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Serena Rockingster ’19 is determined to live a life of giving.

A magna cum laude graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and a minor in women’s and gender studies, Rockingster, of Brooklyn, sees herself as a professor and clinical psychologist far down the road of her future. Before arriving there, she wants to assist a substantial caseload of people by providing them tools to assuage their psychological and emotional distress.

On course to earn a master of science degree in clinical mental health counseling at the University of Vermont next year with plans for a doctorate, the SUNY Potsdam alumna would like to set up a private practice that reaches out to underrepresented populations, Vermont’s residents of color and Nepali and Yemeni refugees in particular. 

Rockingster poses for a portrait at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

An unrelenting work ethic has defined Rockingster, who has been in the workforce since she was 16. Besides carrying full courseloads, Rockingster has held jobs in student dining, modeling, and academic tutoring to meet the necessities of life, and also was a peer counselor to fortify her academic experiences with applied ones.

She is now a graduate writing consultant helping other UVM grad students organize and clarify their ideas on the page. She also works as an assistant librarian while managing 16 credits of coursework.

Her grandparents emigrated from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Flatbush, N.Y., when Serena’s parents were barely teenagers. Her mother and father met and married in Brooklyn, and had four children. The striking differences between herself and her siblings, despite their shared genetics, presented Rockingster with her first psychological puzzle — one of family.  

“I always wondered why we look at things so differently even though we have the same parents, why we are all so different in how we move through the world,” she said.

Rockingster knew she wanted to be a psychologist since she was 12 years old. Two professors at SUNY Potsdam helped her uncover what that meant.

Rockingster received her first research experience through Dr. Claire Starrs’ Culture, Stress and Coping Lab, where she examined body image perceptions among indigenous students, and coping strategies of women with breast cancer and major depression. Working as a peer counselor at the College Counseling Center added sturdy brick to her foundation, complementing her research. The post gave Rockingster real practice in mental health intervention following an intensive semester-long preparation in aspects like confidentiality, reflective listening, and suicide training. The experience will help her to have not just an empathetic but also a capable hand for those experiencing dark times.

“It was an opportunity to this day I am grateful for,” she said. “It was my first taste of what it is like to be in a therapeutic space with someone who is not OK.”

Starrs, left, and Rockingster at SUNY Potsdam's Learning & Research Fair.

Starrs was instrumental in that moment when Rockingster pushed past a limiting horizon within her own psychology and suddenly glimpsed her potential. She was working as a teaching assistant for Starrs’ abnormal psychology class when she was tasked with singlehandedly teaching an entire lecture in psychosis. Despite her fear of being so fully in the spotlight, she was able to forge a connection with the 50-some undergraduates attending, through her pure passion for the subject matter.

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Stillwell, left, and Rockingster with the Psychology Achievement Award.

“That was when I figured out I could see myself teaching this material because I love it so much, and that kind of overrode the fact that I don’t like public speaking that much,” Rockingster said. “That was my ‘aha’ moment — that I could be a professor with a Ph.D. and do this work and be happy.”

When it was time for Rockingster to plan her steps away from SUNY Potsdam, Starrs suggested UVM as an alternative to some of the huge, competitive and expensive schools Rockingster was eyeing. But when she was invited to Burlington for a group interview, Rockingster panicked.

“I didn’t have a car, didn’t have a license,” she said.

Taking the bus would have been an extended ordeal. Instead, Psychology Department Chair Dr. Arlene Stillwell, her advisor, drove her to the interview and back.

“They were my mentors and I love them dearly,” Rockingster said. “I still keep in contact with them. I miss just going into Flagg Hall and popping in. Dr. Starrs and Dr. Stillwell saw me through so much of my identity development and my academic development. Without them, I would not have gotten teaching assistant experience, research experience, psychopathology experience, and support needed to buoy my intrigue of psychology — which ended up being extremely valuable here in graduate school.”

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Rockingster at Commencement in 2019.

Rockingster’s dedication and labor have been unfailing. She held a place every semester on the President’s List and received awards and honors too numerous to detail, including the Psychology Achievement Award given each year to one top senior from the psychology department; and the SUNY Potsdam Women, Gender and Leadership Badge. 

Her achievements are made only brighter by her willingness to go above and beyond expectations. Rockingster spent the summer of 2018 in Wisconsin as a camp counselor and archery activity leader for youth with autism, a 24-7 grind with huge responsibilities, essentially a coaching plus parenting experience that deepened her compassion. She has also been in the trenches to serve preschool children in low-income neighborhoods through Jumpstart for Young Children, and taught youth on the spectrum with psychomotor challenges how to correctly hold, aim and fire a bow and arrow.

It was just the start of Rockingster’s journey toward engagement and healthful restoration for others.

Article by Bret Yager. Photos by Jason Hunter