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Nancy McWilliams Retirement Reception, December 13, 2010, 4:30-6:30pm

On Monday, December 13, 2010, GSAPP faculty, staff, and students came together at the Center for Applied Psychology, amid food and drink, to celebrate Nancy McWilliams’ almost 30 years of service to the GSAPP community as a Visiting Faculty Member.

Dean Stanley Messer opened the evening by wondering aloud whether they had come together to “celebrate… or is it mourn?” Nancy’s semi-retirement from GSAPP. Although she will not be doing any classroom teaching, she will continue her popular group supervision class. Students, faculty, and alumni shared their experiences with Nancy as advisor, teacher, supervisor, colleague, and friend.

Brenna Bry, Chair of the Clinical Psychology Program, began by stating that “Nancy and I go way back.” Brenna recalled that she had recruited Nancy to join GSAPP those many years ago. Regarding Nancy’s relationship with students, Brenna noted that “They always looked up to you, saw you as a role model, and felt cared for by you.” Reviewing Nancy’s contributions, she concluded that “People around the world would not have careers without Nancy’s books!”

Though Nancy was a psychoanalyst, and Brenna a Skinnerian behaviorist, their friendship went beyond their theoretical differences. Brenna fondly recalled inviting Nancy to participate in the Foundations of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy class for the first-year students. They would watch a video of a therapy session together in front of the students, and present a case formulation and treatment approach from their respective viewpoints. “To the surprise of the students, we often came to the same conclusions clinically, albeit with different words.” More intimately, Brenna and Nancy shared many trials and challenges in their personal lives. They both wrestled with cancer, coped with the loss of loved ones, and endured various struggles together as members of the GSAPP family.

Lucy Takagi, President of the Alumni Association, shared her recollections. Referring to Nancy’s position as Visiting Faculty, she stated empathically and unequivocally, “To us you were never visiting, you just belonged.” She recalled how Nancy inspired, challenged, and supported her students, often going out of her way to find them personal therapists in the community. With good humor Lucy shared her pride when she would notice Nancy’s books at her various externship sites throughout her GSAPP career. When asked in her practicum if Nancy was her teacher, she fondly responded, “Nancy is more than a teacher, she’s a friend.”

Gavin Kenny, 4th year clinical PsyD student, also shared his experience with Nancy as a recent student and supervisee. “Nancy has sort of a magic in the classroom,” he declared. “Students from other schools tell us how lucky we are, but they don’t know Nancy as a person.” Gavin, originally an actor and singer, performed a musical tribute to Nancy. Knowing that she is a fan of Broadway musicals, he sang “For Good,” written by Stephen Schwartz, from the Broadway musical Wicked.  Emphasizing the line “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good,” Gavin gave a moving solo performance to his teacher, mentor, and friend:

“I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow

If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
I believe that I've been changed for the better
Because I knew you
I have been changed for good”

Dean Messer also read a letter from GSAPP graduate Ping Yao, a professor at Peking University in Beijing, China. Dr. Yao, the first international Chinese student at GSAPP, felt that Nancy was “sensitive to my needs and my cultural background.” She extolled Nancy’s generosity in helping her during her time at GSAPP, as Nancy served as her mentor, supervisor, and dissertation chair. “I take you as a professional idol,” she wrote. Noting that Nancy’s book, Psychoanalytic Case Formulation, has been translated into Chinese, she expressed her pride as Nancy’s student whenever she had the chance to introduce her work to her colleagues. Dr. Yao’s words are worth citing at length:

“I admire you not only for your intelligence as a teacher and a professional psychologist but also for your unique personality as a person. I think you have a beautiful combination of both western and eastern wisdom. I cherish all those warm and fond memories with you. I am fortunate to have a chance to learn from you. I love you.”
Before turning it over to the star of the evening, Dean Messer made some remarks as a fellow traveler in the psychoanalytic world. He called Nancy “A star in the psychoanalytic firmament” who has been a pillar in the psychodynamic track at GSAPP, and an inspiration to clinicians of all orientations. “Nancy is what you would call a true, modest, mensch,” Messer concluded, “thank you for giving twenty-nine years to our students and colleagues.”

After these tributes, Nancy took the floor briefly and spoke about her experience with GSAPP throughout the years. She stated that it was the GSAPP community that had moved her to write her books. “It really came from the students,” she recalled. “I complained to them that there needed to be a new book on psychoanalytic diagnosis, and they often retorted, ‘Why don’t you write it?’” Although Nancy formulated her ideas in dialogue with her students, an additional spark came from Dean Messer. Year after year he would ask how the book was coming along, and eventually, with some exasperation, he commented that “even one chapter” of it would be useful. “And that shifted something for me,” Nancy reported. “I wrote one chapter, and then another, and before I knew it, I had written a book.” “My career,” she stated emphatically, “would have never developed the way that it did without GSAPP.” She thanked Gavin for singing one of her favorite songs, and despite noting that there were a couple of faculty meetings she could have happily skipped, expressed her own gratitude for GSAPP’s community, friendship, and support.

The rest of the evening was full of equal parts melancholy and joy, as other students, faculty, and alumni shared their experiences with Nancy, celebrating her for having enriched their lives, nourished their wisdom, and supported them in their careers, just as GSAPP had enriched, nourished, and supported her own.
Nancy, you have given us so much from which we’ve learned, helping us to grow as professionals and as people. We are who we are today because of you, and we will miss you.

Check out our interview with Nancy McWilliams