Q&A with Rachel Knowles, school psychology alumni

Rachel Knowles

We interviewed school psychology alumni Rachel Knowles about why she chose the University of Minnesota, her experiences when she was a student in the Department of Educational Psychology and how she used her degrees after graduation.

What are your research interests?

My research interests in graduate school centered around parent education programs and what factors contributed to success. In particular, my thesis analyzed activities/strategies in parent ed programs that promoted peer support among participants.

How did your path lead to the Department of Educational Psychology and your particular major?

During my undergrad career at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I majored in Rehabilitative Psychology and had a minor in Education Policy Studies. I loved psychology, and I loved education. I was definitely torn about which route to take! My junior year of undergrad, my advisor mentioned that I should look into school psychology. I grew up in a very small Wisconsin town, and I never remembered knowing our school psychologist and had NO idea what a school psychologist did. Once I researched the career field, I was sold. It seemed to have the perfect mixture of everything that I was passionate about! I began to research school psychology programs across the nation, and the program at U of M quickly became my first choice. I knew U of M was an incredibly large school, but I quickly learned that the Ed Psych department and the school psychology program was a small and tight-knit community. I was also so impressed with the faculty members and their accomplishments both in the research world and school communities.  

What surprised you along the way?

It was very surprising to me how scientific educational psychology can be. It may sound silly, but I was not a “science person” before starting the program. I was not super knowledgeable about research methods, statistics, measurement tools, etc., and this aspect of the program was very intimidating to me when I initially started graduate school. However, faculty members and the ed psych department were SO helpful and made sure I had every tool to succeed. I quickly became less intimidated and increasingly more passionate about research/science. Towards the end of my time in the program, I surprised myself with how I developed as a researcher!

What is something you’ve most enjoyed about your experience?

Because of the U of M campus being located in the Twin Cities, we had such a wide range of practicum experiences. We had so many opportunities to learn about the different types of roles as a school psychologist, different types of settings, and different types of student populations we could work with. The U of M school psychology program has a powerful practice-based model, where we would take our knowledge from coursework and apply it at our practicum sites. It was also so nice to be able to discuss practicum experiences in class and receive support from faculty members and colleagues. 

I also loved how small the cohorts were! It allows for a strong and close community. The members of my cohort are long-lasting friends. We truly leaned on each other for so many things; even after graduation, my cohort members and I still consult with each other on various topics.

What is most exciting about your work?

As mental health awareness expands, it is very exciting to watch the school psychologist community harness our expertise and own our roles as mental health professionals. Whether it be creating a safe space for students to talk about things on their mind, assisting students develop new coping strategies, or helping fellow school staff understand how to meet students’ mental health needs – it’s all very important work that’s exciting to be a part of. School psychologists are very multi-faceted, and it’s incredibly exciting how we can carve out our roles based on our expertise, interests, and passions.

How would you describe the student experience, and what does that mean to you?

My student experience at the U of M was very transformative. What I learned there truly helped shape who I am as a professional and as a human being. We were taught to be critical thinkers, effective problem-solvers, and advocates for both individuals and systems.  I would also use the words “fellowship” and “community” to describe my student experience. I was a part of such a supportive community of both faculty members and fellow students.

What has been most challenging?

It can be difficult to cope with feelings of being stressed and overwhelmed. People who enter the field of education are natural problem-solvers, and sometimes we take on too many tasks and spread ourselves too thin. I am still learning how to set boundaries, prioritize duties, and practice self-care. I need to ensure my cup is filled so I can effectively fill the cups of my students and families.

How have your professors helped you along the way?

My professors were not only incredibly supportive, but they challenged me to find parts of myself that I never knew existed. They taught me so much while helping me find my own values and identity as a professional.  

What would you like prospective students to know?

While this is a rigorous program, remember that you will have all the tools you need to succeed. Everyone is there to learn and grow. Even in moments where it may seem overwhelming or intimidating, you are not going to be in it alone. The staff in the ed psych department, your professors, and fellow grad students are there to support you. It was also very helpful to ask questions and gather information from the cohorts above me.

How has your cohort helped you along the way?

Each member of my cohort brought something different to the table; we all came from different backgrounds, and we all had different experiences and interests. This allowed for conversations with lots of perspectives when collaborating. We worked so closely together during coursework and practicum, and we learned so much from each other. Not only that, but we shared a lived experience with one another. Whether it be studying for finals, clarifying expectations for an assignment, or providing moral support – my cohort was pivotal in my graduate school career.

How did you use what you learned/your degree?

I used my MA and EdS degree to be a nationally certified school psychologist. I work in a middle school, and I have quite a few roles there. To summarize, I help conduct special education evaluations, consult in the process of prevention/intervention (i.e., RTI/MTSS), and problem-solve with students/staff/families to meet students’ academic, behavioral, and mental health needs.

Why did you choose the school psychology program at the University of Minnesota?

I really liked how small the program was, yet it was located in such a large metropolis with endless opportunities and experiences. I was also attracted to the program’s commitment to prioritizing inclusion, diversity education, advocacy. An impressive amount of research has been produced out of the U of M school psychology program, and it has led to important conversations and positive outcomes. 

Any additional information you would like people to know?

You will not regret pursuing your graduate school career at the U of M. As a current school psychologist, I use teachings and training from grad school each and every day – and I plan to do so for the duration of my career! The U of M school psychology program truly provided me all of the tools I needed to be a successful school psychologist. I received comprehensive training in so many areas, and when I don’t have the answers, I learned how to effectively seek information and resources.