I was inducted into Psi Chi many years ago in the 1980s while I was an undergraduate psychology student at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. Now, let me put things into context for you before I go into any more detail about the lessons I learned while an undergraduate and a Psi Chi member.
Setting the Context
By the time I started my second year of college, I was working full time to put myself through college. My parents still had their other children to finish putting through Catholic school. My parents struggled economically as children, and even as adults they still struggled financially in careers as licensed practical nurses. We weren't poor, but it seemed we were always struggling despite the hard work and many sacrifices my parents made.
Therefore, when it was time for me to go to college, I allowed my father to pay only for my first year to get me started. After that, I felt that I wanted to do it on my own. At the end of my first year of college, I took on a full-time job as a billing clerk at a large hospital in Detroit and, from that point on, I accepted full responsibility for the expense of my education.
When that fall semester began, each day went something like this: I would get up at 5:30 a.m., be out of the door at 6:30, and then take two buses to get to work. I had to be at my desk by 7:30 or else I would have been written up and put on probation. I would work all day except for 15-minute breaks at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. and a 30-minute lunch at 11:30 a.m. Those breaks were spent squeezing in a little more studying for my classes. At 4:00 p.m., I would catch a bus from work to school for a 4:30 class. I would be in class every evening from 4:30 to sometimes as late as 10:00. Many times I would take a bus home. Often, I would arrive home as late as 11:30, and yet my phone would be ringing as I walked in the door. It was my grandmother calling to be sure I had arrived home safely, and to remind me that she was praying for me.
You see, by the end of my second year of college, I had moved into an apartment of my own. I had found being the oldest of two sisters and two step-siblings to be just a little more than I could handle. All of my beloved siblings were in various stages of adolescence, and it seemed that they took pride in harassing me in every way imaginable while I tried to study. They saw me as one big square, and a thorn in their adolescent sides. I knew that I would miss the love and comfort of my sisters and our close-knit family, but I really needed some space of my own. So there I was, technically still a teenager myself, beginning what my grandmother called "house-keeping." With start-up help from my folks, I acquired the cutest little apartment, and I worked very hard to pay my bills, do my studies, and be a good citizen.
I used to say to myself that if I could just get my college degree without making any major mistakes, I would be all right. So, I was very careful with my life every step of the way. I figured to myself, "I am young, and I have important choices and decisions to make about my life." I didn't want to be 50 or 60 years old having regrets over bad choices in life. So, I just jumped in and tried to do the best I could with what I had. I was trying hard to make up my mind about what I really wanted my life to become. As it has turned out, I do not know that I have always made the best choices, but I do feel that I have tried to make the best choices I could with what I had in me at the time. And I have very few regrets, even concerning my mistakes. I am entitled to make mistakes in life--I have come to accept that--and I have seen God take even my mistakes and turn them into blessings. I have found that it is not so much about making perfect choices, but rather it is about learning and finding the serendipity--even in the difficult times--that can result from any choice we make.
Now that I have set the context of my basic life as an undergrad, let me offer a quick summary: I was just one hardworking little chick! Let me now tell you three stories that illustrate three lessons I want to share with you as you are elected into membership in Psi Chi.
Let's go back again to my days in college. Now, by the time I would get off from work at 4:00 in the afternoon and take the bus to school, it had already been a pretty long day. Remember, I had been up since 5:30 in the morning. Well, I can recall vividly having a physiological psychology course with Dr. Larry Stettner. I loved his class. It was interesting, it was lively, he was engaging, and the subject matter was fun to me. But try as I might, I could not keep from falling asleep in his class because I was just so exhausted and worn down from this constant treadmill between work, school, riding five buses a day, studying, and getting very little sleep. Each day, no matter what, I would doze off in Dr. Stettner's class. I imagined that he found my behavior offensive, and I was rather embarrassed by it myself. So, I figured I should go and talk to him about it and apologize. After class one day, I went to him and explained my situation: how I was working all day, going to school all evening, and studying all night, and then getting up and doing the same thing each day. I explained to him that not only was I working a full-time job during the week, but also a part-time job on the weekend.
Dr. Stettner assured me that he was not taking it persfinally, and we strategized on what we could do about the situation. I asked him if he would mind if I brought a tape recorder to class so that if I were to feel myself slipping away, at least I would still hear his lecture later. He agreed. To make a long story short, I spent many hours deciphering Dr. Stettner's lectures from that tape recorder, and I ended up with a strong B in his class and a 3.5 cumulative GPA. I didn't know at the time that I would eventually end up doing an honors thesis with him. To this day, I am still in touch with him. Recently, I happened to run into him on an airplane, of all places. I can't tell you what a delight it was to be able to say, "Dr. Stettner, I did it, I made something of myself. Thank you for taking the time to help me along the way by being a good mentor and professional role model to me."
So, Lesson #1 is that psychology and other social science professors are human, and they realize you are human too. Although we professors sometimes act as if we think we can walk on water, when you have an opportunity to really get to know us, you will find that we will be there for you when you need us . . . which brings me to my second story.
Story #2 involves a secretary named Ms. Leslie Coleman. Ms. Leslie Coleman was the secretary of the psychology department. She was maybe 5 years older than me. I would try to be professional whenever I would go by the psychology office because I would not want to look silly in front of Ms. Coleman, because I admired her so much. I hadn't been used to seeing young women of color in her role. She was a secretary, and it was obvious that she was running things in that office. Even though I admired her, I hadn't yet thought of her as potentially having a direct impact on my life.
Well, much to my surprise, one day I received a letter in the mail from a Dr. James Jay. In his letter he told me that I had been nominated for a very distinguished scholarship that would cover my tuition and pay a stipend of almost $300 a month, and that I must call him right away. I didn't know Dr. Jay at the time, and I was very skeptical about the idea of someone just giving people tuition and money. "Yeah, right," I thought. The next day, during my break at work, I called Dr. Jay. Sure enough, it was true. He said that if I would join the Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, I could have the scholarship. He told me that my nomination had come very strongly from Ms. Leslie Coleman, the psychology department secretary, with the backing of the entire psychology department. I was dumbfounded. I did not even realize anyone even knew who I was (except for Dr. Stettner, because I slept in his class). Dr. Jay said that he would expect me to quit one of my jobs and let the stipend fill in for the lost income, do an honors thesis (which up until that point I hadn't yet made up my mind to do), and attend meetings to think about professional development and graduate school. Graduate school?! Was he kidding? During high school I had sometimes dreamed of becoming a geneticist. But at this present time, I just wanted to get my bachelor's degree to prove to myself that I could do it, and then get a good job as a supervisor at the Post Office or something, and then see about becoming a geneticist or whatever else. "What do I really know about graduate school?" I thought to myself while speaking with Dr. Jay. Nonetheless, I joined the program, and learned a lot about all of these things. One day when I was feeling doubtful about what I was doing, Dr. Jay sat me down and made a comment to me that has had a profound influence upon my life. He explained to me that for each individual African American who goes to graduate school, there are 10,000 others who have the ability but will never have the opportunity. He looked me in the eyes and said, "Michelle, you have both the ability and now the opportunity, and you have an obligation to make the best of them." Inspired, I learned enough to apply to graduate school and get in, work my tush off for years, and the rest is history; here I am, partly because I spoke to the secretary of the psychology department.
So, Lesson #2 is: try to be kind to everyone, even the secretaries, the custodial staff--even the people who go around checking the meters and giving parking tickets. And don't do it for gain. Do it for the principle. The principle is that we are all important and worthy and precious, and without one another, we can't make it. So, be kind to everyone.
Now, this is the third and final story. This story is about Dr. Harriette McCombs. Dr. McCombs graduated with her PhD at a very young age, and eventually made her way to Wayne State University to teach. I had her as an instructor for my Personality Psychology course. She was the first African American female teacher that I had in my entire life. Since then, I have had one other, and that was in graduate school. To me, Dr. Harriette McCombs was the Queen of African America. I just didn't know what to do with myself. I found myself totally in awe. I wanted to be like her. Talk like her. Walk like her. Captivate an audience like her. Tell funny stories like her, but yet be firm like she was. I never dreamed that I would one day actually do exactly what she has done. Seeds and visions for the future were planted in my soul that semester, even though I did not realize it at the time. Well, by then I was in the MARC program, thanks to Ms. Leslie Coleman, the psychology department, and Dr. James Jay. I guess I was in the latter part of my junior year around that time. The MARC program required that I get a midsemester report from each of my instructors. In order to accomplish this, I made an appointment to see Dr. McCombs in her office. Now to me, again, I was going to see the Queen of African America, so this was a really big deal. I was kind of scared. I just wasn't used to rubbing elbows and chitchatting with very important people with PhDs. From my perspective back then, I was just a poor girl from Detroit, and trying to have conversations with these highly educated people seemed overwhelming and intimidating. Not to mention the fact that I am basically a very shy person. Over the years I have learned to compensate for my shyness, but it has taken a lot of work. So when I went to her office, my knees were shaking and all. I explained to her that I was one of her students in her evening Personality Psychology course. I explained that I had a midsemester report that needed to be filled out by her in order for me to keep my scholarship. She then very firmly looked at me and asked me, "How am I supposed to fill this out when you don't yet have any grades in the course?" She seemed to me to be slightly annoyed, and I feared that somehow I had made a bad impression on her. I didn't know WHAT to say. I started to feel my knees buckling as I tried to explain that I was a good student and that I really enjoyed her course, and that I really needed her to say something on the report so that I could keep my scholarship. By this time, I started fidgeting with my hands. I reached for my shoulders and my neck with my right hand. I happened to grab hold of my gold chain (well, at that time and on my budget, it was a fake-gold chain) and I started fidgeting with it. Just then, she noticed my gold Psi Chi pin which was hanging on the chain. She questioned, "Are you in Psi Chi?" "Yes, ma'am," I said. She snatched the paper out of my hand and started signing it and said, "Why didn't you tell me that you are in Psi Chi in the first place?!" We then started chatting about Psi Chi, and she returned my paper. I went out of her office sweating, but smiling. Oddly enough, more than a decade later, I ran into Dr. McCombs at APA's national convention. Did we have a reunion! Like meeting Dr. Stettner again on the airplane, it was an amazing experience to be able to go up to Dr. McCombs and reintroduce myself to her. She had some vague memories of having me as a student years ago. She chuckled as I recounted some of the stories that she used to tell her students in class. We went to lunch together and shared a great deal professifinally, persfinally, and spiritually, and it meant a great deal to me to have an opportunity to discuss our common interests.
So, Lesson #3 is: Always wear your Psi Chi pin. You should especially wear your Psi Chi pin when you are going to talk to one of your professors. Wear it until it wears out. That's what I did. One day the poor thing wore right through its clasp and was lost. But by then, it was etched in my heart, so it didn't matter.
To review, there are three lessons I would like you to remember as you continue your work in the field of psychology.
- Remember that you are human, and so are your professors and other mentors. Give yourself room to be human and to explore all sides of who you are, so that you will enjoy the wholeness and completeness of your life.
- Be kind to everyone as much as possible. We are all members of one family whether we realize it or not. Do not put yourself above anyone, nor below anyone. Remember that the greatest leaders serve. Remember that all of the psychology in the world may be meaningless if you can't have a simple conversation with the most common person on the street.
- Always wear your Psi Chi pin. Wear it until its emblem is etched on your heart--even if materially, it has worn away. And again, I offer you many congratulations on your election into Psi Chi.
Author note. This article is adapted from Dr. Dunlap's keynote address given at the Connecticut College Psi Chi induction ceremony, November 19, 1998. Address correspondence to: Dr. Michelle R. Dunlap, Department of Human Development, Box 5322, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Avenue, New London, CT 06320-4196; e-mail: email@example.com.