The First-Person Project

Danielle (Dearborn) Gagne ’97

Alfred Station, NY

Associate Professor of Psychology, Alfred University

Major: Psychology

My dad was in the Navy, in submarines, and so as a family we lived primarily in housing on military bases. Although we moved to New Hampshire when I was around 12, those early childhood experiences with the military had had a deep influence; I hadn’t seriously considered careers that didn’t involve some sort of military service. In my senior year of high school, I was the commander of the JROTC unit at West High School, and I was going into the Navy after graduation. About halfway through my senior year, I had long talk with my dad and then decided on a different career path. Up to that point, my teachers and guidance counselors all thought I was going into the military, so I was under everyone’s radar in terms of college preparation – no one told me about honors courses, the wide array of scholarships, or helped me figure out my best options. I remember sitting in my living room, surrounded by piles of brochures that had been auto-sent to me based on my SAT scores, and feeling completely overwhelmed. I had two friends who were going to Keene State; we visited them one weekend, and I thought, Sure. This looks great. Several other of my classmates also expressed interest in attending Keene. I applied to Keene and UNH, but Keene awarded me a President’s Scholarship that would cover my tuition. I would love to say that there was some real directed kismet, but no. I went with who offered me money, and where my friends went.

My original plan for the Navy was to be a counselor who would talk with soldiers and let them know if they were mentally ready to go back “into battle.” My new plan was that I would become a high school teacher. However, I didn’t get around to signing up for education courses (another outcome of falling under the radar), but I did take an 8 a.m. Psych 101 with Dr. Martin Brown. He was just this great guy who wore a suit jacket, tie, and the brightest white sneakers I had ever seen on anyone, let alone a professor. Apparently I was one of the few people who had ever asked a question in a lecture hall that big. One day after class, he said, “So, what’s your major?” I was like, “Ha, ha, I’m new and bubbly,” and he said, “You should think about psychology.” From that point on, I was a psychology major, and he became my advisor.

So I was back to the idea of being a counselor. However, in my sophomore year, I took a research methods class with Dr. Brown’s wife, who was an adjunct professor. I fell in love with the research aspect of psychology. Just this idea that you could ask a question and get an answer was far more fascinating than counseling people. Next I took Cognitive Psychology with Dr. Gary Bonitatibus. I said to him, “Hey, I love research, are you doing any?” To my surprise, he said “Yes” and I started apprenticing with him. He introduced me to one of his colleagues and a study that they were doing with children. That resulted in him taking me to a conference in Washington, DC. It was my first time on a plane, my first time in DC, my first time buying “lady clothes” (conference professional wear). He took me out to my first “fancy” restaurant. It was really such a learning experience on so many levels. He was really great. Between Dr. Brown and his gruff, dry humor, his wife’s inspiration, and then Gary’s attention to me as a person and as a learner, I feel like I grew in confidence and interest in the field of psychology – those relationships and those experiences were so important to me, and they set the stage for me being a professor.

I’ve tried to have that same relationship with my students. I have a very open door policy with them; I tell my students, I’m going to get to know you.

There were a few classes outside of psychology that I really loved. One was in environmental studies. I suspect if Dr. Brown had not been so proactive in recruiting me for psychology, I would have gone into environmental studies, or taken it on as a minor if I hadn’t taken so many seminars in psychology. The professor that I had was so passionate. That came out in her teaching; she got us involved. She took us to the campus recycling plant. And that class also participated in one of the first Ashuelot River cleanups. That had a life-changing effect on me as far as my attitude toward sustainability and being eco-conscientious. My family laughs at me because at family functions I go through the trash and pull out all the recyclables. I really loved how the professor was so passionate, and through that class felt part of that place, like I’d contributed to the community there.

I also took Art History with Henry Friedman. He was so exuberant and so passionate. I loved that class. I even had Kevin, my boyfriend and now husband, sit in on it when he came to visit. Afterwards, over the summer, Kevin and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and saw some of the paintings that we had studied in class. It was amazing to have that immediate applicability. My appreciation for art deepened so much because of that class. This is the heart of a liberal arts education – appreciation for more than just “the major.” I never would have taken those classes if they weren’t part of the checklist. But they were amazing, and they changed me.

As part of one psychology class, we had to do a service-learning project. I chose to volunteer two hours a week at the local soup kitchen for a semester. I was really affected by talking with the volunteers, who had such huge hearts, and with the clients, who were regular people who had come upon bad circumstances. Again, taking part in the community gave me a sense of belonging beyond being a “college student.”

I was also a member of the Student Activity Council, SAC, and that was a source of activity, belonging, and just really happy memories. We brought some great concerts to campus – Blues Travelers, the Earthtones, and the Lemonheads. I still have the T-shirts. I was also SAC secretary, a resident assistant for two years, and an assistant residence director for my senior year. As a senior I was also president of Psi Chi, the psychology honor society, and, under the guidance of Gary Bonitatibus, engaged in original research for my honors thesis in psychology. Although I didn’t get much sleep, I learned valuable skills, like time-management, leadership, conflict resolution, and people management, and my own strengths and weaknesses, which have been helpful in jobs after college and “life” in general. My only “regret” was not studying abroad. Dr. Brown advised it every semester – at one point, threatening to block me from registration until I went to the study abroad office – but it never seemed to be the right time. You gain new perspective when you live in different places. Looking back, it’s the one experience I should have jumped on.

I worked on campus for two summers. One year I had a job working with the summer conference staff, so now I can make a bed using hospital corners and flat sheets like nobody’s business. The following summer, I worked on the painting and grounds crew. The skills from that job – the ability to mud, tape, paint, sand, and spackle – have been absolutely invaluable as a homeowner! We also had some amazing summertime fun. Being on campus in the summer helped me to feel even more connected to the area – we frequented Otter Brook Beach and Surry Lake, hiked Mount Monadnock, played volleyball and tennis, photographed wildlife at Brickyard Pond, ate our weight of Athen’s Pizza, ate cheap wings at Don and Dave’s, and nursed hangovers at Lindy’s diner. We became part of the “place.”

After Keene State, I worked for Tufts Health Plan for two years, starting in customer service and working my way up to team leader and assistant supervisor. Although I learned a lot, I realized I wasn’t on the right path. Inspired by my work with Dr. Bonitatibus, I entered graduate school at UNH to study language and memory with another fabulous mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Stine-Morrow. She was an amazing mentor – she had a passion for her work that was infectious, and she was a model example of professor, mentor, and lifelong learner. Under her direction, my dissertation combined social cognition and aging. The generic title is “How older and younger adults read and remember information.”

As I was finishing my PhD, I was looking for a job as a professor. I knew I wanted to be the person who provided opportunities like the ones I had. (Honestly, I wanted to be a professor “just like Dr. B.”) I settled on Alfred University, a small liberal arts college in a very small rural town in New York’s southwestern corner. We have one main street and one traffic light, and in the summer, there are usually more deer than people in residence. The university has about 1,200 undergraduates and several graduate programs in art, ceramics, and engineering. I’ve been in my department since 2004, and this is my fifth year as chair of the Psychology Department.

When I went on the job search, I asked about family and children. “I have a uterus; I plan on using it. Is that going to be a problem?” When I interviewed at Alfred, they said, “Absolutely have children here. Absolutely have a *life* here.” We wanted to be in a place like Keene, where you could learn and live and be a person all in one place. I wanted a life with a job from which I didn’t need a vacation.

One of the things I love about Alfred is you can be quirky, and you can be you. The Honors Program here is centered on intellectual play. It has thematic courses that are used to explore different areas of thought. For example, I co-teach a Harry Potter class with an astrophysicist. As Harry Potter has an invisibility cloak, I’ll talk about the psychology of invisibility, and why people would want to be invisible, while my co-teacher will talk about the physics of invisibility – how can we construct an invisibility cloak and what would need to happen to make something disappear? He uses physics to make something “disappear” in class – and yes, there is something magical about science done well.

I’m currently doing research on a couple of topics, which have been influenced by a few different life events. From my dissertation work, I became more interested in people’s attitudes as they approached aging, rather than their cognitive skills. That led to an interest in what shapes those attitudes. My work is looking at factors that contribute to ageism and age discrimination, and how that ageism then affects performance.

My other research was sparked by the death of one of my closest friends. Scott Vallee and I went to high school and Keene together, graduating in 1997, and he ended up working at Tufts Health Plan with me after college. Scott contracted a weirdly aggressive colon cancer. He died a week after his 30th birthday, and less than a year after his wedding to Jessica Dimatteo (also a Keene grad) at the college camp. That really shook my core.

His parents and his friends donated a memorial bench for him, which is still at the college camp. Every summer, my family and I visit the bench and we wish “Uncle” Scott a happy birthday. His death happened the summer before we moved to Alfred; when I arrived, the woman I had adopted as my informal mentor was losing her battle to ovarian cancer. She died in June, almost one year after Scott. I ended up (ironically) taking over the Death and Dying class that she was scheduled to teach. My grief over the loss of these two amazing people was still very fresh and raw, and teaching allowed me to explore a lot of issues, both personally and professionally. The outgrowth is that I’m now branching off into death research. I’m looking at social media use around death. I’ll ask my students, “How many of you have heard about a death over Facebook? How many have used social media to help you grieve? I am also looking at how we are using social media in ways that can either help or hinder our grieving process and support.

The third thing that I’m looking at is green burials, and that’s a direct result of my time at Keene. It’s obnoxious to realize how much hardwood, steel, concrete, and chemicals are being put into the earth every year. Why? Why are we obsessed with preservation of the body? What are some sustainable, earth-friendly burial practices? How can we help the current population to consider sustainability in their death plans?

My husband, Kevin, works as a technician for Alfred’s Physics and Astronomy Department. He helps maintain the observatory and all the physics lab equipment. I met him my junior year of high school, and I took him to the junior prom. He worked two full-time jobs while I was at Keene, although he visited almost every weekend, and attended all of the events along with me. We’ve been together since 1992, and we just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. We have two children together. They’ve both been Girl Scouts, and I’ve been a Girl Scout troop leader for four years. Last year, we did the Wonders of Water Badge. I was able to draw on the environmental studies class I had, and I talked about the water table and the water cycle. Recalling the passion my own teachers exhibited when we did our Ashuelot river cleanup, I led my troop in a roadside cleanup, advocating that preventing trash from entering the local waterways is in an important first step in thinking of the environment. I also joined the local volunteer fire department. My husband is a volunteer firefighter, and they created a position for me to be the photojournalist, so I take pictures, submit articles to the newspaper about what the fire department is doing, and will be helping to maintain their website and archives. Also, I just joined the local partnership on aging, which works as a community network of people who are involved in making older people happy in the community.

I tell my students, “You never realize how much a place comes back to you until you leave.” There are so many fall days when there is that perfect crispness in the air, and my husband and I will say, “It’s a Keene day.” We can’t look at a jack-o-lantern without thinking of Keene’s main street with about 12,000 pumpkins. Whenever we drive through, our kids know that we have to stop and get pizza and coffee at “mommy and daddy’s favorite places.” It’s really cool, when you have formative experiences at a place, how much of it stays with you. I love the relationships I made at Keene. Some of those people are my lifelong friends.

My time at Keene led me to a life that I don’t need a vacation from. I love teaching and learning. We just took students to Philadelphia to a psychology conference. In an informal conversation with the dean I asked, “So at what point should my students not be seeing me in my *Star Wars* pajamas?” Probably never. I’ll probably be that 70-year old professor with bright white sneakers who has a *Star Wars* quote on my syllabus, but that’s just me. I’m a nerd, and it’s not a secret. I’m hoping my classes will include hands-on components, and I will continue to exhibit that same passion that I saw in my Keene State professors. I hope to be able to give students those outside experiences that help augment their education and trigger some spark.

One of the things I appreciated about all of my professors at Keene was that they took time – Dr. Brown singled me out of a class of 100, Mrs. Brown talked to me about how to ask and answer questions, Dr. Bonitatibus expanded my world boundaries and experiences. I’m trying to do the same, to emulate the people that I really looked up to and who helped set me on the path I am on today. My time both inside and outside of the classroom at Keene shaped who I am and what I’ve been able to accomplish, and for that I am truly grateful.