For Melissa Bessaha, MSW ’09, an equal fascination with research and clinical work has led to a lengthy and diverse academic journey from psychology to social work. Now in her third year of study, Bessaha is pursuing a PhD at the University of Maryland. A proponent of systems theory and the notion that “everything is intertwined,” Bessaha’s foundations in research and psychology help inform her social work practice, while the clinical knowledge she amassed as a master’s student at the NYU Silver School of Social Work helps her view her research work from a supportive, client-centered perspective.
Bessaha began her studies as a psychology student at SUNY Stony Brook, where she worked in the lab of renowned depression researcher Daniel Klein. Bessaha thrived in the research environment, so much so that after graduating with her BS in 2005, Klein offered to specially create a master’s program for her out of the school’s existing doctoral program, and have her stay on in his lab as a student researcher. Bessaha accepted and received her MA in psychology in 2007.
“It was a great experience, and I thought I was going towards the research route,” she reflected. “But I was able to teach as a graduate student and loved the teaching aspect of my studies. I felt I was good at it, so I began to think about going back to school.” While she pondered a career in academia and interviewed subjects in Klein’s research lab, she noted a growing interest in the lives of the research participants with whom she spoke. “I wanted to know the subjects’ stories, and I liked engaging with them, so then I began thinking about returning to school for clinical work.” NYU Silver’s MSW program in particular appealed to her.
Once at NYU, however, Bessaha found herself pulled back into the research realm: “I kept going back and forth!” she laughed. She was accepted into Professor Trudy Festinger’s research seminar, where she designed a study that examined the impact of various academic and personal variables on MSW students’ stress levels. The seminar was a “wonderful experience” that led to a lasting mentorship between Festinger and Bessaha.
Festinger urged Bessaha to apply to doctoral programs, but because most require several years of post-graduate work experience, she applied for social work jobs after receiving her MSW. She found a perfect match after graduation in John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a CUNY school, which hired her as a member of its counseling faculty. Bessaha received the pivotal post-graduate experience she needed, working with Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge (SEEK), the school’s higher education opportunity program, which guides students from nontraditional or underprivileged backgrounds towards graduation. Her work at John Jay College cemented the concepts she had learned in her MSW studies at the Silver School. “All the stuff I learned at NYU came back: the floodgates were open! All the social justice elements, doing needs assessment. Everything came together with what I learned at NYU.”
Bessaha worked at John Jay College for several years before applying to PhD programs in both psychology and social work. She was accepted to schools of both disciplines, but, as she shared, “In my heart I knew it was social work, because my approach was different. I like systems approach, looking at culturally responsive ways of supporting students and non-students.”
A fully funded admissions offer from the University of Maryland allowed Bessaha to take the next step in her social work journey, and presented the lifelong New Yorker with her first opportunity to leave New York. “It’s been a great learning experience,” she said, “I am training to do research work and training to be a professor.”
The school’s location in Baltimore, Maryland, places it within arm’s reach of powerhouse research organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health, both of which provide research grants for the social work program. “It’s a good spot to be in because of the wealth of resources available,” Bessaha explained. “The social work program collaborates with various organizations in the D.C. area, Johns Hopkins University, as well as other schools within the University of Maryland. It’s very interdisciplinary.” Bessaha has reaped the benefits of this spirit of collaboration as she conducts research with social work faculty at the University of Maryland such as George Jay Unick, who partnered with the University’s School of Medicine to examine how practitioners can best support community-based treatment programs through the use of telemedicine (i.e. tablet devices).
Inspired by her work with emerging adults at John Jay College, Bessaha plans to gear her dissertation towards “transition-aged youth populations from immigrant families, and looking at their help-seeking behaviors and attitudes towards mental health. It’s all intertwined with my work with John Jay and my experiences at NYU.” To further her dissertation work and future career goals in academia, Bessaha has been awarded an academic research fellowship with the University of Maryland Vice President of Academic Affairs and Deputy Dean of the Graduate School Roger Ward. This fellowship opportunity will provide Bessaha with a solid foundation in academic policy and student affairs as well as further understanding of emerging adult development.
Bessaha sees a huge stopgap in research on emerging adult students, and how they approach help. She hopes to use her dissertation research as a springboard for a career in academia, but as always, competing interests have her keeping her options open: “Looking more globally, I want to do more international work, because I do travel and have been exposed to research here at the U of M that is internationally based, working with Nigerian populations on how their cultural norms and help-seeking behaviors are related with Llewllyn Cornelius.” Bessaha’s personal experiences as a second-generation American from Northern Africa have also motivated her interests in the development of emerging adults from immigrant families and the pursuit of opportunities abroad. She hopes to meld her rich background into a career that will combine “a culturally responsive/social justice method infused with program development that will allow me to engage with clients who are culturally diverse.” Regardless of where her career takes her, Bessaha plans to apply a social work perspective to her work, and credits NYU for helping her develop that lens.
By Penelope Yates, MSW ’15