News & Features

Ryan McGrath

A Few Minutes With Ryan McGrath

Vince Lara at the University of Illinois speaks with Recreation, Sport and Tourism graduate student Ryan McGrath about why he chose Illinois, and his recent award from The Academy of Leisure Sciences.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With the podcast that showcases Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara and today I'm speaking with Ryan McGrath, an RST grad student who was recently awarded the Future Scholar Award by The Academy of Leisure Sciences. All right, I'm speaking with Ryan McGrath and Ryan, I wanted to know what made you choose Illinois. And what made you choose the Recreation, Sport, and Tourism program.

RYAN MCGRATH: Yeah, first off, thanks for having me on today to talk, Vince. I really appreciate the opportunity. So I'll backtrack a little bit. I did my undergrad at Illinois, as well. And I've always been a lifelong Illini fan, even though I grew up near Seattle. My dad's from Illinois, so it was ingrained in me early to be an Illini fan-- Bears, Cubs. So, Illinois was always my dream school and before I decided to go to college, I'd been coaching basketball for about four years. At that point, volunteer coaching with a recreation program.

So when I applied to Illinois, that initial interest was from my coaching basketball, and I saw it tied directly in there with the RST program. And then for graduate school, I had such a good experience in RST during undergrad-- I'd made it a priority to be active within the Department and I got to know a lot of teachers really well. So when I was looking at graduate schools in the same field, Illinois just seemed like a great choice because of the relationships I had formed at that point with faculty members.

VINCE LARA: Yeah, you just talked about your undergrad and grad school gap there. Why did you do that, and would you recommend that to other students who were looking to-- who might think about grad school?

RYAN MCGRATH: Yeah. I think it really depends on the field you're in and your career goals. So it's hard to say. It's a case-by-case basis. But for me, I think it was a really good choice. Initially, when I graduated I thought I wanted to work in local parks and recreation, eventually become a parks and recreation director. That was my ultimate goal at the time. But, I worked right after I graduated in 2017. I went back to my hometown of Mount Vernon, Washington and did an internship with the local county fair.

So I got experience working in events, and just all the craziness that comes with event planning. And then I moved down to Florida for a few years to help out my dad and improve my financial situation. So I worked in a local recreation department there, did some facility management, recreation programming, and so on and so forth. And what I got out of that experience, interestingly enough, was that those weren't necessarily my strengths. Recreation programming, events, parks and recreation. And what I really learned from that gap was more so what I didn't want to do than what I did want to do ultimately with my career.

So, I think it's good for whether you decide to take a gap in between undergrad and grad school, or just continue all the way through with your education, to supplement that with some experience along the way. Because even though you learn a lot of great stuff in the classroom, you really need that experience to ultimately decide what you want to do and what you don't want to do. And you won't know that until you try it.

Like I had initially thought I wanted to be a parks and recreation director, that was my ultimate goal. But once I got into that field and observed what being a recreation director was like, I started to realize that my strengths were more in the teaching side of things. And I really missed the University environment, doing research, this academia, critical thinking, and continual learning side of things. And so through that experience I figure that my interest and just my overall personal strengths were better suited towards a career in teaching within that field.

VINCE LARA: I noticed that you're particularly interested in specializing in leisure behavior with the focus on issues related to loneliness and social isolation. So commonly when people focus on a research topic like that, there's something that inspired them to do that, and I wonder what was it for you.

RYAN MCGRATH: Yeah, so it's kind of a long story, I'll try and hit on the key points here. Even beginning of my undergrad, I had an interest on leisure as it relates to health and wellness. I've had a lot of personal experience with chronic illnesses within my family.

First off, my dad developed a rare autoimmune disorder. And I saw firsthand how that impacted his quality of life. All the things that he used to do, he wasn't able to really do any more, and that's pretty hard on him. As well as just his financial situation. He's a really hard worker, really focused on his work. As his disease progressed, he got put on disability, and he had a lot smaller income. So that really impacted him, and I learned a lot from witnessing that firsthand.

Additionally, I also do have some chronic health issues myself. I got a really bad head and neck injury about six years ago, and I still struggle with that. I have a lot of nerve damage in my neck and a lot of other weird stuff going on. So with that I learned to accept that physical health symptoms and-- just take it a day at a time. I have my good days and my bad days, but for a while there I was having some issues with depression and anxiety. As I researched those a little more, I learned how those tie-in to social connections.

For a while there, I was just feeling really bad didn't want to do anything. So I just was isolated, myself, and didn't go out in the world and really experience too much. I was just focused on how I was feeling bad all the time. But as I started working on improving my situation a little bit, I learned more about how mental health ties in with your social connections.

I read a really good book called Lost Connections that showed that often what causes these mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are the environment we live in and life situations that happen to us. And so through that I started to make this tie between loneliness, social isolation, anxiety, and depression.

A really interesting thing that they discussed in this book was this idea of social prescribing that they're implementing over in the United Kingdom where general practitioners, when they do general wellness strikes, are actually asking patients what their social life is like, and if they feel lonely, socially isolated. And if they do, they're starting to partner with community programs, such as parks and recreation, to provide and prescribe these different types of socially oriented recreation and volunteer programs to improve their health.

VINCE LARA: You know, speaking of helping people, you've had some incredible mentors along the way. At RST and Laura Payne, and Kim Shinew, and Monika Stodolska. Did you seek to work out with-- did you seek out them to work with when you were deciding on your grad program, and why?

RYAN MCGRATH: Yes, definitely so one big advantage I had when I applied to Illinois for my grad school I already knew a lot of the faculty and had classes with them. And when you fill out the Graduate School application, they ask for two or three potential advisors that you would like to have. And during that I actually put Laura, Kim, or Monica to work with because their research interests were pretty closely aligned with what I wanted to do, and I learned a lot from their classes in the past. So I've been able to work with each of them in a different capacity since I've been on campus.

Laura actually was the one who reached out to me before I applied to grad school and she mentioned that job in Seattle, a recreation job that I might be interested in. But she was more so, I think, asking if I was interested in coming back for graduate school. So I was able to really talk with her and figure out how graduate school would work. I was tight on money, and she explained assistantships and financing, and so on and so forth.

So she really helped me make that a real possibility and move in that direction. So she's my current assistantship supervisor with the Office of Recreation and Park Resources. Through that she's provided me with a lot of experiential learning opportunities outside of the classroom, such as working on the Illinois Statewide comprehensive outdoor recreation plan this year. So I really appreciate all the opportunities she's given me.

Kim has been my graduate advisor, so I've been working closely with her on developing my master's thesis. And right now my topic is still pretty broad-- loneliness, social isolation, health and leisure. So she's really helping me to narrow that down and getting an actual thesis, and a study that I can conduct within that. Because there's a lot of different angles you can take on, different populations that you could study. So I really appreciate her insight.

And then with Monica, I don't technically work with her in the same capacity as I do with Laura and Kim, but I interact with her to her being the Director of Graduate Studies and I recently took a RST-501 course with her. Through that course, we had an assignment where we had to write an extensive literature review on our research interests. And so I learned a lot about my topic through that. It was a 45-page assignment. Definitely the hardest and most time-consuming project I have ever worked on. But she really challenged me and gave me good feedback along the way. I've learned a lot through her classes over the years.

VINCE LARA: What's been your favorite course as a master's student so far? Is it RST-501 or is it something else that you can think of?

RYAN MCGRATH: Yeah, it would be that 501 course. For the reasons I just mentioned, but on top of that, the course covered a lot of what we learned in undergrad in RST. History of leisure, motivations and needs, constraints, theories, and current issues in the industry. But there's a lot deeper dive into that than you get in undergrad.

So I just learned a lot about the field as a whole, and some important theoretical frameworks in the field that will help with my thesis. And another interesting thing we did in that class was we had a daily discussion class writing assignment with two other group members that were assigned to us throughout the entire course.

And I worked with two PhD students who were in my group. One was Casey who was a tourism major, and the other was Mina is a recreation major, and I just learned a lot through their perspectives. I'm not well-versed in tourism so I learned a lot from Casey through that. And Mina’s from South Korea, so it's also interesting to learn from them and hear a different perspective on how leisure is different in different cultures.

VINCE LARA: You know, you have a unique perspective in that you had this break right between undergrad and grad, so you know what this campus was like before the pandemic. And now what it's like during. And I'm wondering what-- to you what seems different, what feels different to you about campus before and now?

RYAN MCGRATH: Yeah it actually ties in with what I've been talking about maybe because I'm really focused and in that world right now but I'd say just the social connection side of things is way different compare my undergraduate to my graduate experience. So far with everything being on Zoom, just today even I saw an email that Chancellor Jones sent out where they're listing the essential activities only guidance and that email he mentioned how students have come to this campus to connect with others and have rich social experiences, and feel like that's something that's hard to supplement with Zoom.

I think there's a difference between actually being in the classroom face-to-face interactions and being on Zoom. And as it pertains to grad school in particular, I think that while what you learn in the classroom is important, what's even more important is the connections that you build with the faculty and your fellow classmates. Building up your network and getting to know people on a deeper level, and being able to pick their brain.

When you're just having classes on Zoom, you miss out on a lot of that. But with that being said, though, I'm grateful to be at Illinois right now. They're doing a great job with the testing and doing everything they can. So I applaud them for that and, while it's been difficult, there's a lot of people out there that are in far worse situations than we are right now, being on campus.

VINCE LARA: I absolutely agree with that. And finally the last question I have for you is, part of the reason why I'm having you on this week is because you were recently awarded the Future scholar Award from the Academy of Leisure Sciences, and I wonder what that award means to you.

RYAN MCGRATH: Yeah, it's definitely a huge honor and I'm really grateful for this award. One of my current instructors in RST, Liza Berdychevsky, she was actually a previous award winner, so I had talked with her this last week after class just about her experience with that award what it meant to her, how it helped out her career.

She mentioned that it was a major springboard for her career into academia within this field. She mentioned that it's a fantastic opportunity to learn about different graduate programs and interact with potential advisors. They also assign you a mentor that helps facilitate these interactions, and it's good networking. But also just giving you a lay of the land of the other programs that are out there and where you should look to find an advisor within your particular field of interest.

Yeah, I got to give a lot of credit going back to Monika, Laura, and Kim. They nominated me for this award. And they really helped me out with my application, and without their help this wouldn't have been a possibility. So I'm really grateful for that. I think that'll be a good stepping stone in my career wanting to go into teaching and being a professor.

I'm interested, not only in the research side of things, but I'm really interested in teaching and mentoring and being able to help others out. That came from when I was coaching basketball, that's where that interest came. And so this TALS award I think is a major step towards moving into that career and accomplishing that goal.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to Ryan McGrath. For more podcasts on Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences, Search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeartRadio,, and other places you get your podcast fix. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

back to news