Westmont Magazine A 30-Year Career Answering Interesting Questions in Psychology
When Brenda Smith first visited Westmont to interview for a teaching position, the campus reminded her of Nigeria, where she lived as a missionary kid until she was 16. Now, three decades later, she retires from the psychology department after teaching, mentoring and encouraging hundreds of students.
“The most rewarding thing for me was working one-on-one with students, helping them develop as professional psychologists and as competent, confident people,” she says.
While she appreciates Santa Barbara’s inviting weather and Westmont’s intimate size, the people she met during her initial job interviews convinced her to work at the college. “When I compared my experiences at other schools I had applied to, Westmont had the best combination of faculty, administrators and students,” she says. “Those were the three things I was looking at.”
Smith, who earned a doctorate at Wayne State University, says psychology was the only thing she was interested in studying. “I wanted to understand why people did what they did, thought what they thought, and felt what they felt,” she says.
But during her first undergraduate psychology course at Calvin College, the professor said he could predict everything the students were going to do. “I was disillusioned,” she says. “I thought there were no more interesting questions in psychology.”
Then, in her final semester at Calvin, a professor offered a new course: cognitive psychology. “It was the new discipline in psychology, and I loved it,” she says. “I knew it was what I wanted to do—it raised questions worth asking and answering.” Questions about our inability to multitask and how we solve problems, make decisions and reason intrigued her. “We’re actually terrible decision makers,” she says. “It’s amazing and interesting to see how the mind works—not the brain—but the mind.”
Smith joined the Westmont faculty in 1989 and says teaching general psychology classes, which included social psychology, allowed her to connect Christian faith and behavior with direct applications of psychology for students. “Social psychology is the most applicable for how we live as Christians: obedience, conformity and helping or not helping behavior,” she says. “We have to know how the environment affects us if we’re going to behave in a Christian manner.”
When working with seniors on research, she sought to help them learn to behave ethically and develop ethical experimental designs in keeping with Christian beliefs. “My faith is living day to day and, hopefully, behaving in such a way that people can see Christ through me,” she says.
One of her former students, Westmont Registrar Michelle Hardley ’00, says Smith was the best mentor and friend. “She was just what I needed as a new graduate 21 years ago,” says Hardley, who worked as a lab coordinator for the department. “She continues to be a wise sounding board on any topic when needed.”
“In teaching, it’s so hard to know how you’re affecting students,” Smith says. “You hope that through encouragement and advice, and sometimes more explicit direction, that the students you come in contact with develop to be the best people they can be as Christians and in whatever career and roles they play in their lives.”
Smith and her husband, Greg, who designed Westmont’s first website and worked in the college’s IT department for many years, plan to move back to Michigan, their home state. They look forward to snorkeling together in the tropics and pursuing a range of other activities during their retirement.