Exploring new interests both at Mount Holyoke and through study abroad

“Coming here and learning that … there’s more out there than what I previously thought was kind of eye-opening. It challenged my framework and made me question what I was going to do in a career.”

There is a piece of advice that Briana Sapini would give herself now as she looks back on how she’s grown over the last four years at Mount Holyoke.

“I would tell myself not to be so afraid of change,” she said. “I feel like you don’t really know your interests, or maybe you can’t really confirm what you’re interested in, unless you test out something different.”

She credits the welcoming atmosphere at Mount Holyoke, which she felt the moment she toured the campus, with helping her come to this realization. “It just seemed like everyone cared,” Sapini said. “Even if it’s a surface level of caring, it still felt like Mount Holyoke would wrap you in its arms and care for you.”

The confidence that she was able to develop in such an environment pushed Sapini to challenge herself in ways she never had before, she said. Attending Mount Holyoke was the first time she had ever been away from home for an extended period of time, which was a test in itself. And when she was in her first year, her goal was clear: major in biology and get on the track to do pre-med. “I had been telling my parents since I was 10 that I was going to be a doctor and do surgery,” she said.

“I’ve been interested in the clinical side of psychology [since] I took a course here about it. It’s sparking a new interest, especially when it comes to advocacy.”

But her first-year seminar was a psychology course in childhood development. She found it fascinating and took an introduction to psych course the next semester — which she also fell in love with. Her biology and chemistry courses paled in comparison to the way psychology resonated with her, but she struggled within herself to admit that she wanted to change her major. “I had a lot of internal resistance,” she said. “I was kind of set in my ways, but I also wanted to change. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I finally declared a major.”

Sapini settled on double majoring in psychology and anthropology. She developed close friendships with classmates studying biology and biochemistry and realized the beauty of learning from her friends. And she embarked on taking advantage of the extracurricular activities at Mount Holyoke. A singer since her childhood and graduate of a performing arts middle school, she joined the Chorale. Wanting to invest in her psychology studies further, she started doing research on student adaptability during her sophomore year within the first-year seminar program. And last year she took up artistic swimming, which is the official name of synchronized swimming. “It’s way more complicated than I thought it would be,” Sapini said. “On top of the water, it’s elegant; underneath, it’s a mess.”

When the opportunity arose to study abroad in New Zealand — a country she thought was beautiful and knew she wanted to stay in for an extended period of time given the flight is 24 hours — Sapini again ached to try something new. No longer afraid to change her mind, she decided to drop the anthropology major and made it a minor so she could study abroad. And she made the most of the fact that being in a new country was another way to learn about herself.

“I studied stuff [in New Zealand] that had nothing to do with my major or minor,” Sapini said. “I did a theater class, a criminology class, a gender studies class and then a Māori studies class, which is their Indigenous population.”

She was the only student from Mount Holyoke studying in the country the five months she was there, she said. There were only a few other international students, whom she hardly ever ran into. Although it was at times lonely, Sapini found herself channeling the lessons Mount Holyoke had been teaching her. “It was a fun and interesting experience to explore something new and to have the opportunity to test my own limits on what I think I can do and what I’m able to do,” she said.

It was when she was in New Zealand that Sapini also carved out a plan for herself after graduation. “I am on track to go to graduate school for clinical social work,” she said. “I’m going to Smith College for their master’s program. I applied in November, and I heard back in December.”

And why clinical social work? “I’ve always kind of been interested in the clinical side of psychology after I took a course here about it,” she said. “It’s sparking a new interest, especially when it comes to advocacy.”

Sapini has a pretty good idea of the kind of social worker she’d like to be — she’d like to focus on attachment theory and eventually settle back in her home state of New York. But she is excited to stay in the area, learn more about the field of social work and have the opportunity to continue to test her limits in graduate school.

That philosophy of continuing to be flexible about what your work and life ought to look like is arguably one of the biggest takeaways from Sapini’s time at Mount Holyoke — that college, especially at a school like Mount Holyoke, is a chance to have autonomy over your entire education and direction in life. And it would be a wasted opportunity to not test that out.

“Coming here and then learning that … there’s more out there than what I previously thought was kind of eye-opening,” she said. “It challenged my framework and made me question what I was going to do in a career.”

“But I feel like you should just do something new and see how it works out,” she said. “If you hate it, you hate it. If you like it, you keep going.”

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Christian Feuerstein
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