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Marquis Scholar Liz Lilley ’06 (Westwood, N.J.) pursued an honors thesis in psychology because she wanted to contribute to the wellbeing of people like her and her brother, Rob — Koreans adopted into American families. She succeeded, as her work sheds new light on factors that aid the psychological wellbeing of Korean adoptees and challenges beliefs held in some quarters about the environment needed for healthy intercultural adoptions.

Her research examined 17 variables that contribute to three aspects of psychological wellbeing: self acceptance, personal growth, and relationships with others. Lilley’s thesis underscores the importance that a sense of ethnic identity as a Korean American plays in an adoptee’s psychological wellbeing. She challenges current theory that states a diverse living environment is necessary for the successful psychological development of intercultural children. She has demonstrated that couples who wish to adopt Asian Americans don’t have to live in culturally diverse areas.

She found that involvement in cultural activities and exposure to diverse cultures and races, as well as other Asians, has a positive effect on psychological wellbeing, “but the only reason that relationship exists is because being involved in diversity makes them think of themselves as Korean-American, and have a strong identity as someone of race or culture, and that [identity] is what actually relates to psychological wellbeing,” says Lilley.

Since it is the embracing of one’s cultural identity as a Korean-American that is the primary factor in determining psychological wellbeing in Korean adoptees, not mere exposure to diversity, her findings are good news to couples who wish to adopt, but don’t live in culturally diverse areas.

“Some studies have said that if [couples] want to adopt but they don’t live in diverse areas, they should move, or not adopt at all, which, as a Korean adoptee, is hard for me to accept,” she says. “I’ve met people who are from different areas and they have different types of hardships, but they are not necessarily going to be unable to develop an ethnic identity or develop psychological wellbeing.

“It’s not necessary to live in a diverse area to develop psychological wellbeing as a Korean adoptee; [adoptees] need to work on developing an ethnic identity — that’s what helps to predict that relationship [of positive psychological wellbeing].”

She notes that talking to parents about their ethnic identity, communicating with other Asians over the internet, and doing activities that make them “identify with being Asian, or Asian-American, or Asian-American adoptees,” all contribute to enabling [adoptees] to “have a good idea of who [they] are.”

“Her findings have implications for anyone who works with adoptees, especially those that are interracial or transnational,” says Susan Basow, Dana Professor of Psychology and Lilley’s final adviser on the yearlong honors thesis. (Lilley began with Ann McGillicuddy-DeLisi, Metzgar Professor of Psychology, who is now on sabbatical.) “But [Lilley’s work] also has important implications for parents and for programming — that it is healthy to acknowledge your child’s multiethnic background and help your child formulate a strong ethnic identity, and that will facilitate their psychological wellbeing.”

As Lilley’s academic adviser, Basow has known the neuroscience major since “she first came to campus.”

“Liz is a remarkable student,” she says. “She has had a passion for this topic since the first day I met her and she has invested a lot of herself in the project in a way that furthered the science of it. She was open to suggestions, open to doing the research, open to modifying her original idea so that the final project is not only honors worthy, but worthy of a professional journal article. This is graduate-level work.”

“She’s added new information to the field and also raised some interesting questions that relate to gender differences and adoptions – there may be different predictors of adjustment for males and females. So she is not only answering her questions in a way that supports others’ work and supports her hypothesis, she also raises new areas for future research,” says Basow.

Lilley presented her findings at the annual conference of the Eastern Psychological Association in March and will present them at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research April 6-8. As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty students were accepted to present their research at this year’s conference.

Lilley always refers to “we” when discussing the project, generous with praise of the faculty that “stretched her.”

McGillicuddy-DeLisi is an expert in child and adolescent development. Basow is a clinical psychologist who helped her broaden the scope of the project, which originally focused solely on self esteem. Jamila Bookwala, assistant professor of psychology, guided Lilley in learning the complicated statistical analysis needed to calculate the relationship among the many variables she was investigating. Paul Barclay, assistant professor of history, whose field is Asian studies, helped Lilley enhance her views of what constitutes culture. Tim Silvestri, assistant director of counseling services, whose work includes multicultural competence, critiqued her research ethics and guided her in looking at cultural socialization.

“It’s easy to fall into one corner; I would normally feel more comfortable sticking to focusing on [the narrower adoptee aspect], because that is what I know and that is what I have studied,” says Lilley. “But they pulled me out of my comfort zone and forced me to look at the broader view.”

Her research experience was beneficial in many ways, she says, noting that the challenges she faced taught her that research is seldom straightforward. For example, her original concept of testing self esteem in teenagers who attended camps for multicultural adoptees had to be scrapped, along with five months of work, when she was denied access to the campers.

Basow notes that Lafayette’s emphasis on student research, either via honors projects like Lilley’s or the EXCEL Scholars program, Community of Scholars, and independent study, “develops a student’s ability to ask and answer research questions in a way that can be useful for the future, whether they go to graduate school or not. Certainly it’s an advantage for graduate school because these are the types of skills they need to demonstrate.”

“But beyond that, it’s a wonderful opportunity for students to develop the kind of self confidence that will translate to other fields as well.They worked really hard to do all the research and write it in a way that makes them part of the community of scholars, having a conversation with professionals who have done research in the field,” says Basow.

Lilley was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa, Psi Chi (psychology), and Order of Omega (Greek system) honor societies. She is a Dean’s List student, writing associate, psychology lab assistant, and member of Pi Beta Phi sorority.

Categorized in: Academic News