University of Vermont

University Communications

Diving in Deep

McNair Scholar delves into life, learning and the longing to connect

Modeling motivation: senior Kristina Lafferty couples boundless curiosity and heart for helping kids succeed in the social world. (Photo: Sally McCay)

“I don’t breathe,” says senior McNair Scholar Kristina Lafferty, but she’s laughing and shows no need for intervention. Lafferty is just one of those people who acquires three minors, following the spark of her intellectual curiosity, who takes 19 credits the same semester she’s applying to doctorate programs, who mentors a troubled child and then steps up to run – and recruit for – UVM’s Big Buddies program. She captains the cheerleading team, has an outside job, takes anguished middle-of-the-night calls from students she befriended during her two years as a resident adviser and – oh – just won a national award for her psychology research. She appears not to hyperventilate either.

“I have a wide variety of interests,” Lafferty acknowledges. “I feel like undergrad is the time where you can play with things.” She’s a sociology major who declared an English minor after a summer of study in London, then individually designed a minor in American Sign Language, just for the love of it – “it’s a beautiful, beautiful language,” she says. Last year she added a psychology minor, which has become the focus of her McNair-funded research, a program designed to help advance first-generation/limited-income and/or underrepresented undergraduates who are academically competitive and have the intention of earning a doctoral degree.

Lafferty’s work is centered in UVM’s social development laboratory, directed by her research adviser, Professor Dianna Murray-Close, which is where some of her life threads do intertwine. She’s interested in the need to belong and rejection in vulnerable – notably young – populations such as juvenile delinquents, deaf adolescents and foster children, all of whom she has a passionate outside interest in.

Life lab

“I’d like to focus on physical aggression and isolation and just those social aspects that go into being a kid,” Lafferty says. She describes her little brother and his friends who have been in a lot of real trouble. “But he’s really the sweetest kid,” she says. “It’s so interesting. I want to understand better why they do the things they do because they are good kids, too.”

And she talks about a class project she did studying kids who are deaf or hearing-impaired. Children today tend to get the help they need to succeed academically, she says, but not socially. “These kids are social isolates because they’re missing what’s going on around them,” says Lafferty. “The interpreter is not coming over to interpret something ridiculous the kid sitting next to you in fifth period might have said so they’re missing all those little peer interactions which is really what shapes our personalities.”

Then there’s her two-year relationship with “my little girl,” a 10-year-old foster child who has endured a great deal of trauma. “She’s seen it all, and she has a lot of cognitive delays due to this,” Lafferty says. “She has a hard time socializing with peers her age and that’s probably due to the neglect. Nobody ever taught her. She didn’t see interactions between people occurring, so we’ve been working on that a lot.” That’s the volunteer job.

In her summer research, for which she recently won best psychology poster project at a large conference in California of the organization SACNAS, which promotes diversity in the sciences, Lafferty looked at the relationship between the need to belong and relational aggression among girls – spreading rumors, gossiping, excluding. Using data collected at an eight-week summer camp, she found a positive relationship between the need to belong and relational aggression and also between the need to belong and rejection. It’s a painful cycle.

Her goal is to get a doctorate in counseling psychology – Lafferty’s program of choice is at the University of Maryland with a researcher who is studying the need for more intervention in the foster-to-adoption system. She’s also applied to Teach for America, with the thought of possibly deferring grad school for a year while she works fulltime with kids.

“Kristina is so motivated,” says Alice Fothergill, associate professor of sociology and Lafferty’s major adviser. “She’s so excited to learn – if there’s an opportunity she’ll take it. And it’s all from her. She left high school early because she wanted to get to college so badly.”

Lafferty’s career, she says, will be a hybrid of working with families and using what she learns to further her research interests. “I love to answer the ‘why’ question,” she says.

Briefly Lafferty wonders if she might have taken on too much this semester, then says, “So far so good. I have a few Bs which I would like to be As but what are you going to do? I’m not one of those people that’s going to complain about a B.” But in barely a beat: “Actually I do. But I should just get over it.”

Something to add to her to-do list.