by John D. Hubbard
Walanda Walker Smith '80 always wanted to be a psychologist.
And now she is, but the journey was neither brief nor easy. Instead it was a march marked as much by personal courage as academic achievement, and at every step Walker Smith reached out to others, willing to listen, able to help.
Walanda was propelled into postgraduate psychology with the publication of her Colgate senior thesis. She took a clinical route, working as a drug rehabilitation counselor at a methadone treatment center, and quickly learned, despite her innate ability to help, she needed a degree "to have the power and freedom to practice psychology in a creative way."
Enrolled in Fordham's clinical psychology program, Walker Smith discovered she would be on her own. "Very few African American women were striving to be clinical psychologists, and I'm going, `wow!' Not only was I the only African American woman, I was the only African American in my class. As I recall there were two African American men a year before me. Three of us altogether."
Without professional role models to draw upon for guidance, Walker Smith had "a challenging start." After three years of coursework, Walker Smith earned her masters but because of a lack of available slots in New York City she had to wait a year for a suitable internship. Eventually her first choice -- Bellevue/NYU -- accepted her and "a wonderful experience" was underway.
The internship concentrated on individual psychotherapy, group therapy, family therapy and testing. Walanda also did rotations that allowed her to gain experience with children, adolescents and families of schizophrenics. She additionally worked at a walk-in clinic doing intake evaluations and "helping people hook up with the proper services."
It was a great year for Walanda, except for one problem. "I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do for my doctoral research. I got so caught up in my clinical work I was separated from my research requirements.
"I had all this angst about this thing that seemed like a monster. And I didn't want to be an African American who didn't make it through the program."
In the meantime Walker Smith began a tenure at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Mental Health Center, where she "learned most of what I know about working with mentally retarded and developmentally disabled adults." She continued on at the Association for the Help of Retarded Children (AHRC), where she further developed her skills with this population. Walanda had also decided to return to campus to finish her doctorate ("The alternative was to quit and I'm not a quitter"), which meant proving she was competent and current in her field. It also meant taking an additional statistics course to demonstrate an ability to conduct research.
Though the experience was frightening, Walanda ("If there's one word for me it's persistent"), already established as a respected clinician, stopped beating herself up for not finishing within the traditional four- to five-year time frame, and pressed on. Successfully.
From the start things went Walanda's way. She was given her first choice among mentors and began her research with Mary Procidano, Ph.D., taking off on work she had done for her masters on perceived social support with a particular focus on problem solving of battered women.
"Mary mentoring my disserta-tion was like a dream come true," says Walanda, but the process was not without its trials.
Titled "The Relationship of Support and Non-support to Psychological Well-being and Distress in the Context of Personal Strivings," Walker Smith's dissertation took a different approach, examining the duality of the issue. Her proposal was accepted but writing up her concept was the hardest thing she had ever done.
With the concept approved, Walanda felt "cleared mentally, emotionally and spiritually." She conducted a pilot study, collected data for the actual study and was able, with Mary Procidano's keen sense of anticipation, to head off problems before they bloomed.
In the midst of the work, Walanda and Procidano began to collaborate on a chapter for a scholarly publication. The doctoral candidate managed to handle the additional load, but "a murky family situation" developed and nearly proved disastrous.
"The withholding I had to do to maintain my focus was overwhelming for my family," says Walanda. "I'll come up for air after graduation. Hang in there with me," she told her loved ones.
Walanda's journey had taken her into uncharted territory, a place no family member had ever gone before. The "hurtful crisis" left her drained and she sat at her computer depressed. With support from her husband Stephen, a cadre of friends and the power of prayer, Walker Smith pushed forward.
"I was living my dissertation -- personal striving with issues of support and non-support."
In the end the paper was completed, the work approved and Walanda was there on graduation day in May 1996, shell-shocked but finished.
To bring closure to the entire process, Walanda made a pilgrimage to Colgate, the only time other than for the 1988 Sojourners reunion she had returned to campus. She stayed at Chapel House and spoke to professor of psychology Jack Dovidio, professor of philosophy Coleman Brown and former director of the Cultural Center Eleni Tedla. "I listened to their wisdom and I told them, 'Look, you guys didn't waste a scholarship on me.'"
Rested and renewed, Dr. Walker Smith is busy plying her trade. "Now I have to take care of business. I'm legit."
Walanda has a commitment to community mental health: "Psychology must meet people on a grassroots level." She is a resource for the developmentally disabled, people of color and people from underprivileged backgrounds. Unfairly stigmatized and some with limited cognitive skills, these people have the same emotions as everyone else, says Walanda, who tries to help them acquire "a sense of self-empowerment and gain control over their own lives.
"My primary responsibility is not solving the problems for them but helping them solve the problems for themselves. After they leave my 45-minute sessions they have to deal with the world." Walanda continues at AHRC doing individual psychotherapy and is also working at the Brooklyn Center for Psychotherapy.
Walker Smith is traveling fast these days, "100 miles a second" but even at full throttle she is at a crossroads. "While I'm trying to establish my own professional identity the field of psychotherapy is reworking its identity."
The journey continues. Having come so far Dr. Walanda Walker Smith realizes there is so far yet to go and she is ready.