Psychologist, Beaver alumna breaks barriers

Maura Francis returns as spring 2024 commencement speaker
A photo of Maura smiling and wearing a green shirt on a white background

Maura Francis, a 2016 graduate of Penn State Beaver, will be the keynote speaker for May 4 commencement. Francis went on to earn a doctorate in psychology and now works as a clinical psychologist in New York.

Credit: Contributed

MONACA, Pa. — In the eight years since she was last at Penn State Beaver, many things have changed in Maura Francis’ life. The 2016 alumna, now a doctor of psychology working in clinical practice in New York, will be the keynote speaker for the spring commencement ceremony on campus.

Her path from attending Beaver campus where she graduated with a psychology degree to earning a doctorate is one she describes as “unconventional,” but one she navigated with determination and support along the way.

“For people of color and Black women, the path doesn’t always look the same or linear. It’s just different. I’m grateful to the people who took a chance on me,” Francis said.

“I don’t think I would be where I’m at now if it wasn’t for Penn State Beaver and all the wonderful people I met along the way,” she said.

Where she is now is a graduate of the prestigious St. John’s University and a clinical psychologist for the Manhattan Psychology Group where she works with children, adolescents and their families. 

“I tell everybody how extremely helpful and foundational Penn State Beaver has been to my development and my career,” Francis said. “Less than 3% of psychologists are Black, and the fact that Beaver was a contributor to break ceilings, to break barriers is great.”

Early challenges

A native of Penn Hills, Francis went to live with her older sister at the age of 13 as her parents struggled with addiction. She went through high school striving to succeed, taking advanced placement classes and participating in cheerleading. She was accepted to Penn State Beaver where she continued her academic success, was a resident assistant, and a student leader, earning the Walker Award in 2015.

Her family background compelled her to want to help kids who are at-risk, she said. Encouraged by her adviser, Kevin Bennett, full teaching professor of psychology, she applied to graduate school. 

While she was in the application process — challenging in and of itself — she was asked by campus administrators to speak at the University’s Board of Trustees meeting during a campus visit in the summer of 2015. Though she was hesitant, she agreed, and that meeting became another turning point for Francis.

Then-trustee Alice Pope asked Francis about her future plans. When Francis said she was planning to attend graduate school, Pope — a Penn State triple alumna and now-retired associate professor of psychology at St. John’s — encouraged Francis not only to get her doctorate, but to apply to St. John’s.  

“At Beaver, everyone knew I would get in, but I didn’t have that confidence,” she said.

Francis was accepted. While there was a learning curve from undergraduate to graduate school, Francis quickly found her footing, she said. She completed two research fellowships and a clinical fellowship.

“That’s when my graduate school journey kind of blossomed,” she said. “I saw I had a knack for connecting with others and families, and I stepped a little bit more into my confidence.”

“I’ve had people at St. John’s to support me,” she said, specifically noting her mentor, William Chaplin, professor of psychology and assistant chair, and Pope who helped Francis to find her own community and path.

A career helping others

Francis, who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, works with children and adolescents with ADHD and/or who have externalizing disruptive behaviors. She said as a psychologist she tries not to focus on weaknesses but to lead with good things to help patients build up other skills and shift their perspective.

In addition to her work with individuals and families from diverse backgrounds and communities, Francis’ research areas include racial discrimination and mental health outcomes and the role of implicit bias in diagnostic decision-making in children and adolescents.

Francis said she was surprised to receive the invitation to speak at commencement because she is early in her career.

“It feels like it hasn’t been eight years. I’m so excited,” Francis said of her impending return to Beaver campus for commencement. “I’m very honored. I’m very humbled.”

I tell everybody how extremely helpful and foundational Penn State Beaver has been to my development and my career.

—Maura Francis , clinical psychologist and Penn State Beaver alumna