Faculty profile: Kazuko Behrens

Kazuko Behrens

Once upon a time, Kazuko Behrens navigated the busy streets of Manhattan and the hustle and bustle of the Wall Street scene. She soon discovered that Wall Street was not all it was cracked up to be; and as her disenchantment with that life began to grow, so did her interest and desire to do something more meaningful and personally fulfilling.

“I was just disenchanted with the Wall Street scene and pace and life went on and life changes came about, so I started reflecting on what was important in my life,” she says.

Someone suggested that she start doing volunteer work, and she began working with New York Cares, a group that tackles social issues in New York City. It was through New York Cares that Behrens decided to focus on children, working with numerous kids, many from shelters, taking them to places like the zoo, the library, and other environments to engage them and show that someone cared. It was through these charitable actions that she began to develop a keen interest in children. It was an interest that would grow over time.

“After doing that volunteer work every weekend for a while, I became bored dealing with people’s money,” she says. “So, I made the decision to leave the field, but that meant starting over. I thought about a lot of different options, but I knew that I wanted to study children.”

Traveling from one coast to another, Behrens started a new educational journey in California, where she earned a second master’s degree at San Francisco State University and then a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California at Berkley. Spending some time in Texas before coming to SUNY Poly in 2012 as assistant professor of psychology, Behrens says she has found the students here to be different from those at other schools.

“The majority of students here are hard workers who are motivated to learn,” she says. “There’s a reason they came to college. They’re appreciative. So far the experience has been great.”

From managing money to managing minds, Behrens now helps train tomorrow’s thinkers on why children behave the way they do and the important roles and influences that parents play in the lives of their kids, with a research focus on attachment theory, why a child likes to touch the parent.

“It’s based on evolutionary theory that we’re supposed to attach,” she says. “A child is scared or vulnerable, and they go and attach to the parent. The parent provides security. However, not all parents are serving that purpose, providing that safe haven. Children are showing distress, but if you are a parent and you ignore them, what kind of message are you sending, how does it affect the later relationship and how does it change the child’s perspective of the world? When a parent does not respond, the child has no place to go when they need comfort.”

As she continues her research, she hopes that her role as a teacher will help students look back on their own lives and childhoods and realize just what went into making them the person they are today, both good and bad.

“I want them to be thoughtful people,” she says. “Every student was a child once, has a family. I’m hoping every class gives them a chance to reflect on their own experiences and relationships with others. I want them to have a wider cultural understanding, to be more thoughtful and to not take it all for granted.”

Behrens says the skills learned and practiced in her classes will help students become better people whether they become psychologists or not.

“They are constantly interacting with people,” she says. “So even if they don’t go into this field, it is something that is very applicable in their own situations and lives.”

When it comes to her own life, Behrens seems very happy with the decision she made to walk away from the financial world and begin a new quest for self-fulfillment and understanding.

“I was trying to ask myself at the time of my transition out of Wall Street, if a company offered me a one million dollars salary would I take it, and the answer is no,” she says. “I’ve lived life in the fast lane. I tried to convince myself I was happy when I wasn’t. I learned that having money wasn’t going to make me happy.”

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