Meet Dr. Shirley Matthews. Dr. Matthews, originally from Westchester County, NY and now a New Jersey resident, is one of the psychologists on Columbia Health’s Counseling and Psychological Services team. She has been with CPS since 2009. Dr. Matthews works as a counseling psychologist with special interest in group therapy, trauma, and self-regulation concerns such as procrastination, exercise, and how and what we eat. She is currently working on developing an intervention to address student issues with sleep.
In my time with Dr. Matthews, I learned about her path to becoming a psychologist and some important life tips that everyone should hear.
What did you major in as an undergraduate?
I double majored in Philosophy and Psychology. I did my thesis on the nuclear family and whether it was a sustainable entity.
What led you to become a psychologist?
I wanted to be a psychologist since I was young. I had never seen a Black psychologist or even heard of one before, but I liked the idea of working with people experiencing difficulties and helping them learn to cope more effectively. My route to becoming a psychologist was certainly circuitous. Let me explain.
My family and other important community members had other plans for me. Since I had won a few science awards, almost everyone, even my family doctor, believed I should become a medical doctor. I seemed to stand out as a smart Black kid and as far as most people seemed to be concerned, what better way to serve the community than to become a medical doctor? Yet I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I really had to fight for my own identity. To be fair, I don’t think they understood what a psychologist did and I don’t think I knew enough to help them understand.
I majored in psychology and philosophy with the intention of following my childhood dream of becoming a psychologist. But then I got scared; I didn’t even try to apply to graduate school. What I decided to do was make money. I started by working in Banking and Financial Services and then made my way from the financial side to Human Resources in financial institutions.
My employer paid for me to get my Masters in Organizational Psychology here at Teachers College, Columbia. I realized that I was most happy when I was working with individuals and groups helping folks address problems in living. My corporate experiences led me to pursue my doctorate in counseling psychology, which at the time you could do part time. I held on to my corporate job for most of my doctoral training, but eventually I moved on to pursue my full time clinical internships at Gouverneur and Bellevue hospitals in lower Manhattan. The complexity and diversity of the people and the work there provided me with a new perspective and the tools necessary to help people the way I had always hoped.
What brought you to Columbia Counseling and Psychological Services?
Columbia is a very unique place, in part because of its location in Harlem, at the top of Manhattan. I was once told that we are the most diverse of the Ivy League. And I love the fact that I have the opportunity to work with smart students from all walks of life and from nations and places I will likely never have the opportunity to visit except through their eyes. Meeting a student where they are and helping them figure out how to be their best selves and to achieve their goals is pretty exciting. It can be difficult at times though.
Like the students I support, I am not immune to the suffering around me caused by racism, sexism, oppression, and the like. But with age can come experience and faith. I believe every day provides me an opportunity to know more and do more good. Sometimes I am strong and steadfast, and other days less so, but I believe we can make a difference. The people who know me well know how hard I try. It is an ongoing challenge. I hold on to my faith in our ability to create a better future through compassion and community building.
That brings me to another reason I like working at Columbia. I have found that when given the opportunity, and a little encouragement, students are very supportive of one another. I am no longer surprised when someone in group (one of the CPS therapy groups) is finally willing to say, “I need help,” and how other students are quick to support them. Often students are reluctant to ask for help, but they should know that help is available in a myriad of forms.
What do you focus on within Counseling and Psychological Services?
I am the CPS Groups Coordinator. I help by being an anchor and cheerleader of sorts. I wholeheartedly believe that group therapy is a powerful, so I work to encourage my colleagues to run groups and to encourage students to participate in groups. I also act as a liaison and consultant to the Advising Deans at CC/SEAS and Athletics.
What advice would you give to current students uncertain about what they want to do after college?
Approach yourself with a sense of radical self-acceptance and compassion. If you are feeling pushed in a certain direction by your family or community, first try to understand why. Don’t just disregard them; try and step back and think about it. Before you say no, recognize why you’re saying no. Remember life takes courage, always has always will. Ask a lot of questions about yourself. Make sure your goals are based on your own true values. Most importantly, develop a community of support. Seek people who see you and are willing to believe in you. And come to CPS — because we want to help.
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