, like the extracurriculars and other things that you have to do in high school, and no one was really there to guide meand show me the way,” says Nam.
Another challenge that Nam faced was that she and her sister were the only two students of color at her high school. “I don’t think anyone had seen a Korean before, so that was a toughie. When you are a racial and cultural minority, you often feel invisible because everyone knows you but doesn’t know you. They know you because you look and/or act different, but they don’t understand the cultural background and perspective that you bring,” Nam explains.
Fortunately, thanks to her family and friends’ love, her faith, and her sense of purpose, Nam was able to overcome these cultural adjustments and persevere through college. The first time Nam discovered her interest in psychology was during an introductory psychology course. She claims that she was instantly hooked, and ever since then, it has been a gradual process of confirmation of her desires to pursue psychology.
Despite her gravitation towards the field after her first introductory class, Nam attributes her decision to apply to graduate school to her undergraduate advisor, Professor Paul Wink of Wellesley College. In fact, Nam attributes much of her successes to people who have served as mentors to her, the most influential being Professor Josephine Kim, whom she met during her time at Harvard University.
“She was a person I could really relate to and she became a role model for me. She inspired me, gave me opportunities to really develop my talents, and worked in the trenches right beside me. She’s still a great friend and colleague of mine,” says Nam. The mentor held semi-annual conferences called Mustard Seed Generation to raise awareness in Korean Americans about the importance of mental health issues and of seeking help when needed.
“Jo stressed the importance of culture in what we do and the need for culture-specific interventions for underserved populations. So we went to different communities to reach out and let people know that it’s important to care about mental health issues, we all have them, and that it’s okay to seek services,” explains Nam.
The relationship she formed with this mentor at Harvard helped Nam develop her philosophy for teaching and mentoring, which is something she stresses in her current research project that focuses on positive youth development in adolescent girls. “I’m leading a research lab now and I have a leadership approach that is really mentoring and relationship based. I really want to help people grow and discover aspects of themselves that are there but they don’t really know it yet because they haven’t had experiences to test it out and gain confidence,” says Nam.
The 21st Century Athenas Project, led by her BC advisor and mentor Dr. Belle Liang and Dr. Renee Spencer of BU, is a project that was brought to their attention by two private girls’ schools that really wanted to find out what was stressing out the girls at their institutions. The study looks at girls who are under enormous pressures of performance and achievement, societal norms, and expectations of how girls should be.
“There’s a lot more pressure to perform these days on top of all of the other stresses that just come with being an adolescent. I think it’s important for us to understand what are ways in which the stresses and expectations really come through to the girls and start to affect them,” says Nam, “but it is also important to understand what helps them to persevere and figure out who they want to be.”
The project is a study that really speaks to women. We’ve all been there. We’ve all dealt and continue to deal with the societal pressures of being a woman. Unfortunately, the pressures are building and more and more college students are starting their freshman year with mental diagnoses that often require medication because these stresses are reaching younger and younger generations. “I think there’s a lot of urgency in really understanding all of these phenomena and actually doing something about it,” says Nam.
It isn’t just research for research’s sake, but rather an action-oriented project to find out what would actually be helpful for girls today with the hopes of implementing these ideas in schools. Nam expresses her hope for the research project to bring to light the concept that fostering a sense of purpose (i.e. knowing why I am doing the things I am doing) is more important than solely focusing on expectations for certain grades or where adolescents end up going to college.
“You make a difference in the world by being true to your beliefs and who you are. When you’re driven by purpose, you’re not just setting goals and doing things just for self-fulfillment but to make a positive impact in the world around you.”