As a social ecology undergrad at UC Irvine, Thomas Parham ’77 found a mentor in Joseph L. White, a renowned psychology professor who nurtured academic excellence, service and ambition in the young man and told him: “I appreciate your thanks, but I expect you to do for others what I do for you.”
In his 26-year career at UCI, Parham has heeded those words, serving first as an adjunct faculty member and director of the Career Center and most recently as assistant vice chancellor for counseling and health services. Now he’s been tapped to fill the position of interim vice chancellor for student affairs – succeeding the now-retired Manuel Gomez – and his mentoring opportunities have grown immeasurably.
“UC Irvine is fortunate to have a person of Thomas Parham’s caliber taking the helm for student affairs at this juncture,” says UCI Chancellor Michael Drake. “He has been a strong administrator and an iconic mentor on our campus. He will support our students in academic and research excellence and will continue to build on our success in developing leadership and character excellence as well.”
Parham earned a bachelor’s degree in social ecology at UCI, a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, and a doctorate in counseling psychology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He lectures extensively, contributes to scholarly journals and has written five books. The latest, The Psychology of Blacks: Centering Our Perspectives in the African Consciousness, is a collaborative project due out in October.
Among his many civic contributions, Parham has served as a founding member and past president of the 100 Black Men of Orange County, a member of Irvine’s Human Relations Committee and Planning Commission, and past president of both the Association of Black Psychologists and the Association for Multicultural Counseling & Development.
Ashley Carey, senior psychology major student intern who has worked with Parham, describes him as a mentor who “challenges you to unlimited possibilities, allowing you to grow and become the best individual you can be.”
Here, he shares some of his background, personal philosophy and thoughts on his new role at UCI.
Q. What are you most looking forward to as interim student affairs vice chancellor?
A. I want to help students grow in ways that are important to them, however they define that. Students come to UCI confronted with a range of numbers: one of nearly 50,000 applicants, one of almost 6,000 new students, one of more than 27,000 total students. But no one wants to feel like a number. They want to feel personally engaged, to feel like the campus cares about their intellectual and personal development. I want to embrace that spirit, which is very much a part of the UCI experience.
I’m also very proud that UCI is one of the most diverse campuses in the nation. Yet even as we celebrate our diversity, there are pockets of underrepresented communities that we need to attend to, both for equitable demographic representation on campus and to enhance the richness and overall quality of student life.
Q. How would you describe your leadership style?
A. I’m driven by values, and what I cherish most at UCI is academic freedom managed in a climate of civility and appropriate intellectual discourse. I’m not oblivious, for example, to the tensions on campus among students who want their voices heard on a range of issues. I hope to broker those talks in ways that allow all sides to be heard, to disagree where they must, and to find common ground on which we can move forward with enhanced personal and group insights and a demonstration of new levels of understanding and respect.
I’m a glass-half-full person. My goal is to be a healing presence in the lives of others, whether that takes place in conversation, a clinic, a classroom or a workshop, through my writing or the hundreds of presentations I’ve made over the years. I want to affect people’s lives in a positive way.
Q. How did you become interested in education in general and psychology in particular?
A. I grew up in a multicultural neighborhood in Los Angeles and was aware of the social ills that contaminated life for people of color, women and others living at the margins of society. I learned in life to not complain about anything unless I’m willing to put something better in its place. I started as a criminal justice major at California State University, Long Beach, wanting to change the system from within as a police officer or an attorney. I was fortunate to do internships in a halfway house for incorrigible and runaway kids and then in a community psychiatric clinic, and I received good feedback about my work. Part of the knack of figuring out what you want to do with your life is finding what you’re good at, and it was out of those experiences that my passion for psychology, helping and healing was born.
So I transferred to UCI in social ecology. One thing Joe White always told me was to not be pigeonholed – to apply my craft across the field. So I pursued an academic-clinical-research doctoral program while also building a private therapeutic and consultative practice. And when I joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1982, I was told that I was the first African American academic psychologist they had ever hired – this in Philadelphia, a city that was 44 percent black at the time, and at a university 200-plus years old! I couldn’t believe it.
Q. How did your family background factor into your passion and ambition?
A. My mother raised four children – a daughter and three sons – by herself, and she emphasized education. The statistical profile for a family in that situation – of single parenthood and financial challenge – is not positive, and yet it was never a question of if her children were going to college, only where. She was a disciplined person, very strict with us. She never earned more than $18,000 a year, but she put all of us through parochial school. Mom’s vision for us was very simple: Be self-sufficient, take care of your family, be kind to others and remember to thank God for your blessings. I dedicated my third book to her, and she passed on shortly before its publication.
Q. What is your hope for the future?
A. The hope of any society is what it invests in the next generation. I’m looking forward to investing my talents and energy in the students at UCI and helping them have the best academic and cocurricular experience possible.