When Michael Oien graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2005 with a double major in behavioral neuroscience and philosophy, he knew he wanted to pursue graduate work in psychology. He considered different programs, but after talking to admissions and a friend who was a current student in the Graduate School of Psychology, he decided to pursue St. Thomas as an option for graduate school. He remembers that on the day of his interview he arrived late, soaking wet from the rain. Dr. Jean Birblis, however, gave him a minute to dry off and compose himself. Oien was struck by that moment of understanding, and was impressed by the department during the course of their conversation. In the end he committed to the master’s program at St. Thomas in 2007, finding a perfect fit in a welcoming community. Throughout his experience he recalls the same consistent support that he witnessed on the day of that interview.
In his first year in the graduate program, Oien’s father passed away, a loss that deeply affected him, but he was grateful for a supportive community. The faculty sent flowers and cards, and individuals from the department offered Oien their care and attention. “I will never forget the department’s support,” he said, “particularly since I felt that I was a fairly anonymous student at the time. After that experience, I knew that community was just as important, maybe more so, than other factors in choosing a graduate program.” So when it came time to apply for doctoral programs, Oien said, “I knew there was only one place I wanted to attend.”
During his doctoral studies, from 2009-2013, Oien was involved in a number of collaborative research projects, including one on Singaporean master therapists’ multicultural knowledge and skills. “I believe the investigation took almost two years from conception to publication,” Oien said. “It was a great experience, and I was lucky to have been part of such a great international team of researchers.” Oien also co-wrote a paper on the subject and presented at the 2012 American Psychological Association convention in Orlando, Florida.
Another highlight of Oien’s career at St. Thomas was the co-founding of the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) for the Graduate School of Professional Psychology (GSPP) in 2009 and 2010. “At that time,” Oien said, “there were no groups allowing for doctoral students to interact across cohorts.” Oien had served on both the master’s programs’ advisory council and diversity committee, so the GSO “grew out of a desire for a more meaningful graduate psychology experience. The idea was to develop an interrelated, three-part student organization model: service to others, increased connection at all levels, and personal and professional development,” he said. Directing such an organization alone proved difficult, so he recruited a GSO Executive Board. “In truth,” Oien said, “they were the heart and soul behind the founding of the GSO. I just pitched the idea, and they ran with it!” As with any new project, the young GSO faced many unique challenges. Oien recalls, “We struggled a bit to find our identity, much in the same way that a graduate student struggles a bit to develop a personal and professional identity.” When the group began, they focused on their three goals by organizing service projects, hosting social gatherings and sponsoring professional speakers. Then they approached Dr. Tim Balke, director of the master’s and certificate programs for GSPP, and presented the idea of hosting a practicum training fair where psychology practicum sites could come and speak with students from St. Thomas and other schools. “To our knowledge,” Oien said, “it was the first professional fair of its kind in graduate psychology in the Twin Cities.” Oien believes that the GSO is an important part of the graduate experience because it encourages students to immerse themselves in a valuable community, rather than isolated instruction. “The GSO maximizes your education by personalizing your experience,” Oien explains. The GSO was awarded the Dean Kramer Common Good Award, which Oien described as “a proud moment.”
As part of his doctoral practicum experience, Oien worked for the Veteran Affairs Health Care System (VAHCS), the Interprofessional Center (IPC), which is a community-based clinic run by St. Thomas, and St. Catherine University. “Although the three experiences seem very different, I had strategic reasons for choosing those sites,” Oien said. “I knew they would all challenge me to reflect upon who I was as an individual and who I wanted to be as a professional.”
Through direct-commission upon award of the Army Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), Oien entered the Army in 2011. The HPSP is a two-year, full-tuition scholarship program for psychologists and other medical professionals who want to serve in the Army. In 2012, Oien was promoted to the rank of Captain. He recognizes that his academic experience taught him significant lessons that must be applied to the military mindset. “A successful Army officer must be collaborative, reflective and globally minded,” Oien said, “because a failure to do so may negatively impact a mission and could potentially jeopardize lives.”
“During my time on active duty,” he shares, “I have met some incredible people with whom I know I will be lifelong friends.” Reflecting on his transformational experience in the Army, Oien said that he started keeping a notebook that he continually fills with the lessons he has learned. Perhaps what has impressed Oien the most, he remarked, was the amount of personal sacrifice he has witnessed in his fellow soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and their families. “I have seen individuals do some incredible things,” he said.
Although an Army psychologist plays a number of roles, the most significant, Oien said, is the “dual role of Army officer and psychologist.” Here, one must be a clinician, a staff officer and a consultant, and know the appropriate setting for each of these duties. Oien explained that as an Army psychologist, some duties are not related to psychology, a challenge that presents ethical questions. “Army psychologists must adhere to both our professional psychology code of ethics and, at the same time, federal regulations as an officer.”
The uniqueness of the Army psychologist, however, is that he or she is as much a part of the unit as the client, which, according to Oien, allows “an increased understanding of the context from which the soldier is coming. Building trust with all levels of the unit is the Army psychologist’s most effective tool.” For example, Oien was assigned to an infantry battalion for a year, during which time he “attended field training exercises, slept in the dirt with the soldiers, acted as a behavioral health consultant to the commanders and made a number of friends in the process.” Soldiers sometimes worry that seeking treatment from a psychologist may interfere with their career. However, Oien says that in most cases “seeking treatment demonstrates good judgement and has almost no negative impact on one’s career.”
Another challenge that faces a military psychologist is the sheer size of the organization, which can make it difficult to focus on individual care, something the private-practice civilian psychologist might not have to deal with. “Health services must continue to demonstrate those personal values, nonetheless,” Oien said, “and the Army healthcare system, from what I can see, has already taken a number of steps toward these ends.” Additionally, the Army is a government entity, meaning that there is always an “intersect between politics and Army policy.”
Though a challenging career, military psychology is not without its benefits and opportunities. Oien sees the military environment as one that expands the psychologist’s abilities because of the emphasis on leadership. He said that “psychologists can always benefit from increased leadership training and visibility,” something that the Army sets as a priority.
Since 2012, Oien has been doing clinical training in psychology at Tripler Army Medical Center. He graduated from the PsyD program in 2013, and in 2014 completed Army residency in clinical military psychology. This year, he became a licensed psychologist. With his wife and two dogs, Michael Oien is in the process of relocating to Texas.
The content expressed herein does not necessarily reflect the stance of the US Department of Defense, Department of Veteran Affairs or the US Army; they are the opinion and ideas of this individual.