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  • Jonathan Stokes

Amy Gierer Kieran Can Do Anything

By: Jonathan Stokes

The Gender Studies Suite, located on the third floor of Lucas Hall, is a unique space distinct from others on campus. With intriguing literature filling the bookcases and quirky artifacts sprinkled throughout, the room radiates an energy that welcomes students with open arms. The vibrant décor may attract passersby, but Amy Kieran's magnetic charisma keeps them coming back.

Photo by Amy Kieran

Kieran’s path to UMSL was never clear, but her first experience with higher education was a no-brainer. She graduated high school in 1994 and vividly remembers a “college-or-bust” culture that forced many to pursue degrees they weren’t passionate about. Kieran, however, saw college as an opportunity to escape from her “unharmonious childhood.”  

“I love school. I love learning. I’m the annoying person saying I just read this article about this cool weird science thing or anthropological thing, let me show it to you. If it’s weird, I’m probably going to think it’s cool,” she said. 

Now a Triton with hopes of entering the field of psychiatric mental health, Kieran first graduated from Truman State with a degree in philosophy and religion. Initially, she planned to continue to Divinity School, but learning about religion ultimately led to a crisis of faith. With a life plan that fell apart, Kieran developed a resilience that guided her through life’s toughest challenges—a skill that she hopes to pass on to her three teenage children.

“I’ve always expressed to them that I think it’s ridiculous that we expect 18-year-olds to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They’re 18. Their brains aren’t even done.” 

 Kieran says of her own college experience, “I proceeded to go to college and go really crazy . . . because that’s what you do when you’re 18.”

Focused on encouraging them to push forward, Kieran also validates their growing pangs. 

The nurturing of her children is extra special because for a long time, being a mother wasn’t a guarantee or an option. For eight years, she experienced infertility. During this time, she and her friends started a non-profit named Infertertility and Adoption Support (IAS). This same comforting energy can be felt in the Gender Studies Suite, where the intergenerational conversations about hopes and dreams are mirrored with students.

“I love young people. I love these younger generations. I love how they think differently. I really just enjoy listening to them. When you think about it, that’s what we all want. We want someone who will take the time to listen to what we’re saying about our lives with empathy and compassion,” said Kieran.

Conversations with Kieran tend to lean into therapeutic territory. While mental health services are available on campus, it doesn’t hurt to get validation from someone who has been through it before.

“I talk a lot about things being hard for me and the fact that my life has gone so many places I’d never dream my life would go. The only guarantee in life is that it’s not going to turn out the way you thought it would. That’s a really big idea for people who are 18 to 22-year-olds,” she said. 

Photo by Jonathan Stokes

In the room, students feel at ease without the teacher-student barrier. Being roughly the age of their parents without unequal power dynamics allows for mutual vulnerability in open conversations. Emotional and social growth are recurring subjects discussed, and Kieran has a theory as to why.

“People who are in school now, in the typical age range, are the kids who went through Covid high school. It has profoundly affected every single one of them . . . It’s really important to listen to what they say and how they feel. It’s important to hold space for that, and it’s a tremendous privilege to say I don’t know your experience; tell me what this is life for you," said Kieran.

During quarantine, Kieran had a first-row seat to witness how Gen Z was affected. The single mother of three working as a marketing director for a publishing company suddenly had to homeschool three kids in three schools. Playing teacher, principal, custodian and lunch lady on top of working mom sparked Kieran’s desire to change careers.

Kieran loved spending time with her kids but working nearly 80 hours a week didn’t allow for much quality time. Looking inward, she set her sights on a new industry that she had considered for years. Her personal experiences with the medical industry inspired change.

“I also went through infertility. It took me eight years to conceive my first child . . . when you’re going through infertility, you have to learn all kinds of things about your body you never learned before. I think that [nursing] was something that always called to me.”

Kieran’s experience with infertility led her to start the non-profit organization Infertility and Adoption Support. While not currently involved, the organization connected families with resources in the medical field, which led her to UMSL’s College of Nursing. After being accepted into nursing school three times, Kieran was forced to shift gears once tragedy struck the family in June 2022. 

“My sister was murdered. It’s hard to express adequately how significant an event like that is. It put everything in focus for me. I had just started actually taking care of myself for the first time in my life at 47 . . . I didn’t feel like waiting for anything anymore. We don’t know how much time we have left.

My sister always struggled with mental illness, and it seemed like not only something I wanted to go into but an appropriate homage to her to pursue this part of my education. I’m going into psychiatry because our country’s relationship with mental health is so defunct. I think Covid highlighted that so strongly for so many of us,” said Kieran.

Kieran’s decision to pursue new beginnings after the tragic loss of her sibling has since become a source of pride for her and her family. 

She said, “It sometimes feels really crazy that something that horribly traumatic has led me to this place that I’m really happy in. I would give up every ounce of it for my sister to be here, but if I can’t have that, at least I’ve managed to turn something horrible into giving me inspiration to do something new and different.” 

After graduation, Kieran hopes to work with individuals and families dealing with emergent mental health situations. It can be devastating when people in crisis have their situation mishandled or completely rejected. She notes that mental health emergencies ought to be treated as seriously as heart attacks.

Her education at UMSL has sparked her interest in the ongoing studies on how psychedelics, when applied therapeutically, have lasting results for people suffering from PTSD. She notes that her state-of-the-art curriculum at UMSL gives her confidence that when entering the industry, she’ll have all the tools needed to help reach her goals.

Kieran believes self-awareness is the most important awareness to develop, and without education, introspection is limited. She suggests students take anatomy courses to understand their bodies and anthropology courses to escape main character syndrome.

Being a full-time student while holding down two jobs and raising three “full-time kids” is a balancing act. However, a close-knit network of chosen family members helps to make self-care possible while dealing with the stress of school. Visitors of the Gender Studies Suite continue to provide daily inspiration while Kieran’s biggest motivating factor is the support from her children.

“The best part about it, though, is that my kids are really proud of me. They’re really proud that I’m back in school and that I get good grades. It’s solidifying my reputation of being able to do anything, and I’ll take that.”


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