Student Spotlight: Gessica Ni

Gessica“My desire to say yes to every opportunity is fueled by my genuine enthusiasm for personal and professional development,” explained Gessica Ni, a third year student in the Wright Institute’s Clinical Psychology Program. “The harsh reality, however, is that there's only a finite amount of time available, and the challenge lies in navigating these abundant opportunities within the constraints of a 24-hour day.”

Gessica is a first-generation Chinese American. She grew up in San Francisco with her parents and younger sisters. “As a child, my parents enrolled me in many extra-curricular activities, including piano, violin, figure skating, ballet, Chinese school, and art classes,” she recalled. For her early education, Gessica attended a “small catholic school with a majority Asian student body.” At the end of eighth grade, she was offered and accepted a scholarship to a prestigious local high school.

This transition was a big culture shock for Gessica because the school populations were vastly different. “The majority of my classmates were white and from extremely wealthy backgrounds,” she explained. “I felt enormous pressure to conform, assimilate, and code switch – avoiding outward expressions of my Chinese cultural heritage.” The school was also academically rigorous and Gessica struggled with her grades for the first time. While many of her classmates had private tutors, she had to rely on herself. “When I think back on my high school experience, I wish there had been more diverse role models to look up to who shared a similar background and identity to my own,” she reflected.

After graduating from high school, Gessica enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the fall of 2013. During her freshman year, she developed an interest in psychology. “Growing up in a culture that avoided openly discussing mental health and mental health services – Asian-Americans are 50% less likely than any other racial group to seek mental health services – my introductory psychology course was the first opportunity I had to talk openly about these issues, giving me the tools and language to understand my own experiences.” she shared. “As I continued my studies, I realized the importance of working towards providing psychological support and fostering safe spaces to discuss mental health outside of the classroom, especially within Asian communities.” She had chosen to attend UC Santa Cruz to stay close to her family, but when her grandmother passed away the following year, Gessica decided it was time for a change.

Several of Gessica’s professors and mentors encouraged her to apply to Yale University in Connecticut, so she followed their advice, applied, and was accepted. In the fall of 2015, she began her studies there. During the summer of 2016, Gessica had the opportunity to take part in Yale’s summer intensive language and culture immersion program in Siena, Italy, where she gained an appreciation for Italian culture. “While I could not have predicted when I started college as a Santa Cruz Banana Slug that I would be graduating as a Yale Bulldog, both of these institutions played an equal role in my formative development and I feel their different perspectives contributed to the richness of my educational journey,” she reflected. Gessica graduated with distinction from Yale University in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

From 2018-2021, Gessica worked as a Neuropsychological Assessor, Head Clinical Trials Site Coordinator, and Clinical Research Assistant at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit at Yale School of Medicine. In high school, she volunteered at an assisted living facility and was fascinated by the way Alzheimer’s Disease manifests differently in each person. After graduating, she was drawn to this field of research because of how many unanswered questions researchers still have about the disease. “As a Neuropsychological Assessor, I conducted clinical intakes and administered neuropsychological assessment batteries for patients ranging from cognitively normal to those with severe Alzheimer’s Disease,” she explained. “As a Head Clinical Trials Site Coordinator and Clinical Research Assistant, I scheduled and implemented protocol specific visits, tracked patients’ medications, and ensured the overall wellbeing of over 40 patients for whom I served as the first point of contact in their studies.”

While at Yale’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit, Gessica also worked as a Caregiver Support Group Facilitator. “The challenges of being a caregiver for someone with AD are so specific that anyone not in the same circumstance would have a hard time fully understanding the many trials and tribulations,” she shared. “For many members, the support group becomes their surrogate family.” Gessica found it very rewarding to see how the caregiver support group members supported each other. “The individuals that had partners further along in the disease would provide support and help to those still experiencing the diseases’ early stages,” she recalled. “Members would consistently encourage each other to take time for themselves, since so many caregivers feel guilty about doing so.” For Gessica, the most challenging part of the role was navigating the emotions of participants as they prepared for the loss of their loved ones.

Gessica enrolled in the Wright Institute’s Clinical Psychology Program in the fall of 2021. “I decided to pursue a PsyD in Clinical Psychology because of my determination to continue pursuing a career I am truly passionate about,” she explained, “to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others, to be engaged with the study of psychology at the highest level, and to build upon the experiences which have shaped my empathy and compassion.” She chose to pursue a PsyD instead of an MA because it allowed her to have a more clinical focus, provided more opportunities for practical training, and offered the opportunity to further her training in neuropsychological assessments. “I was drawn to the Wright Institute because clinical training started in the first year,” she shared. “Although there is a lot you can learn in a classroom, there are certain aspects of therapy that can only be taught through experience.” The other thing that drew her to the Wright Institute is their focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice, which is aligned with her own personal values.

From 2021-2022, Gessica was a 1st year Clinical Psychology Trainee at a non-profit agency called Through the Looking Glass. She provided therapy to infants, children, and families with disabilities or medical issues and was encouraged to consider the impact of cultural values and beliefs on family dynamics. “My training at TLG emphasized the importance of self-reflection, and of approaching every therapy session with empathy, curiosity, and understanding,” she recalled. “Through my work at TLG, I developed a profound interest in how a relational approach with a particular focus on empathic attunement can be implemented into therapeutic interventions for underserved communities.”

In her second year, Gessica worked as a Clinical Psychology Trainee at the California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) Integrative Therapy Program, an in-patient hospital site that provides therapy to medical patients in oncology, transplant, surgical, and intensive care units. “During my time at CPMC, I discovered my calling for health psychology – specifically therapy with patients who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses and their families,” she explained. “Bearing witness to the resilience and courage displayed by the patients and their families during such a profound chapter is both humbling and inspiring.” The most challenging element of this role was inevitably witnessing the deaths of patients in her care. “Despite the difficulty of this work, it was in those moments that the significance of the therapeutic relationship was truly illuminated,” she reflected.

During her first and second years at the Wright Institute, Gessica also worked as a Neuropsychological Assessor at UCSF BrainLENS, taking part in three studies. “The Family Brain Program - Intergenerational Neuroimaging Study focused on how genes and the environment work together to shape how the brain works,” she explained. It also examined how abilities are transmitted across generations. “The Brain Letterbox Study looked into the brain’s “letterbox”, a region of visual cortex, a region of visual cortex which learns to process letters and words,” she recalled. “Achieving a better understanding of these processes will help us in the long run to better support children with dyslexia.” The final study she participated in was called The Learning Success Program - Bilingualism and Literacy Acquisition Study, where she examined the “impact that learning multiple languages may have on cognition, socio-emotional skills and creativity.” In all three studies, Gessica administered neuropsychological assessments to children and their parents.

Last August, Gessica began a placement at the UCSF Epilepsy & Pediatric Brain Center as a 3rd year Neuropsychology Extern on the pediatric track. Alongside her supervisor, she works with children with the most severe forms of epilepsy. “I have developed an appreciation for the crucial role neuropsychological assessment can play in unraveling the complexities of pediatric epilepsy, shedding light on the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dimensions of the condition,” she explained. “My experience has revealed the delicate balance between science and empathy required to understand a child's cognitive strengths and challenges.” Her practicum experience has also taught Gessica the importance of the humanistic aspects of neuropsychology. “Interacting with the children and their families has highlighted the emotional toll epilepsy can take and the importance of tailoring interventions to not only address cognitive deficits but also support the emotional well-being of my patients,” she shared.

Gessica started working as a Psychological Associate at Dr. Eliza Lehrke’s private practice in Petaluma last September. “Through my psychological associateship, I have been able to observe and work with individuals in addressing their referral questions,” she explained. “Being able to administer assessments to help diagnose ADHD, learning disabilities, autism, etc. has been really helpful for my learning and growth as a clinician.” She really enjoys working in private practice and the different opportunities it affords her.

Thus far, Gessica’s happiest memories at the Wright Institute have been times spent bonding with her peers. “From lunchtime hang outs to commiserating on the complexities of being a graduate student, I have experienced so many moments of joy and laughter with my fellow peers and future colleagues,” she reflected. “It is wonderful to be surrounded by a supportive community of students as well as faculty and staff.” Gessica’s toughest challenge has been reigning in her natural instinct to take every chance she’s given for growth and learning. “Each opportunity seems like a stepping stone towards a richer, more well-rounded version of myself,” she explained. “Over the course of my time in graduate school, I have gradually learned to set better boundaries and find the balance between embracing opportunities and remaining grounded in the reality of my finite time and energy.”

During her time at the Wright Institute, there are several classes and professors who have made a profound impact on Gessica. The first is Advanced Assessment: Neuropsychological with Dr. Eric Freitag. “This course alongside my 3rd year practicum at UCSF Epilepsy has allowed me to discover my passion for neuropsychology and neuropsychological assessment,” she reflected. Gessica took both Motivational Interviewing and Health Psychology with Dr. Michael Changaris, who she described as one of the kindest professors she has ever had. The skills she learned in both of Dr. Changaris’s courses have been directly applicable to the clinical work she’s already done and will continue to do in the future. Finally, her Case Conference leader for her first two years and dissertation chair has been Dr. Beate Lohser. “Dr. Beate Lohser is an amazing professor and has been my mentor at the Wright,” Gessica shared. “She has supported me through my successes and taught me the foundations of how to be a strong clinician.”

The most valuable lesson Gessica has learned in graduate school thus far is that this isn’t just an academic pursuit. “It’s a transformative journey that fosters substantial growth, encompassing both professional and personal dimensions,” she reflected. “The rigors of graduate studies in psychology contribute to an individual's holistic development in profound ways.” Gessica feels that she has grown and developed not just as a therapist, but as a human.

Gessica has held several leadership roles during her time at the Wright Institute, including serving on the Executive Committee, being the WI student representative for BAPIC, and being the group representative for the WI’s ANST Interest Group. She is drawn to leadership roles because they allow her the opportunity to create community and positive connections with her peers. “My pursuit of these roles is grounded in the conviction that diversity should be well-represented in leadership positions,” she explained. “I've taken immense pleasure in these positions as they've granted me the opportunity to advocate for student needs, wield a voice at decision-making tables, and ensure that the perspectives of minority voices are not only acknowledged but genuinely heard and considered.”

Gessica HobbyBecause her professional interests require analytical and methodical thinking, Gessica has chosen hobbies that allow her to express her creativity. She has been interested in film photography since she took her first photography class in high school. “Photography requires patience and is in many ways my form of meditation,” she shared. “There is something incredibly peaceful about setting everything up and slowly waiting for that perfect shot.” During the pandemic, Gessica taught herself to sew and began designing her own clothing. “I have always expressed myself through fashion, and being able to construct an item of clothing exactly as I envision is yet another avenue for me to express my creativity,” she reflected. “Whenever I have free time during the school year, I am often designing and sewing new outfits.” These creative outlets help Gessica maintain balance in her life and prioritize her mental health.

After graduating from the Wright Institute, Gessica plans to pursue a career in neuropsychology or health psychology, both fields that have historically lacked diversity. “My overarching goal in these fields is to work on bringing cultural competence to the forefront, reducing health disparities, validating diverse experiences, and addressing stigma and biases,” she explained. “In doing so, I hope to open new doors for the next generation of psychologists-in-training from diverse backgrounds to enter into these fields.”
Gessica feels prepared to achieve her goals after completing her studies at the Wright Institute, noting that she has been provided with “the training and practical experience needed to be exceptional in the field.”