The son of Somali immigrants, Khalid Yusuf grew up with an appreciation for learning, and coming to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln turned out to be the “perfect opportunity” for him to pursue higher education.
“They really pushed me to see that education is an important key to success,” Yusuf said. “I want to fulfill the American dream and go all the way to graduate school and do as much as I can to take advantage of an opportunity that my parents did not have. This lifelong learner mindset was the biggest attribute that they gave me, and I really appreciate them for that.”
Yusuf, of Omaha, Nebraska, will graduate Dec. 18 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in gerontology with a gerontology certification. He plans to attend graduate school for neuropsychology with a specialization in geriatrics.
His goal to attend graduate school was helped along by the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. The program seeks to increase the number of underrepresented students pursuing graduate programs by providing research opportunities, career and personal development, and mentorship. Yusuf became aware of the program during his sophomore year.
“I hadn’t decided to attend graduate school quite yet, but I realized that I needed research experience, and I started looking for research experience avenues,” Yusuf said. “The McNair Scholars Program came to my attention through investigating research programs on campus, and when I realized that as a part of this prestigious program, I would receive a stipend to complete a research fellowship and present my findings at regional and national conferences, it looked like the perfect opportunity.”
“I will credit this program single-handedly as the reason I will be accepted to graduate school. I think it’s had that big of an impact on me.”
Yusuf had already started working as a research assistant with the Serious Mental Illness Research Group, led by William Spaulding, professor emeritus of psychology. Under the guidance of Spaulding and graduate student Rebecca Wolfe, he was able to work on his independent research project that studied students’ physical and mental health and different facets of social experience.
“Through that project, we found that loneliness was significantly correlated with mental health measures in expected directions, showing that, with the increase of negative mental health symptoms, there was an increase in loneliness” he said. “Although this study did not measure specific COVID-19 questionnaires, there is no doubt that social connection and loneliness are becoming a prevalent issue. Therefore, clinicians and institutions that work with those experiencing negative symptoms should be increasingly concerned about social experiences and overall health and its consequences.”
The McNair program experience also boosted his confidence in his work as a scholar.
“Coming into the beginning of summer 2021, I had doubts on whether I could take charge of a research project from start to finish,” Yusuf said. “Fast forward, I now understand the full process from drafting a research proposal to presenting my findings. I have also learned what it means to have people around you who support you in every way possible.”
The McNair program also positioned him to explore the line between theory and clinical practice. Yusuf has sought out a wide range of clinical experiences with aging populations in a variety of settings. By completing a gerontology practicum through the university, he was placed at Tabitha Health Care facility to apply topics learned in gerontology and acquire a greater understanding of the field. Yusuf’s passion in working with older populations started at a young age when he would visit his grandparents and assist them around the house. This led him to minor in gerontology and he hopes that his future career will lead to new breakthroughs in the field of psychology and aging.
“I used to help them with everyday activities and I saw the effects of not aging successfully and that was a big determinant for my career trajectory,” he said. “I realized that we all want to age healthily, and I want to explore that topic more. I decided to pursue psychology and gerontology in combination because I really want to work in the field of geriatrics and mental disorders affecting the elderly populations.”
“I hope to pursue both academic and clinical settings because the research side of this field is very important, but I also want the clinical application because that’s what I want to do — be a helping hand.”
Yusuf has also left his mark on his fellow students through his work as a Gerontology Ambassador, where he helped recruit students into his minor, and as a student Diversity Ambassador, where he welcomed students at events such as Big Red Welcome Days and student panels.
“It’s really important to find those spaces where you can feel like your voice is being heard,” Yusuf said. “And a big part of my identity is that I love to foster diversity.”