‘I could almost feel my mind expanding’; Trainee Clinical Psychologist Lauren Wright enthuses about her visit to America

Lauren reflects on the first joint staff-trainee visit to the clinical psychology programme at James Madison University

In April 2016, Emma, Sarah, Jerry and I (creatively dubbed ‘Team America’) were incredibly fortunate to embark on an international placement to Harrisonburg in Virginia. This felt particularly special as this was also the first time it had been offered as a placement opportunity and so we set off with the additional hope of establishing and supporting lasting links with James Madison University (JMU).

Following some rather daunting airport security in Washington DC, we collected the hire car and headed for Virginia. The route involved some truly breath-taking views as we drove along Skyline Drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains towards Harrisonburg. When we arrived, we were met by a representative of the Office of International Programmes who had very kindly arranged our accommodation. The house had been described as ‘cute’ and ‘quaint’. However, upon reaching the property, we were overwhelmed to see what could only be described, in our opinion, as ‘practically a mansion’.

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Our ‘cute’ house for the trip

On our first full day in Harrisonburg, we explored the vast campus of JMU and met with Dr Gregg Henriques, the Director of the Combined Integrated (CI) PsyD Programme. He provided us with a wealth of information about the structure of teaching, on-site counselling centre, wellbeing initiative and also shared his hopes and visions for the future of the programme. We were given a very full and comprehensive timetable of events and classes that we were invited to attend during our time there. We were so enthused that we decided to attend and absorb as much as we could during our days and evenings (possibly the busiest 10 days of my life!). Here are just a few things that really resonated with me and that I would consider some of my personal highlights.

Attachment Symposium – We felt enormously privileged to attend a lecture led by Dr Anne Stewart one afternoon. Anne utilises theories of attachment, play therapy and resilience to support children and families around the world.  She has worked in Jordan with those affected by landmine injuries, in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami and also in America with children whose parents are stationed away from home in the military. I have to say that Anne was one of the most engaging, passionate and inspirational speakers I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Furthermore, that evening, the course staff invited us out for a meal and I vividly recall sitting with Anne whilst she was telling us about her work with legendary Psychologist (and her personal friend) Mary Ainsworth when they worked together on the Strange Situation studies. Gregg also shared stories of his research with Dr Aaron T Beck. It was an amazingly surreal evening.

Psy 101 class – On a particularly beautiful, sunny day, we were invited to join some of the other trainees outside on the quad. We sat on the grass and went round the group sharing our personal stories including what had sparked our initial interest in psychology and how we came to be there. I listened to everyone with interest and was pleasantly surprised to hear that many of us had similar journeys, thoughts and even insecurities, about ourselves as developing clinicians. It really dawned on me at this point that whilst it is important to explore our diversity and difference on such placements, it is also important to appreciate our sameness and our shared passions and motivations. This experience also helped ‘Team America’ get to know more about each other. For example, we learnt about Jerry’s time as a student at JMU and how fondly he is still regarded by the academic staff there and it was touching to hear how proud they are of his achievements since moving to the UK.

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The quad at James Madison University

BEVI workshop – I attended an additional workshop one afternoon where we were educated and trained on an impressive analytical measure called the Beliefs, Events and Values Inventory (BEVI). This was developed by Dr Craig Shealy, one of the teaching Professors on the Psy.D programme. The BEVI seeks to understand who an individual is prior to participating in a given experience and to explore how the person may change or develop as a result of this experience. It also considers how factors may interact to produce a greater or lesser likelihood of learning and personal growth. I left Craig’s fantastic workshop thinking about how this could be a particularly relevant tool for trainees – for example, before and following doctoral training or even international placements to explore aspects of personal and professional growth. Something which, at that point during the trip, I felt would have been very relevant to myself – I could almost feel my mind expanding!

Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) – As part of the practical learning objectives of the PsyD programme, trainees offer psychological therapies to members of the public who access the CAPS centre. We were given a tour of the building and told that one of the driving philosophies of the service was that assessment and support be affordable to those who wish to access it. We later learnt just why this is so important as we were informed that a neuropsychological assessment could cost in excess of $7000 when sought privately. It was mentioned that, if an individual did not have health insurance, they could unfortunately find themselves in the difficult position of having to choose, for example, between seeking physical or mental health care or paying their mortgage. I think it really hit home to us on this day in particular, how fortunate we are to have the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK. I acknowledge that it is far from perfect and that we currently find ourselves in a time of increasing uncertainty and instability, but the founding principles behind the NHS, and the provision of free access to healthcare, is something that I feel is still incredibly valuable.

Summit Series 2016 – Our placement was perfectly timed as we were also able to attend the three-day conference known as the Summit Series which focussed on the theme of ‘cultivating the globally sustainable self’. Having done some research beforehand, this was something that I had very much looked forward to as it would provide a unique networking opportunity to meet with, not only other Psychologists from around the world, but also leading names in the fields of Sociology, Anthropology and Human Rights. This really broadened my thinking in terms of other disciplines but also in relation to how we may make a collective and positive difference globally. With the intention of fully throwing myself into the experience and out of my comfort zone, I joined a working group and have since become involved in co-authoring two chapters in an Oxford University Press book entitled ‘Cultivating the Globally Sustainable Self: How the Human Species Might Fulfil its Potential’.

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The Summit Series programme 2016

I returned from America feeling exhausted but genuinely inspired – both personally and professionally. Not only were we surrounded by picturesque landscapes and natural beauty, but we were also fortunate to have met some truly amazing individuals and be able to share our reflections and ideas with one another. The tutors and trainees on the PsyD programme could not have been more welcoming or accommodating during our time there and I believe both sides worked well to establish and strengthen links between our universities for the future.

As someone who admittedly has limited experience of travelling the world (or even going abroad alone), I am so very glad that I did. To anyone reading this who may be debating going on an international placement themselves, my not so subtle advice would be to go for it, make the most of the opportunity – I couldn’t recommend it enough.

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From left: Lauren, Sarah & Jerry – 3 members of ‘Team America’


Lauren Wright – Trainee Clinical Psychologist (2014 – 2017 cohort)









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