As many members are aware, the charter for Psi Chi was signed September 4, 1929, at Yale University (CT) during the meeting of the Ninth International Congress of Psychology. With that signing, the organization was formally created, although there are no contemporary records at Yale recording the event. It is safe to assume that the founders had no idea of the extraordinary history that would follow. In the 85 years since that day, the Society has gone through tremendous growth, not only in numbers but also in function. From a simple record-keeping association, it was transformed into a vital force in American psychology. Now, in its latest re-creation, it has become an international organization, engaged in an outreach that was undreamed of by its founders and yet one that is perfectly consistent with its beginnings.
The Congress at Yale in 1929 was a watershed event for American psychology as well as for Psi Chi. When modern psychology began, its center was in Europe—mostly in Germany, France, and England. The strongest European center was the laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt and his psychology program at the University of Leipzig (Germany). It is estimated that he participated in the doctoral preparation of at least 187 students, a group of whom later became leaders of American psychology. Through his American students and their fertile home climate, psychology in the United States prospered. By the late 1920s, the United States was becoming the world center for psychology, a distinction it holds to this day.
The fact that the Ninth International Congress was held at Yale in 1929 was an outward sign of the new U.S. stature. And what an extraordinary Congress it was! The American Psychological Association (APA) cancelled its annual meeting in favor of the international meeting, the only time since its founding in 1892 that it did not hold an annual meeting. Almost three quarters of the APA membership attended the Congress as well as more than one hundred international visitors. Ivan Pavlov, the famed physiologist and psychologist, was one of the keynote speakers. He spoke in Russian with an interpreter at his side. All of the founders of Gestalt psychology—Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang Köhler—were in attendance. Even a young Jean Piaget came from Switzerland to New Haven for the convention.
It was in that environment that the Psi Chi charter was signed, an event that was long in planning. Edwin Newman and Frederick Lewis had been students at the University of Kansas in 1927 when they conceived the idea of a national honor society in psychology. It took two years of meetings and letter-writing to bring their idea to fruition. Fourteen colleges and universities signed the original charter, several by proxy. Others were allowed to join in the months that followed. In the end, 21 colleges and universities were granted charter status. With Edwin Newman as the first president, the association was off to a good start.
As effective as the Society was, it did not begin to achieve its potential until 1959 when Ruth H. Cousins began her leadership of the organization. Ruth agreed to the position as a favor to one of her graduate school teachers and planned to stay with Psi Chi for only a year. She ended up staying for 33! With the help of her husband, who had a background in accounting, she established a stable financial foundation for the organization. Under her direction, Psi Chi assumed a greater presence at both the annual APA meetings and regional meetings. Grant programs were created. Publications were initiated. And with her considerable personal charm, Ruth made friends with the most important psychologists in the United States, many of whom were more than willing to speak at Psi Chi sponsored events.
The organization continued to prosper after Ruth’s retirement, but it could not ignore how the climate for students around the world was changing. More and more U.S. students completed at least part of their studies abroad, and the number of international students increased at U.S. universities. Modern society demanded a more global outlook for its graduates. In 2009, with a two-thirds majority, the chapters of Psi Chi voted to modify their constitution and become an international organization. It was a bold move, but one that was facilitated by the increased ease of world-wide communication as well as the push within psychology to develop a more global outlook.
The transition has not been without problems. Academic cultures are different in different parts of the world. And not all Board members were enthusiastic about the new direction. Drs. John Davis (Psi Chi President 2006–07) and Virginia Andreoli Mathie (Executive Director, 2004–08) were particularly important players in the efforts to work through the differences and achieve a change in the Constitution. Dr. Davis initiated a task force to study the implications of an international direction for Psi Chi, and established a formal relationship between Psi Chi and the APA Committee on International Relations (CIRP). In his four presidential columns in Eye on Psi Chi, he wrote about the importance of becoming more international. His efforts were rewarded with the final vote in 2009.
Today, Psi Chi has 15 chapters in 10 non-U.S. countries, with more on the way. Now its leaders routinely travel to international conventions to advertise the activities and goals of Psi Chi. When the 30th International Congress of Psychology was held in Capetown, South Africa, in 2012, Psi Chi was there in the presence of Psi Chi Executive Director Martha S. Zlokovich. The leaders of Psi Chi continue to spread the word about the international nature of Psi Chi and hope that its student members will do so as well.
In the end, the goal of Psi Chi remains the same—to provide the best opportunities for students. Today those opportunities involve a worldview including attempts not only to provide contacts for international research and co-operation, but also to internationalize the curriculum in psychology.