Dear Montecito

By Stella Haffner   |   June 3, 2021

I entered my 20s in the pandemic.

Ten years prior, you would’ve found me in Mr. D’Alfonso’s fourth-grade classroom at Montecito Union School. It was a good year. It was a big year. We started algebra and my friends taught me how to change the background image on a computer, so we could all have matching ones. For recess, our obsession was handball, and we sprinted outdoors when the bell rang to claim the court before the boys got there. It was a good year. But it was also an apprehensive year because, in the spring of fourth grade, I would turn 10 years old, and I knew there was no turning back from double digits. 

Even as I sit on the edge of my next big life decision — what comes after college graduation — it seems a kitten compared to the snarling prospect of turning 10 years old. Ten? How could I be 10? It felt so permanent. Twenty was more myth than reality in my mind at that point. Twenty-year-olds, after all, were adults. They were financially independent, they lived on their own, and they knew what they wanted to be when they grew up because they were grown up. 

I am 20 now. I graduate in approximately 13 months. I am not an adult.

I live in an apartment with friends, and while they couldn’t care less about the background picture on my laptop, they share the same animosity for algebra that my friends from elementary school had. At 21 and 22 years old, I don’t think my flat mates would fault me for saying that they are not grown up either. Of course, that doesn’t matter because we’re all staring down the barrel at the same decision. What will we do after graduation? 

In truth, I’ve known what I wanted to do since high school. Despite having declared an English major on all my college applications, I’d been flirting with life sciences since freshman year. I wasn’t very good at math and truly saw myself as a humanities person, but I was just so fascinated with all things medical. I loved the blend between theory and procedure. For the first time in my life, I was picking up non-fiction books and not immediately putting them back down. But above all else, I loved the brain. And I had to know everything about it. 

In my final year of high school, I worked as a research assistant in UCSB’s Psychology Department in its META lab. To say it was a transformative experience would be giving it too little credit. 

We all grow up aware of our Freuds, our Pavlovs, our Jungs. You’ve probably heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment or the one with the little boy and the white rat. This mixture should remind us that psychology isn’t just a discipline of sitting with a client and listening to them talk about their dreams. When I tell people I study psychology, their first question is always: “Oh, so you want to be a therapist?” And it strikes me as funny not only because I simply do not have the skills — let alone the patience — to ever be a therapist, but because there is a whole bright world of psychology that so many of us never know about. My time as a research assistant at UCSB was my first real window into experimental psychology, and I’ve never been able to look back.

A new question began to materialize: Now that I know what I want, what do I do with this information? I wasn’t ready to commit at the beginning of college, as there were other paths I had to court first before deciding psychology was the right choice. I started by switching my major out of English. Next, I admitted to myself that while I still liked the idea of medical school, I did not want to be a doctor. I am, however, happy to say that I’m not ready to give up my lab coat and have decided to apply to graduate schools, continuing my education in life sciences.

Montecito, you are now completely up to speed — 13 months from graduation, I’m preparing to apply to master’s programs that specialize in experimental psychology, data modeling, and research methods. This choice is something of an unsubtle departure from my previous disdain for math, but, hopefully, a wise one. This next step into a master’s degree will help me pursue my current ambition of becoming a researcher. Now if that all sounds rather dry, please fault my storytelling and not the discipline itself. I cannot in so few words describe why I think of psychology and neuroscience as the best and most interesting subjects, so instead I’ll leave you with this:

I want to pursue psychology, the study of thoughts, feelings, and behavior. And if you’ve ever wondered why some of the most famous celebrities are considered only to have unconventional beauty; if you’ve wondered whether the color green looks the same to you and me; if you’ve thought about how irritable your friend is when they’re hungry; or if you’ve questioned the accuracy of your favorite true crime drama, then you might have the mind of a psychologist, too.




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