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October 2013

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Debbie Sturm: New Faculty Member in Residence

debbie-sturm-photoThe Honors Program at JMU welcomes Dr. Debbie Sturm as its new Faculty Member in Residence in Shenandoah Hall. Debbie is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Graduate Psychology and a licensed professional counselor in South Carolina. She received her Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Debbie grew up in small-town Bradford, Pennsylvania, a former oil boomtown and home of Zippo lighters. She remembers that, growing up, the whole town felt like one extended family. Still, like many young people in small towns Debbie wanted to get out and see the world, and internalized feelings that she “didn’t want to be Bradford.” Today she recognizes the advantages of growing up in a small town. “I could wander in the woods and play in the creek. Everyone knew everyone, and I felt very safe,” she says. “My interests in social class and nature came back to me from those early days. Social class mattered in Bradford because we didn’t have much racial diversity. And we had plenty of nature, which isn’t true everywhere.”

Social class in America has been part of her research agenda for the past eight or nine years, particularly the way in which we internalize our own relationship with social class. Debbie believes that politics has made class a potent symbol, and not just an identifier. “Politics has wrongly taught us to despise other classes,” she says. Her students are less aware of social immobility in American life than they could be, as well as middle class fears of falling backwards. “Millennials think they are going to do more, and I think a lot of us in academia worry what will happen if they find out that opportunities aren’t there waiting for them. They are getting exposed to Facebook and celebrity lifestyles that won’t match the glamour of their real lives after college. I always wonder how we can best prepare them and honor their optimism.”

Debbie’s family origins extend to Malta, where some of her mother’s cousins still live. She hasn’t visited the island nation since she was 19, and recalls that at that age she was more interested in shopping and tanning than absorbing the local culture. Debbie wants to go back now and study Malta’s sustainable practices. Because the country has no fresh water and limited natural resources, the people have to be very conscious of the impact of their social and economic practices. Debbie hopes one day to teach an Honors course on Ecopsychology across the disciplines. “Our connection to the natural world is such an important part of our physical and psychological well-being. And right now, we have considerable psychological and physical evidence that our planet is in a lot of trouble,” she says. “We’re so fortunate here. The Shenandoah Valley, though, possesses a sustainability ethic that you just don’t find everywhere.”

Debbie passed through three majors before sticking with Communications Studies as an undergraduate at Edinboro University in northwest Pennsylvania. She attributes her indecision in part to the limited variety of role models she had prior to college. “It’s okay not to know what to do with your life when you enter university,” she says. “Have a lot of conversations. Ask a lot of questions of people who might be interesting. I didn’t even know what majors got you which jobs. I can understand the pressure of declaring a major. Be patient and be open.”

Debbie suggests that the Honors students in Shenandoah Hall take the time to get to know different people and situations. “Don’t do unsafe things,” she says, “but try uncomfortable things.” Exposure to others, she reminds her students, is the best way to develop empathy and understanding. “If you really want to feel empathy and understand the lived experience of another, you need to sit and share and listen.”

She worries in particular that young people are not developing proper empathy because so much of their lives today is mediated by technology. JMU Honors students are going to face some profound challenges in the twenty-first century, she says. They are going to have to figure out how to have authentic, informed relationships with each other and their world. Young people, she says, “are eating stuff they call food, that’s not really natural food. They spend so much time being busy, but need to also be able to slow down encounter nature. They are always with people, but need more opportunities to genuinely encounter other people. It’s so easy because they have so much mediating technology. But they need to really look at each other – there’s so much access to everything and everyone except for the people right around them. There’s too much that gets in the way of the here and now.” As a consequence, she says, several studies are showing college students today are in danger of becoming much less empathetic than previous generations. She adds, “I really think this is one of the ways faculty can reach out and make a difference.”

Drawn to the psychology of grief and loss, Debbie did her graduate counseling clinical work at a cancer center. She says that she was fortunate to have faculty members at UNC Charlotte who were “like second mothers” to her. Those relationships with her professors remain strong, though many years have now passed. “They are like a professional family. My students are now their grandbabies. We are all counselors, so there’s just a genuineness and empathy that connects us,” she says. “We also talked about everything from professional development to Harry Potter. They were real people to me.” One of her mentors, Dr. Susan Furr, even agreed to contribute to Debbie’s new book, Social Class and the Helping Professions: A Practitioner’s Guide to Navigating Class in America. “She did a beautiful job,” Debbie says.

Debbie has also worked as a counselor for victims and witnesses to crime. “The crime victim work is so important to me partially because it deals with class. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to live under some degree of threat, and the less likely you are to have access to good resources. You are also more likely to be a victim of crime again at some later time in your life,” says Debbie. “So often these [victims] are wonderful people who have endured terrible hardships. It was humbling and enraging and privileging all at once. All of my justice and fairness buttons got pushed working with these people. I learned that people have a tremendous capacity for healing, and that a person’s threshold for stress varies tremendously from individual to individual.”

As a licensed professional counselor, Debbie understood that it was important to value a person’s story as much as to know the particular problems that brought each client to her. “Be curious and wonder about them, rather than come up with some scientific conclusion about them,” she says. “See each of them as their own expert, having the wisdom and experience inside themselves to promote their own healing. What do I know about how people get through, except for what they share with me?”

Sturm’s husband Phil served in the military, worked as a mechanic, and ran a store catering to runners before returning to college. He is now an undergraduate student in the JMU Honors Program and a Geographic Science major. He served as an intern at the Virginia Center for Wind Energy last summer, and will participate in a national wind energy competition next spring. Debbie’s watched her husband struggle with other students to find his niche on JMU’s large and kaleidoscopic campus.  “There’s so much you can do here,” she says. “He’s learned how to network and make connections. It’s such an informal process at universities, and it’s easy for us professors take it for granted. Fortunately, JMU is so undergraduate-focused and faculty members ‘hold the door open’ for students.”

One of Debbie’s ongoing, long-term projects is to collect the papers, memoirs, and stories of the great counseling theorists. “At the University of South Carolina I was teaching a class and we Skyped in the author of the textbook [Dr. Ed Neukrug of Old Dominion University]. I told him, ‘You need to add video stories.’ He thought it was a great idea and now we have biographies, old letters, articles, and other material up on his site, arranged into schools of thought. We are trying to collect academic biographical details, but also personal narratives. We trying to humanize them; not just think of them as people from the past.”  Because of the project, Debbie is increasingly interested in the intersections between narrative therapy, the study of memory, and neuroscience.

In her personal life, Debbie is into yoga, cycling, running, and triathlons. In part, she simply doesn’t want to feel the aging that comes with being a 40-something, but staying really active also is key to being fully present. “It’s critical for my balance – to feel active and engaged and okay and calm. It has a different meaning in my life every day of the week.” It’s about “aesthetics” too, she asserts. “It’s about the workout routines to improve endurance and performance. It’s about the specific challenges.” Says Debbie, “I don’t know how not to be training.”



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