Student: Edythe Hughes
AOC: Mental Health: Approaches to Loss and Death
Home College: Hunter College
Expected year of graduation: 2023
Reflections on an Area of Concentration (AOC)
In late 2018, I remember telling a friend, “I’m embarrassed to go back to school, and I’m embarrassed not to go back to school.” As a person who had not been in a classroom for twelve years, going to college was both a humbling and exciting time. Since then, the benefits of school have become wildly obvious and it has been an important threshold to cross, bringing direction to my life and future. I am so thrilled to be a student today and my experience at CUNY has only improved since joining the CUNY BA program.
I first learned about the CUNY BA program through a professor who had himself been a CUNY BA student. It came at a great moment because by that point I had recognized that although I was pursuing an education that would help me to eventually become a therapist, the traditional psychology route was not the way I wanted to get there. In my psychology classes, I longed to learn more about the narrative experience of being human rather than through research. Yet in English class, I felt a little too far from my career goals. CUNY BA has become the antidote to an education that was feeling too broad and impersonal.
On top of making my education more personal, CUNY BA means that I get to go deep into what matters to me and my goals for the future. The fundamental and most interesting feature of the program for me thus far has been designing an Area of Concentration. I came into the program knowing my career goals and particular interests, but I had to make a concerted effort to land on an AOC that felt both relevant and interesting to me.
I call my Area of Concentration “Mental Health: Approaches to Loss and Death.” Having always taken an interest in universal human themes such as love and purpose, I began to get interested in loss and death studies. I know having a more niche knowledge on the subject will inform my therapy practice down the line and I also know that death is a topic that is too often skirted around. Even medical doctors are only required to take one one-hour class on the subject! I also know that the topic is one that I will face through my own personal encounters with loss. What I did not know, was just how quickly I would be confronted with the more personal aspects of my studies.
I began my concentration eager and curious but still not entirely sure about where my AOC would lead me. One beautiful fall afternoon I read Death & Dying, Life & Living by Corr, Corr, and Doka and felt sobered by the content. Gazing away from the page, my eyes locked on the bottle of tea I had just purchased. It read in bold font, “ALIVE”. I was taken aback and moved by the message. The cosmos seemed to send me a reminder that we study death so that we know something more about life. I was in total awe of the affirmation I felt I had received for my AOC.
No more than two weeks later, I had my annual gynecology appointment and expected nothing other than a usual exam. I was mid-sentence when my doctor interrupted me and told me that she felt a breast lump and that I needed to go and get a sonogram that same week. I left the office numb, but as I walked home I moved toward confusion and then panic. I spent a week wondering if my sonogram would come back with a result that suggested cancer. Each day, my Area of Concentration echoed loudly in my mind. Was I studying death because I was about to have a brush with death myself? Had I experienced some sort of premonition?
Death is all of our inevitable end, in human form at least. The questions that flooded my mind really didn’t matter, because whether it is this year or some far-off date, my “premonition” will be realized. We die. These seeming affirmations should have come as no surprise. They point out my very dissociation with death itself, even as someone who is choosing to study it. Death is everywhere, loss is constant, and these are real parts of our living experience whether we face it head-on or not.
Today I am approaching my AOC as a sort of Bachelor’s thesis. I am taking anthropology, health and nutrition science, gerontology, religion, and philosophy classes to help me fulfill my goal. I hope I will come to some conclusive knowledge on death, but I assume I won’t. It is a far-reaching and still mysterious subject. My goal is not in vain though. My friends already ask for resources and information on the topic and I expect my graduate studies will also be informed by what I am learning today.
My sonogram results came back undeterminable but likely benign. It is a result that brings me peace until the time comes for my next sonogram. School continues to be an important anchor in my day to day and a vehicle in which my thinking mind can move constructively through the world. I am growing more dedicated to my Area of Concentration as time and knowledge lay the path forward.
To the students who are still considering how they should construct their Area of Concentration, I suggest contemplating the following: What fundamental question do you want your life’s work to center upon? And what question are you willing to ask that others shy away from? You may find something therein important and personal enough to learn about and share with the world.