The Unlikeliest of Journeys: William James College Twice Provides a Path Forward for One Reluctant Student

Student with Family

Prior to landing at William James College, Ryan Duquette’s educational path had been hectic and messy—not unlike the birth of his first child which, in retrospect, caused his life’s purpose to snap into sharp focus. “It was not at all a fairy tale experience” the Behavioral Health Service Corps. (BHSC) graduate and current Master of Arts candidate in Organizational Psychology says of his two biggest accomplishments to date: becoming a father and pursuing an education, in order to set an example for his young son. 

“I’ve always been a people person, with a desire to support and advocate for others, but I didn’t know how,” recalls Duquette who grew up amidst trauma and neglect in a family that did not believe in mental health care at the time. After hitting rock bottom at age 14, and making an unsuccessful attempt against his life, he vowed to live in a way that helped others avoid the loneliness and isolation that permeated the first two decades of his life. 

“I hated college,” admits Duquette, who—in keeping with his parents’ wishes—followed the expected path and earned his BA in business management from Westfield State University rather than pursue his passion for psychology. Upon graduation, he vowed never to return to academia and instead took a warehouse job that paid well; three years later, following an injury at work, he reached a breaking point. Inspired by his wife, who was happily employed in the human services industry, Duquette applied for and was hired as a peer specialist at a new outpatient facility in his hometown. As to the sole requirement? Lived experience with mental health challenges—the treatment for which he was successful in securing as an adult.

“I fell in love with being in that vulnerable space with people,” says Duquette who, after a handful of years and careful fine tuning of his career goals, moved on to a position supporting folks in “really difficult spaces” providing in-person respite care during the pandemic before securing a job with the Department of Mental Health (DMH). Duquette has spent the past two years working as a peer specialist supervisor at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital—the largest inpatient psychiatric hospital funded by the DMH—where his supervisor brought the many opportunities at William James College to Duquette’s attention. Upon connecting with Marc Abelard, MEd, Director of Behavioral Health Service Corps, and Julia Rodenhiser, Program Administrator for the Center for Workforce Development at William James college, any doubts about his eligibility were immediately put to rest. 

“From our very first conversation, they were so reassuring that I had every right to [apply for and enroll in] the BHSC Scholars Program,” says Duquette, who was unsure he qualified. Abelard and Rodenhiser encouraged him to go for it, underscoring his bachelor’s degree and work with underserved populations in the behavioral health field more than met the eligibility requirements for the paid, year-long service and learning opportunity for college graduates. One month into the program, Duquette’s wife went into premature labor which, given the couple’s history of pregnancy loss, caused him to immediately regret his decision to go back to school. 

“I remember feeling very defeated—like I had to drop everything,” recalls Duquette after his wife experienced unexpected complications and his son ended up in the NICU. When he called Abelard, to fill him in, Duquette was met with in a way he’d not experienced prior, especially in school: Unconditional support and a promise to figure things out—no matter what that entailed.

“Marc really stuck with me and followed up several times a week, just to see how we were doing,” says Duquette, who felt zero pressure to make a decision. For someone who could always be counted on to show up for others, Duquette had never been on the receiving end—and it blew his mind. By the time his son came home from the hospital, Duquette had decided to forge ahead with his studies and Abelard helped him with a plan to get caught up and back on track. 

“I found my sweet spot and started doing really well,” says Duquette who was able to continue his work with the DMH, one of a dozen agency partners, as a BHSC Scholar. At the program’s conclusion, with the support of mentor Michelle Codner, PsyD, Duquette began contemplating next steps in his educational journey. Meetings with Gemima St. Louis, PhD, Vice President of Workforce Initiatives and Specialty Training, Center for Workforce Development, Suzanne Devlin, PhD and Darlene Piva, MA, PsyD—both of the Organizational and Leadership Psychology Department—quickly convinced Duquette of two things: the William James faculty understood where he was coming from, and pursuing an MA in Organizational Psychology would be his next step. 

“Having the flexibility to complete my education online was vital,” says Duquette, a resident of Rhode Island, who elected the fully-online option; coursework for the accelerated program commenced in January, which means he’s halfway toward completing the 11-month program. 

 “At WJC, I have found a community of people where I feel like I belong—where my personality fits and my interests click—something I never really thought I would find through education,” says Duquette. Looking ahead, he sees his education as an avenue toward effecting change and hopes to use his degree not only to advocate for others but also to influence policy on the administrative side of the DMH—although he is open to opportunities outside of the public mental health sector if and when they arise. 

 “The stars just aligned,” says Duquette who, on the brink of turning 30, is a big believer in serendipity. “I didn’t know about any of these [educational and career opportunities at William James College] until I needed them,” says Duquette, who remains confident he’s exactly where is supposed to be. His wife has made a full recovery and their son—a 15-month old ball of fire—keeps them both on their toes. Amidst the myriad of emotions on which he could focus, Duquette chooses the positive. 

“I am always grateful for the opportunity to share my story with people in an inspirational way and show others that recovery is possible,” says Duquette, who remains honest and open about the strength and resilience needed to get through life’s challenges—especially when things are bleak. 

“No one ever told me, ‘You're gonna go get a Masters one day. You're gonna own a home, have a child and be married’—yet here I am, with all of those things. I look forward to seeing what life has in store for me”, says Duquette, excited for what’s next. 


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