Ali Weis, ’19, a self-described “spiritual, open-minded vegan,” is a junior at Dublin School. She has always been interested in psychology, and, this trimester, she had the opportunity to conduct an Independent Study in Psychology with Mrs. Alexandra Scalfano, Learning Specialist, and VLACS (Virtual Learning Academy, which provides free online high school classes to anyone living in New Hampshire). Scalfano, who has a M.S.W. from Smith College School for Social Work and has worked as a clinician in multiple settings before coming to Dublin, met with Weis weekly to discuss what Weis was learning through her online coursework; additionally, Scalfano provided complementary readings, resources, and assignments to deepen the learning experience.
“I have always been interested in psychology and why people act the way they act,” says Weis. “Because Dublin doesn’t have a psychology course right now, I thought I could pursue it independently.”
“In English and History classes, I have had the chance to explore these concepts that I’m studying [in my Psychology Independent Study],” says Weis. “For example, we had a unit in history class last year on economy, which I find similar to sociology, and in English class, you are always thinking about characters’ motivations and what’s behind their actions.”
Weis reads voraciously outside of class, and her texts of choice range from works of fiction to psychology texts to books on spirituality.
“I read a lot about Eastern Philosophy, and there are many psychological concepts in that,” she says. “For example, two years ago, I read this book called Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self, which is about chakra psychology. Looking at different chakras to connect why things happen the way they do I found really interesting.”
“I am interested in mindfulness and the impact of positivity, in Buddhism especially, which led me to psychology, as well,” says Weis. “I am mostly free in my spirituality, but I follow Buddhist principles. Buddhism is really about decreasing suffering. A lot of my life changed when I started following the eightfold path, and that has impacted how I interact with others and think about things. With mindfulness, I am much more in the present, and I am much happier. I am a lot more open with my beliefs. I used to be atheist, and now I feel a lot more connected and a lot more open to everything now.”
Much of Weis’ study of spirituality, veganism, and mindfulness has empowered her with more self-awareness and perspective, and her study of psychology has only deepened her understanding of herself, the world around her, and her paths to happiness.
“I cannot possibly undersell how important I think it is to empower adolescents to deepen their understanding of psychology,” says Scalfano. “What more critical time to draw connections with others’ shared human experiences and begin to grasp the complexity of your own internal process?”
In her meetings with Scalfano she was introduced to benchmark research studies, social psychology, the impact of trauma on development, common treatment methodologies, and principles of effective activism to combat oppression and stigma. Through VLACS, Weis has studied the history of psychology; normative developmental processes; learning, thinking, and memory; and psychological disorders; like anxiety and mood disorders.
“There are so many misconceptions about all of those disorders,” says Weis, and she has found her study really meaningful in illuminating and reforming those misconceptions, as she continues to learn new terminology to discuss psychology.
“For example,” says Weis, “I learned the difference between OCD and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, which people often mix up. I am learning terminology, the correct distinctions for different concepts. A big thing is definitely the misconceptions of psychological disorders. There is so much stigma around those, and we all need to understand these disorders and not isolate people who have them.”
She also enjoyed learning about different psychological coping mechanisms.
“I thought this was really interesting because I learned so many different ways that people cope, which I kind of know based on watching people’s behavior. And learning about the brain is always really interesting.”
Some of her learning, too, led to understandings around advice she often hears or common knowledge that she has not heard explicitly unpacked as to how it has come to be common knowledge. For example, in her unit on learning and the brain, she learned “the psychology behind ‘why you shouldn’t cram for exams,’ for example, which has to do with the difference between short term, working, and long term memory.”
“I think students are surprised to learn how much of psychology they inherently understand once they have a language with which to discuss it,” says Scalfano. “It is such an accessible field.”
What Weis recognizes in the importance of studying psychology is just how much it increases and clarifies “awareness of self.”
“Self-awareness makes a huge difference in solving problems,” says Weis. “People can sometimes kind of blame their problems on the world around them and don’t look at why they are behaving in certain ways. If you are more aware of yourself, you can work to change some things. If you aren’t aware of something, you can’t change it. The first step in problem solving is defining the problem. You have to understand what it is and where it’s coming from before you are able to solve it.”
Since immersing herself in her Independent Study, Weis has begun to look at different course content with a critical eye.
“I think differently a lot in English class,” she says. “I’ll notice something in a new way. For example, in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I will read about women not feeling in control of their own lives, based the society around them, and then I start thinking about eating disorders and the element of control there—that eating disorders are more common in women than in men. I’m [also] taking Statistics at the same time, and we look at real studies in our textbook, so many of them will be somewhat related to psychology.”
“Much of what I have learned has been putting what I observe about people and society into words,” says Weis. “Having correct information about things that I had misconceptions about has been really important.”
Weis’ Psychology Independent Study will, no doubt, continue to be important in her awareness of self, critical work in other courses, and life at Dublin—as she shares what she has learned, learned to name, and learned to relearn.