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Carrying the torch for black psychologists

When Jarvis Sams set out to find a black male marriage counselor, he struggled to find one. Inspired by the need for more psychology professionals of color, he chose The Chicago School.

A black kid attending a predominantly white, middle class Miami elementary school, Jarvis Sams didn’t think much about his race when he was growing up. His mother was a second grade teacher and worked hard to give him everything he needed to succeed. But as he matured and began to observe the dynamics of the world around him, he recognized the injustices it presented for young men of color.

Jarvis Sams - M.A. Clinical Psychology '13“It was the mid-1970s and I began to realize there were a lot of things going on. Roots (miniseries) aired, and that opened my eyes as a young black fellow,” explains Sams, who earned a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from The Chicago School in 2013 and is now pursuing a Psy.D. in the Marital and Family Therapy (MFT) program. “Even then, I was already thinking about how we can fix it. Little did I know then that’s what a psychologist could do.”

A major turning point came about a decade ago when he and his wife were seeking marital counseling in Los Angeles. “I said to my wife if you can find a black male therapist, I’ll go. We eventually found one, but it did take us some time. That was my inspiration to change my life,” says Sams. “I was never a psychology major but this raised a critical question: Why there weren’t enough black men in this? We could make a profound impact on our community.”

Having a profound impact

Today, Sams is on track to make the impact he envisioned with underserved and underrepresented families. Since coming to The Chicago School, he has had opportunities to work as a MFT intern in a private practice and as a therapeutic behavioral services specialist and unit director for Phoenix House, specifically working with substance abuse challenged adolescents.

One of his more poignant moments during that time was an experience he had with a young black girl at a group home where he was doing an internship. The girl had been diagnosed as bipolar, and was being heavily medicated as part of the treatment.

“That raised a lot of eyebrows for me and quite frankly, it concerned me because it seemed like they were drugging this person and not really trying to help her,” explains Sams, who realized during treatment that the girl was suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and helped to make sure she got the right medication. “She soon left the facility and went back to live with her mother. Her mother later called and said, ‘Thank you. My daughter is my daughter again.’ A lot of times, young African-American kids get labeled and misdiagnosed because people don’t take the time to listen.”

“I was never a psychology major but this raised a critical question: Why there weren’t enough black men in this? We could make a profound impact on our community.”

Sams not only listened; he intervened and changed the future of that young woman.

Empowering a community

“I feel empowered. Like I’m really being an asset to my community,” Sams says, reflecting on why having more black psychologists in America is so important. “Psychology itself was once used as a tool to enslave people, not help them. For me to be a black psychologist, I can change the narrative for the people that I care about and give them the opportunity to be better, and be supported, and be loved, and be upheld.”

He expresses gratitude to TCSPP for giving him that opportunity, and for giving him the kind of nurturing educational environment that did not exist in the time of Dr. Joseph L. White, the “godfather of black psychology” and one of his role models.

“I think The Chicago School is amazing,” says Sams, who was also the chair elect for The Association of Black Psychologists Student Circle. “I’m so grateful for the school and grateful for Dr. (Michele) Nealon. I’m an older student and realized that I needed all the help I could possibly get. They were there for me.”

With a work study position in the registrar’s office for TCSPP’s L.A. campus and a recent appointment as an adjunct professor at Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School, Sams is already on his way to promising career in psychology on many levels. But he says this calling is about more than his own professional success.

“For me to be a black psychologist, I can change the narrative for the people that I care about and give them the opportunity to be better, and be supported, and be loved, and be upheld.”

Like Dr. White, he wants to continue to enhance and support the need for more African-centered education programs, specifically in psychology. So in addition to multiple jobs and a rigorous doctoral course schedule at TCSPP, Sams says he’s also been serving as a TCSPP ambassador at historically black colleges and universities like his alma mater in Florida to help recruit more black psychology students at The Chicago School.

“I was born for this reason is the way I look at it,” he explains. “Dr. White and the fellow founders of that movement knew a kid like me would come along and carry the torch, so I’m carrying it. I’m carrying on that legacy almost 50 years later.”

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