Frank C. Worrell credits his mother’s advice – and Western’s academic rigour – as pivotal in driving his career as an educational psychologist.
As the newly elected president of the 121,000-member American Psychological Association, Worrell now leads the world’s largest group of psychology scholars, educators, clinicians and students.
Worrell, BA’85, MA’87 (Psychology), is director of the school psychology program at the University of California, Berkeley, has authored more than 200 academic publications and most recently co-edited The Cambridge Handbook of Applied School Psychology
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, Worrell learned as a teen talent would get him only so far: hard work and determination, as well as a convergence of opportunity and luck, would be needed to carry the day.
After he coasted through high school and became the first in his family to graduate, his father gathered the family and neighbours and proposed a toast, but his mother called him out for a lack of effort. “He called Mom into the room and she says, ‘I have nothing to celebrate. He did not do his best.’ And she left and went back into the kitchen.”
The understated critique drove him more than any lecture could have, Worrell said.
“My mom always said ‘aim for the stars’ but she was not one of these people who was pie-in-the-sky about it. So, she said, ‘Aim for the stars because if you do not arrive there, at least you land in the treetops. If you only aim for the treetops, and you miss, you land in the mud.’ ”
Working hard was nothing new for his parents, Eli Cleophus Worrell and Rita Mary Worrell.
His father had to enter the working world after finishing Grade 2, and eventually became a police officer. His mother completed elementary school and went on to become a teacher.
Worrell himself intended to become a teacher when he finished high school, but after seeing a fellow student fall apart during a musical performance his focus switched to psychology, mental health and education.
That’s how, in a roundabout way, he came to be awarded the prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship in psychology that brought him to Western in the 1980s.
Western, he said, taught him “the importance of depth.” As an undergraduate, he learned statistical research and programming methods that he later discovered were far more advanced than what his doctoral classmates at UC Berkeley would study. And he learned to accept critical feedback on the way to better research. (One of the most painfully helpful examples, he said, was a supervisor’s red-inked note atop the hasty, all-nighter first draft of his master’s thesis: “No thought shown. Please redo.”)
At Western, the student who had excelled in choral singing and piano in Trinidad and Tobago made time to play drums and glockenspiel in the university’s marching band and to sing in the choir. He also joined the Caribbean Student Organization and became involved in student advocacy.
Worrell admits he chose a Canadian university because it was less expensive than schools in the United States or the United Kingdom, but also because he had been a YMCA exchange student in Ontario years earlier. Western wasn’t his first choice, but it quickly proved to be his wisest.
“It was one of the best chance events that could have happened, and I am here today because of the psychology training I got at Western,” he said. “Oh yeah, I’m very clear about that. I could not have asked for a better educational experience and better training in psychology as an undergraduate and a master’s student.”
With his master’s, he returned to Trinidad as a teacher/counsellor and had become principal of a school for high-risk youth when he was accepted to a doctoral program at UC Berkeley. Although the school would pay his living expenses, he couldn’t afford the tuition and was about to turn down the offer when his high-school music teacher, Lindy-Ann Bodden-Ritch, lent him the money from her husband’s life-insurance policy.
His path led him on to teaching at Pennsylvania State University and then back to his current post at UC Berkeley, where his research and teaching specialties include academic talent, development/gifted education, at-risk youth, cultural identities and the translation of psychological research findings into school-based practice.
Worrell still makes time for music – UC Berkeley featured his pandemic version of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in an Instagram post – and writes poetry.
He believes this crucial time of American racial reckoning is a key moment for educators and psychologists to address issues of racism, tribalism, diversity, and social and economic inequity. Psychology extends into the realms of social justice, politics, economics and climate change, he added.
“Psychology is, on the one hand, the study of mental processes. But it’s also the study of behaviour. Most things are due to human behaviour or human mental processes, so in some sense practically everything falls under the purview of psychology.”