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Currents: where a colby-sawyer education leads

Lisa Giordano '08 Follows Her Passion for Forensic Psychology

Soon, Lisa Giordano '08 will be Dr. Lisa Giordano.

Growing up in Londonderry, N.H., Giordano always knew she wanted to earn her doctorate degree. Originally interested in sports psychology, she found her passion in her junior year during a semester of study in Australia: forensic psychology. This field bridges the gap between psychology and the law, and Giordano says it's important because overcrowded prisons and a overwhelmed court system don't provide many opportunities for those dealing with the justice system to obtain mental health care.

“What grabbed my attention was the opportunity to work with a population that doesn't have the same opportunities as the general population,” says Giordano, who at Colby-Sawyer was an engaged member of the college community. She was president of the Psychology Club in her senior year, a member of Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the Leadership Expedition Program, and she was a peer mentor at New London Elementary School.

Studying for the GRE while working on her Capstone project and playing rugby and lacrosse made for a busy senior year, but she was focused on finding a graduate program in New England with forensic psychology. Of her options, Giordano especially liked Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology with its internship requirements that meant she would graduate with significant professional experience.

Giordano says Colby-Sawyer's Psychology Program prepared her well for graduate school, especially the internship requirement, which she fulfilled working with the New Hampshire Division of Children, Youth and Families, and the senior Capstone project.

“The Capstone project was so helpful. I had to do a literature review along with a study, and I can't tell you how many lit reviews I've written in grad school. Learning as an undergrad how to read research articles and focus on the details, as well as critique articles for their limitations, has proven invaluable,” says Giordano. “Even now there are things we'll cover in my doctorate program that I first learned about as an undergrad.”

Inside and outside the classroom, Giordano found inspiration and guidance, and she made the most of every opportunity.

“I had great resources at Colby-Sawyer,” Giordan says. “Professor Lynn Garrioch talked to me a lot about graduate programs, and Professor Basia Pietlicki was my advisor; I ended up assisting in her Personality Psychology class. I always met with writing tutors at the Student Learning Collaborative to review my papers, and the Harrington Center for Experiential Learning for Career and Academic Advising helped me write my résumé when the time came.”

Giordano earned her master's degree in Forensic and Counseling Psychology in 2010 with a concentration in Latino Mental Health. Her thesis was on cultural and linguistic considerations when working with Spanish-speaking clients for competency to stand trial evaluations. She has spent the past three summers in Costa Rica and Ecuador learning the language and doing volunteer work.

“The Latino population is one of the fastest growing in the United States,” says Giordano. “I interned at a high school last year and there were a lot of students coming from Spanish-speaking countries who were not getting the mental health services they need. I've learned about the challenges they face while trying to get used to American culture and learn English. There are a lot of big changes that happen, and unfortunately, in schools and correctional facilities, most psychologists don't speak Spanish.”

While working on her master's, Giordano also interned at a medium-security prison that then hired her as a part-time clinician to do mental health screenings and crisis work.

“There are seven gates and doors to go through just to get in,” Giordano says. “I walk through at the same time the inmates are moving to the café or gym so it can be pretty intimidating because they don't see women that often. I'm completing another internship now at the only state facility that is a male prison as well as a state forensic psychiatric hospital. That facility has people who are considered severely mentally ill but have also committed crimes, so they need a high level of security. The other piece is that there's a hierarchy within prisons. Domestic violence cases are pretty low on the totem pole so in general the prisoners treat female staff very respectfully. There are always exceptions.”

“You have to maintain a strong boundary with inmates regardless of the crime,” says Giordano, trying to reconcile the person she treats with the crime that put him in her path. “I think that after meeting with people over and over again it's hard to envision them committing a crime; you realize that at some point growing up they, too, were victims. It seems like there's an endless cycle of people growing up with parents who use drugs and they started using drugs, or their dad was drinking, or their mom and it just seems to trickle down. Obviously that doesn't make it O.K., but that's one of the biggest things that draws me to forensic psychology and working in the correctional system. It's a population that doesn't get to speak to anyone. When they're surrounded by inmates, individuals can't express themselves."

After she earns her Psy.D. in 2013, Giordano hopes to do forensic evaluations, which would put her more on the court and legal side than in treatment. It will be up to her to assist the court in deciding if someone should be held responsible for a crime they allegedly committed or if they need mental health care.

If there is one thing that Giordano wishes everyone knew, it is this: If someone's mentally ill, it doesn't mean they're crazy.

“There are a lot of stereotypes and stigmas, but if someone has depression or anxiety or any number of mental illnesses or disorders, it doesn't mean they're crazy or bad people,” she says. “There's a saying I heard at my internship: Hate the sin, not the sinner. That's really stuck with me.”

This is the first in a series featuring young alumni and what they are doing with their Colby-Sawyer education.

-Kate Seamans