Recent UMSL graduate Amy Kenny pursues social psychology PhD

by | Jul 24, 2023

During her time at UMSL, Kenny explored her passions, taking part in lab research, creative writing and the University Singers choir.
Amy Kenny, white woman with brown hair in green t shirt, stands and smiles with UMSL campus in background

In May, Amy Kenny graduated magna cum laude from the Pierre Laclede Honors College and the College of Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in psychological sciences. Kenny was also highly involved on campus, contributing to university literary magazines and performing in the University Singers choir. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Amy Kenny has always been interested in learning how people think, act and make decisions.

As an adolescent growing up in St. Charles, Missouri, she had plenty of people around willing to encourage her burgeoning interest in the human mind. Her older sister started taking psychology courses as a college student and would recount what she had learned as Kenny listened in rapt attention. Additionally, her uncle is a clinical psychologist, who was able to answer her early questions about the field.

“I think I’ve always been interested in understanding how group dynamics work – the ‘why we are the way we are’ type thought processes,” Kenny said.

As a student at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Kenny was able to explore those questions in the Pierre Laclede Honors College and the College of Arts and Sciences. In May, she graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychological sciences. During her time at UMSL, Kenny was also highly involved on campus, contributing to university literary magazines and performing in the University Singers choir. This fall, she’ll continue her education at the University of Kansas as she pursues a PhD in social psychology.

Despite an innate interest in psychology, Kenny was initially torn about what to study in college. However, where she would study was a much easier question to answer. Her sister attended UMSL, and through that connection, she became familiar with the campus.

“I was a little bit more comfortable with the campus to begin with, but then also in high school, I was in a choral group that came out to UMSL for some Acappellooza Fall field trips,” she said. “So, I was also able to go into the campus a little bit more.”

She was also attracted to the university’s proximity to her home and social support network as well as its generous financial support via the Chancellor’s Scholarship and the Honors College Merit Scholarship.

Kenny spent her first two years at UMSL with an undeclared major as she explored her options. The Honors College was particularly helpful in that regard. Kenny was attracted to the college’s personalized approach to students, unique course offerings and smaller class sizes.

“Because it’s smaller, you end up with accidental friends,” she said with a laugh. “You take a class, and you’ve got 15 other people in the class. Then the next semester, you just end up with one or two of them in your next class. You learn more about people and you know that they have the same interests as you because you keep accidentally being in the same classes.”

The Honors College and campus organizations provided opportunities for Kenny to engage in her love of music and creative writing. She was quick to join the University Singers during her first semester and was also drawn to creative writing courses led by Associate Professor John Dalton and Associate Teaching Professor Kate Watt in the English Department.

“I love singing and wanted to be able to continue it even if it was just basically for fun,” Kenny said. “Then I started the creative writing workshop type courses, where I was able to meet Professor Dalton and Professor Watt and their large variety of creative writing coursework. I ended up falling very in sync with that. I love the way that the classes were presented and the creativity and openness to see what I wanted to do with it, which kind of snowballed into doing an independent study that was focused on creative writing.”

Kenny ended up working with Dalton and Watt for several semesters and went on to serve on the production staffs of Bellerive, the annual literary publication from the Honors College, and Litmag, the annual student-run literary and art journal. She also contributed poetry and prose to both publications.

After two years experiencing what UMSL had to offer academically, she found her way back to psychology.

“I think psychology is the sweet spot between all the stuff that I’m interested in, and then what I could really see myself doing in 10 years,” Kenny said.

Kate Votaw, associate teaching professor and undergraduate research coordinator in the Honors College, helped solidify Kenny’s decision to major in psychology. Votaw served as a mentor and also taught several psychology courses in the college, which sparked Kenny’s curiosity.

Associate Professor Sandra Langeslag and Associate Professor Carissa Philippi in the Department of Psychological Sciences also became mentors who helped Kenny gain valuable hands-on experience as an undergraduate research assistant. In that role, she worked in Langeslag and Philippi’s labs, helping conduct studies and collect data. The experience allowed Kenny to acclimate to the research process and prepare for future work in the field.

It’s just one example of the psychology faculty going out of its way to support students like Kenny.

“The professors were clearly interested and involved and passionate about the things that they were teaching,” she said. “It helped me to stay more engaged and be like, ‘OK, this is hard, but it’s still interesting, and I know they want to help me succeed.’ So, it was very motivating.”

Their passionate approach to the coursework aided Kenny in finding her own zeal for social psychology.

“We would talk about specific studies that had been done previously and how they advanced either the development of an ethics committee or the different ways that they progressed our understanding of how people work together or don’t work together,” she said. “Being able to look into that more was something that was very appealing to me.”

Having graduated from UMSL with honors in May, Kenny will enter the University of Kansas’ social psychology doctoral program this fall. Of the three programs to which she was accepted, Kansas was her top choice because of the faculty’s warmth toward prospective students and its location near family in the Kansas City area.

Though she’s excited for her next steps, it’s somewhat bittersweet moving on from UMSL.

“It kind of feels like I forgot to sign up for classes for next semester,” Kenny said. “It hasn’t fully sunk in yet. Obviously, I’m setting up the coursework and the next stage of my academic career and everything, but because I haven’t actually started yet, it still feels like I’m going to get an email being like, ‘You didn’t sign up for classes.’

“But I definitely feel comfortable, in my element, with the learning that I was able to get from UMSL and the confidence with the material that I’m interested in and the ability to understand it and all of the things that I’ll be trying to do in grad school. It’s a whole new world. You don’t know exactly what’s going to be happening – new environment, new people. But I know that it’s a topic that I’m very interested in, and I’m happy that I’m able to continue learning about the stuff that I’m so passionate about in a more specific, focused setting.”

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