At Stony Brook University, Matthew Henninger ’16 took great risks and found big rewards.
Matthew, who grew up in Farmingville, only 20 minutes away from the University, moved to Brookfield, Connecticut with his family when he was eight years old. He grew to love the relative seclusion and natural beauty of his new surroundings and vowed he would never return to densely populated central Suffolk County.
His academic interests, however, lured him back. “The friends I remained close to on Long Island who attended Stony Brook raved about the immense opportunities and impeccable education they were getting there,” he says. “At the time, I was applying to college and had developed an interest in biology and attending medical school.”
Although Matthew was initially apprehensive about being part of a large public university and becoming “lost in the crowd,” the prospect of reuniting with friends and family, combined with Stony Brook’s status as a global leader, coaxed him to roll the dice and give Long Island a second chance.
He would soon encounter an even greater moment of truth. During new student orientation, even before his fall classes began, he realized he did not want to go to medical school any more.
“I called my best friend in sheer panic about the uncertainty of what to do. She advised me to switch to psychology, knowing me as well as she did and how much I had enjoyed it in high school,” Matthew says.
This was not an easy task for Matthew, however. He described the change in his goals as “walking into an empty room with no way out and beset with a fear of possible failure.”
A course in abnormal and clinical psychology during that first semester, however, convinced him that this is the field in which he could flourish.
Matthew stayed engaged, always looking for opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. That summer, he gained invaluable insight into working with children on the autism spectrum. While a member of Camp Kesem‘s Stony Brook Operations Committee in 2013, Matthew toured Ramapo for Children in Rhinebeck, New York, where more than 200 counselors and an equal number of campers diagnosed with behavioral, emotional, learning and social challenges forge close working and personal relationships. He enjoyed that experience so much he returned to serve as a counselor and supervisor for the next two summers.
“Having the opportunity to work with individuals on the autism spectrum has taught me patience, understanding and compassion on levels that I never thought would be possible,” he said.
More surprises lay ahead. During his sophomore year, Matthew’s interests shifted to women’s health issues after he took a course with Marci Lobel, a professor in the Department of Psychology. “I took a reflective look at my history, background, culture and relationships that I would have otherwise overlooked,” he says. “I fondly remember asking my mother questions about her pregnancy and the range of emotions she experiences. In this way, I believe that Professor Lobel guided me into creating a closer bond with my family and prepared me for my recent research projects with the Mind-Body Clinical Research Center.”
The Center, a part of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stony Brook Medicine, is where Matthew made his mark. He became fascinated with post-traumatic growth, which is positive psychological change in the aftermath of a stressful life event. He and his colleagues undertook the Herculean task of researching the post-traumatic growth in 9/11 responders who were also exposed to the effects and response efforts of Hurricane Sandy.
Subsequent membership in professional affiliations such as the Society of Behavioral Medicine and Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology, helped him to connect with other researchers in diverse areas of psychology at the annual Society of Behavioral Medicine conference held in Washington, D.C. in April 2016.
Meanwhile, Matthew’s status as a University Scholar opened doors outside the classroom, introducing him to leadership roles in organizations such as Red Watch Band and Safe Space LGBTQA* training. He participated in numerous Beyond the Classroom and Research panels, which helped him to communicate his research opportunities to fellow students.
Matthew’s current research interests include investigating the co-occurrence of post-traumatic growth and chronic illness in primary care patients, chiefly in the areas of prenatal/perinatal health and autoimmune diseases. He is also interested in developing mind/body treatments for patients diagnosed with chronic illness as a way for them to find meaning behind their illness and live their lives to the fullest. These fields of study have encouraged Matthew to pursue a PhD with a specialization in clinical health psychology.
As he helps others, Matthew finds that he is helping to discover the uncharted territory within himself. “I scratch away at my own existential issues and work to understand that what makes up psychology and a psychologist are the people with whom I have the privilege of working.”
Matthew maintains that psychology is not about illness or knowing all the complexities of the human mind. He quotes Canadian psychologist Victor Morasse, who wrote, ‘It’s about humanity, doubts and uncertainty. It’s about reaching out and reaching in, authenticity and honesty.”