Nicole Pacateque’s love for children and her desire to support their mental health led her to apply to USF’s School Psychology program. Still early in her studies, Nicole’s first semester as a doctoral student has enabled her to explore a world of possibilities within the field.
Responses have been edited for clarity, length and style.
What inspired you to pursue a career in school psychology?
(During my undergraduate studies,) I took PSYCH 205, my first psychology class, and I immediately liked it. I switched my major from biochemistry to psychology because it was a lot more fun and I was much more interested in it.
I used to think that I wanted to do child clinical psychology because I also always wanted to work with kids. But (during) my senior year, I got to meet with a school psychologist from my university and she explained to me what school psychology was.
It was then when I felt that everything I wanted to pursue had a lot more to do with school psychology. I want to work with children, (specifically) Hispanic and bilingual children, and be somebody who understands who they are. I feel like I could do a lot more with school psychology than with child clinical because you can really focus on the child, the family and the school environment.
I also feel like school psychology is something I can use to provide help back home because we don’t have a big school psychology community in Puerto Rico so I would love to go back and apply everything I’ve learned here.
Why did you choose USF for your doctoral studies? What studies did you have prior to enrolling at USF?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in sociology from Syracuse University in New York. I chose USF for a lot of reasons! I got into three PhD programs and USF was the only one that (offered me full funding). I received the Graduate Student Success Fellowship, and that along with my assistantship helps cover tuition and other fees.
Also, during the interviews I felt like I fit more in USF’s program. I liked how welcoming the faculty and current students were. I talked to a lot of students who are now in their third or fourth year and they seemed to love the program. So, I came to Florida.
What experiences have you had as part of your doctoral program that have prepared you for your work in school psychology?
This is my first semester so it’s not a lot, but I started going to my practicum site. One day a week, we get to shadow a school psychologist, and that’s helping me prepare a lot.
Coming into the schools now as a practicum student, I’m able to see what goes on and what (the school system) is like here. I grew up in Puerto Rico and in Colombia and I only lived in the U.S. during middle school, and that was the only experience I had in a public school in the United States.
I’ve been having realizations every day, like for example, there’s a whole team that works with children’s mental health. It’s not just the school psychologist or the counselor or the social worker, there’s a whole team that ensures that children get the services they need. Being in school also exposes me to a lot of systemic problems.
We definitely see, especially now due to the pandemic, how teachers and school personnel are so overworked. It seems as if they all have the same consensus—everything has been a lot harder. A lot of the kids hadn’t been (face-to-face) in school for a year or two, which means they haven’t been getting the services and interventions they need.
What are your research interests? In what way has USF provided you the opportunity to explore these interests?
I’m still figuring that out, but I am interested in overall emotional wellbeing in schools and if I were to conduct research, I would like to see how we can apply that in Puerto Rico and place trauma-based interventions due to the hurricanes and earthquakes that go on constantly.
Something that has caught my attention that I hadn’t really thought about before is teacher wellbeing. Right now, for my assistantship, one of my tasks is looking into how race, racism, ethnicity and microaggression affect teachers’ mental health and emotional wellbeing. I had been focusing just on the child, but I think a lot about looking more into this topic.
Who are the mentors at USF that have guided you throughout your studies?
The first one would be Dr. Khalilah Lawrence. She’s my academic advisor and she has helped me on an academic and personal level. She’s also been able to connect with me and make sure I’m okay.
I also have a student mentor; her name is Amy. She was assigned to me the summer before I started and she’s a second year (student). During the summer, we went out for boba tea and I just asked her a lot of questions about what it’s like to be in the program. She started out as my mentor, but now she’s genuinely my best friend. Before I go to any faculty member with questions, the first person I go to is Amy.
Mental health services in schools have been increasingly prioritized over the years. Why do you feel providing quality psychological services for youth and their families is critical in today’s educational landscape?
I feel like there’s so much going on! One of the things is the pandemic, but also children go through real problems during their studies that are sometimes not taken into consideration.
Helping children and providing them with mental health services is very crucial because these are very formative years and if we’re able to help them with their mental health, that’s basically going to help them with everything else in their life. We can’t expect to see a child succeed if they don’t have good mental health. Personally, I’m a little biased, but I feel like school psychology is one of the most important jobs because we make sure we are advocating for children.
What makes you passionate about your work in school psychology?
For me, it’s just making sure children are getting mental health services. I grew up in a culture that doesn’t see mental health as a big deal, so understanding the consequences of what this brings, I just want to make sure children don’t have the experience I did. It just really motivates me to give what I didn’t receive while growing up. I know it makes a huge difference.
Also, a big part about going into this career is that I can talk to the parents of my community, the fact that I can speak Spanish means that I can better connect with them without having a translator.
What advice do you have for those who are interested in pursuing a career in school psychology?
I feel like it’s an amazing profession and it’s one that has so many different outcomes. You can do so many things in this profession. If you’re interested in school psychology, pursue it!
Something that happened to me is that I was very hesitant to apply to these programs because I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. But if you know that this is something you’re genuinely interested in and passionate about, just pursue it and you’ll figure it out along the way.
It’s been obviously a lot of work to be in a PhD program, especially straight out of my undergraduate studies. But it has been a good experience. I genuinely love all my classes and I think it was the right choice.
What do you hope to accomplish after finishing your studies at USF?
I don’t have that fully figured out because I kind of want to do a little bit of everything. I like consulting, I like working in academia, but I also like the idea of working in nonprofit (organizations) and working in hospitals. I’m very interested in everything, so I don’t have a specific plan yet.
I’m just hoping in these five years, I’ll be able to narrow down and choose. But the good thing about having a PhD in school psychology is that I can choose any or pursue all of these options. I have a lot of flexibility.
USF's School Psychology Program prepares graduates to play integral roles in creating and sustaining educational and related systems in which children, youth, and their families have access to the academic, behavioral, social-emotional, and physical health services that promote lifelong success and well-being. We invite you to learn more about our programs.