Positive Trajectories for All

Paula Yust outside

Assistant Professor of Psychology Paula Yust, outside Kaufman Hall, home of the Department of Psychology. Photo by Dan Loh.

OFFICE HOURS: Paula Yust, Assistant Professor of Psychology

by Tony Moore

Assistant Professor of Psychology Paula Yust earned her Ph.D. from Duke University. She is particularly interested in early friendship development in preschool as well as friendships in college and how the beliefs people have about these relationships shape friendship behavior. Her research has been funded by the American Educational Research Association and published in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology.

My back-of-the-napkin definition of psychology would be something like it’s the study of people, how they behave and why, and how they fit into the society swirling around them. How far off am I, and why is Dickinson the place to go to get it right?

I often say that psychology is the scientific study of the human experience—how humans (and some nonhumans) think, feel and behave and how a multitude of internal and external factors contribute to changes in these processes. Psychology is understandably therefore a huge field with countless specialties. Within our department at Dickinson, we have faculty who specialize in each of these areas (or more than one!), and students get the chance to get a taste of each and to delve into a few areas more deeply in the upper-level courses. Dickinson’s program is designed to give students opportunities to flex their research muscles in courses in which they learn the methodologies specific to a given area. That means that every student leaves Dickinson with the research foundation to ask and evaluate nuanced psychological questions—skills that serve them well regardless of their future plans.

A 2023 Gallup poll showed that nearly 40 percent of college students said that they felt lonely the day before. That’s, well, depressing. What does your research in friendship development have to say about this?

Loneliness is certainly a big health concern at the moment, so much so that the U.S. surgeon general has called it an epidemic. Residential college students are one group who are at risk for loneliness and social isolation. If you think about it, leaving your family of origin to live in an entirely new place and build a new social network from scratch while delving into college classes is a lot and can certainly feel daunting. My research suggests that most college students are quite successful in forming new, high-quality friendships and these friendships are associated with lower loneliness and a greater sense of belonging in college. Looking at how these friendships form and the types of spaces that facilitate them (like new student orientation, affinity groups, etc.) can help us support all students establishing close friendships and hopefully buffering against feelings of loneliness.

I feel like immersing oneself in psychology for a living would be like continually Googling health symptoms: Half the results are jarring, and you become convinced that, yeah, you have whatever the ailment is. What drew you to it, and why is it such a vital field these days?

As a high school student, I also thought that psychology was mainly focused on mental illness, but then I took a psychology class my first semester in college and realized that psychology is so much bigger in scope than that. As a child, I’d always been fascinated by young children and how they think and grow, but I honestly didn’t know there was a whole field dedicated to studying the factors that contribute to adaptive development and how we can promote positive trajectories for all. I feel lucky to be a part of the effort to understand and promote adaptive development and that I can facilitate students’ learning about development across the lifespan. The world is a complex place, but being able to identify the psychological processes that shape our human experiences can help bring some order, or at least understanding, to the seeming chaos—something that we can all use these days.


Published July 2, 2024