On Legacy, Academia, and Third Acts with Dr. Smith-Gray

On Legacy, Academia, and Third Acts with Dr. Smith-Gray

“Being here is like coming home to myself,” says Sybil Smith-Gray, Ph.D., of her new role here as George Mason University Psychology Department’s newest professor in the growing concentration of Forensics. It is with this restored sense of purpose and excitement that informs her teaching approach.  Dr. Gray characterizes her return to academia as her third act, her big “ta-da!” She feels that it is the culmination of a decades-long career that has touched many lives. She considers herself very fortunate to have joined the psychology faculty, and she hopes that she can instill her passion for the discipline in her students. She is proud of the fact that, like her students, her own interest in psychology was piqued as an undergraduate.

Graduating as a psychology major from the University of Texas in 1978, Dr. Gray began her career in special education as a counselor at the Texas School for the Deaf.   Shortly thereafter, she obtained her Masters degree in Deaf Education from the University of Texas and became a classroom teacher. She described those years in the classroom as the solid foundation that has supported her entire career path. She always remained, “a teacher at heart.”

Eventually, Dr. Gray returned to school and obtained a Masters degree in Educational Psychology at Ohio State University. She returned to Texas and worked for several years as a masters level psychologist at residential treatment center. It was at the insistence of her supervisor and mentor that she applied to the newly established doctoral program at Gallaudet University in the District of Columbia. She was the program’s first graduate in 1995 and selected as the student speaker for the school’s graduation ceremony.  She delivered her entire speech in American Sign Language. 

When asked how she chose to focus on the area of forensic psychology,  Dr. Gray answered, “It chose me!” It is the intersection between the law and psychology that Dr. Gray finds particularly challenging, as the application of psychological principles to legal questions demands the analysis and synthesis of a mountain of clinical information. She has always been of the opinion that the best training to become a forensic psychologist is to become exceptionally well-grounded in clinical psychology—an opinion she frequently shares with her students. She has been particularly impressed with the clinical knowledge her students bring to her lectures when discussing forensic topics.

Dr. Gray’s first practicum in forensic psychology was at Fairfax County courthouse. She said, “I could not in a million years have seen myself decades later teaching students at George Mason University, right up the street!”  Dr. Gray’s forensic practice has spanned a broad range of evaluation and treatment services. She is qualified as a forensic expert by courts in multiple jurisdictions in the metropolitan area. However, she feels her most consequential forensic work is that which involves the assessment of immigrants seeking asylum to remain in the United States and avoid deportation. This typically means keeping families together. Dr. Gray stated, “I make a deliberate decision about every single word that goes into those reports so that when the Judge reads it, he or she, sees the humanity of the person before the court.” 

As the grand-niece of Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser (her grandmother’s sister), who is formally acknowledged by the American Psychological Association (APA) as the country’s first female African American Psychologist, Dr. Gray feels that she’s carrying on the family legacy of academic excellence. As an educator and a mentor to students from all walks of life, her greatest desire is to pass on Dr. Prosser’s legacy to the next generation. She believes that Mason’s explicit commitment to cultural diversity makes it that much easier for her to live out this passion.

Dr. Gray said that she often tells  her three now young adult children that your choices are your destiny. She said she is teaching them by example, just how true that is.  She feels that decades of choices have led her right back home to an intellectually rich and stimulating environment which “feeds [her] soul.”  And she says, “No one can ask for more than that.”

Note: This interview was conducted prior to the onset of the national pandemic. Dr. Gray wanted to add that she has “stood in complete awe of the level of discipline and persistence” her students have demonstrated in adjusting to the circumstances as best they can. She wanted to mention, “Please note, that I salute them and I am so proud to be a part of the Psychology Department's amazing response to their needs.”