As a little girl, Patricia Calixte-Civil remembers her mom rousing her from sleep early in the morning. “She would get me up hours before I had to go to school so that she could do my hair before she started her 12-hour workday. She had such a strong will to support us.”
For Calixte-Civil, a 2012 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Project L/EARN alumna, her mother’s drive was her early inspiration to succeed in her quest to study psychology. “My family immigrated to Irvington, N.J., from Haiti in the 1980s. We came here so that my siblings and I could have the education my mother did not have,” explained the 2013 graduate of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
“My mom and my older brother really encouraged me to get an education,” said Calixte-Civil, recalling how they worked together to secure her future. “My brother was only in his mid-20s at the time, but he agreed to allow me to live with him so that I could attend a better high school. His heart was so big—all he ever asked was that I do well in school.”
And it was in the classrooms of Hackettstown High School in Hackettstown, N.J., that Calixte-Civil realized she wanted to do more than just get an education. She was determined to find a way to help others. “From about the time I entered high school, I had an interest in how the mind works and how I could help people deal with problems. I became excited when I learned about psychology. It was the first time I understood that if I worked in mental health, I could offer people comfort and assistance,” she said.
A Path to Making a Difference
This year, Calixte-Civil will work as a residential counselor at a group home to gain experience in clinical psychology, but she is already several steps ahead of her peers thanks to her RWJF Project L/EARN experience.
As part of the program, Calixte-Civil got her first opportunity to conduct research while assisting her mentor Ayorkor Gaba, PsyD, clinical coordinator for the Women’s Treatment Project, Center for Alcohol Studies at Rutgers. Gaba was once an RWJF Project L/EARN participant (2000) herself.
“I worked with her on a study of the factors that might influence drinking behaviors, such as alcohol abuse or dependence, in some groups of women for our project ‘Predictors of Post-Treatment Drinking Behavior among Women with Alcohol Use Disorders,’” Calixte-Civil said.
“Our most significant findings indicated that specific coping behaviors—such as seeing a therapist or attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—indicated which women would or would not abuse alcohol,” explained Calixte-Civil, who wrote her honors thesis on the study.
“I learned a great deal more than the study findings. It was a very eye-opening and inspiring experience. I discovered that research is a very intense process and not nearly as simple as it seems. I now understand that researchers may pursue a subject for many years to uncover valuable information.”
At her graduation, Calixte-Civil received the John R. Z. Abela Award for her work on the study. The award is given to the psychology honors major with the strongest record in empirical research in clinical psychology at Rutgers. “I now hope to build a career working in urban areas, preferably with Black Americans. It breaks my heart that there’s so much stigma about mental illness in the Black community. I hope to change that,” she said.
A Gift for Mom
Of her RWJF Project L/EARN experience, Calixte-Civil added, “if it had not been for my research project and participating in the program, I would not have been asked to give the Rutgers psychology department commencement speech at my graduation. It was really something to be able to speak and receive that honor in front of my mom.” Her next step is to pursue a PhD.