Living Community Psychology-Chris Nettles

Photograph of Chris Nettles
Figure 1. Photograph used with permission from the author

For this installment, we feature Chris Nettles. He was profiled in Spring 2013, as an advanced clinical/community graduate student who was completing a self-designed community/clinical internship.

What does a community psychologist do?

Living Community Psychology highlights a community psychologist through an in-depth interview intended to highlight the personal and professional lives of those working in our field.  The intent is to personalize Community Psychology as it is lived by its diverse practitioners. These past columns contain a wealth of life advice gleaned from over 60 profiled community psychologists, from graduate students to retirees, representing an invaluable resource for community psychologists.

*All columns are available online, at http://www.scra27.org/publications/tcp/tcp-past-issues 

Chris Nettles, MA, MPhil

Chris Nettles knew he was adopted from his earliest memory, having been brought to his adoptive home in Fort Worth from the hospital at 2 days of age. His adopted parents’ Texan heritages went back many generations, his father’s to the Spanish land grants and his mother’s to the Civil War. “They are Texans, through and through,” he states. However, they divorced when Chris was 2 years old, and he and his mother went to live with his grandmother; at age 8, Chris moved to live with his father. Both parents remarried.

Although his adoptive parents were very open about his having been adopted, information about his biological parents was sketchy. An attorney friend of Chris’ dad had handled the adoption and revealed to Chris’ dad only that the biological parents were not married and that the biological father “ran off.” Chris’ dad, after completing 2 years of college at the University of Texas, Austin worked in advertising. A second grade teacher discouraged his dad about Chris’ academic potential, but he tested super high on a standardized test in third grade, after which he was placed in programs for gifted students. As a teenager, he was fascinated by astronomy, having started working at age 15 as a guide at the local planetarium.

Around age 17, in the mid-1980s, Chris revealed to his parents that he was gay. “They did not react at all well to this news,” Chris remembers. They withdrew financial support for him, derailing his plans for college. He lived with his grandmother for a year and, after high school graduation (1985), went to work for AT&T as a telephone operator. He worked his way up the career ladder, through ascending categories of an operator and culminating in being an operations manager, responsible for a $25 million budget and 150 employees. He was estranged from his parents for several years but established himself independently. Although he started out not caring about their rejection of his life style, he later reconciled with them – first, with his mom, later with his dad.

He transferred to Boston from Texas in 1989 where he worked on a systems installation project at MIT as a software technician. Boston’s liberal environment was a revelation. “Getting out of Texas was a culture shock. Texas had a gay underground, but that was overlaid by religious conservatism. Texas still had sodomy laws until the mid-1990s, meaning that it was illegal to be homosexual.” He hung out in the South End, Boston’s equivalent of New York City’s Greenwich Village, making a lot of friends along the way. Later, he transferred to Denver, working for Lucent Technologies and then Avaya. With scholarship help from his employer, he began attending college via night school in 1989 and graduated in 1995 with a summa cum laude BS in applied management from National American University.

Although Chris’ telecommunications career had risen rapidly, he became disenchanted with corporate values which he felt disdained employees and unions. “The higher up I moved, the more privy I was to practices that, while not unethical, walked a close line. I began to see the mismatch between my values and the corporate culture.” Prompted by a buy-out as a result of the “dot com bust,” he decided to change careers and concentrate on his real interest — people in context. The part of his job he had most enjoyed was coaching and supervising.

With a 3.95 grade average, he thought he’d be easily accepted into a clinical psychology graduate program. However, schools were not interested in him; he surmises that graduate programs felt that his interest in psychology was a passing interest, “not a serious life choice.” To make himself more competitive, he earned a second bachelor’s degree (again summa cum laude), in psychology, from the University of Colorado system in 2004. His honor’s thesis concerned high risk sexual behavior, an area of concentration which he has maintained to this day.

Chris first learned of community psychology from a professor, Kevin Everhart, a student of Abe Wandersman, with whom he struck up a friendship. He completely resonated with Kevin’s depiction of community psychology’s values of social justice, the systems approach to problems and its ecological framework. He was seeking research experience, having learned that graduate programs expected applicants to enter graduate school with that experience. Kevin mentored Chris’ independent research on time perspective on risky sexual behavior. Chris broadened his research perspective to stress and coping and subsequently (2007) earned a master’s degree with honors, again from the University of Colorado, in clinical psychology.

He applied to several clinical doctoral degree programs that included a community perspective and chose George Washington University for its emphasis on prevention and health promotion in diverse urban environments. Although GW is not well known for community psychology, Chris found those values to be embedded in the clinical program’s faculty and coursework.

Students are taught how to intervene at higher systems levels in addition to the traditional one-to-one clinical model. He was especially drawn to Professor George Howe, whose emphasis on stress and coping was in line with Chris’ interests. Dr. Howe turned out to be a fantastic mentor, providing strong methodological training and allowing Chris to pursue his substantive interests of health disparities in minority populations, including LGBT people. Meanwhile, federal, State and local governments and nonprofits have sharply increased their emphasis on LGBT health disparities.

Despite the potential at GW for emphasizing community-based health promotion (the program requires clinical students to complete two courses in community psychology), Chris notes that often students travel a “well-worn, deeply grooved clinical path unless you have a deeply
independent spirit, which I have.” Clinical students may default to the highly structured clinical training model. Chris sought out training experiences that had a community feel. For example, he externed at a full-service clinic in Baltimore, working with an underserved LGBT
population and those affected by HIV. At Washington’s Whitman Walker Clinic, he helped set up a peer counseling program, training first-line mental health helpers who would work under clinical supervision.

Chris sought an APA approved clinical internship but found very few community- and research oriented placements, especially those concentrating on adults. He found some internship placements that fit the bill, but they were primarily focused on substance abuse treatment. In general, the internships skewed heavily to the traditional clinical model. The application process was grueling, “it was like applying to graduate schools again.” He faced the dilemma of a sharply increasing number of applicants (especially from large PsyD programs) with a flat number of positions. This imbalance causes considerable stress for applicants. “Will I get interviews? Will I be matched? If I am not matched, what then?” In fact, Chris was not matched. “This was a big blow to my ego.” Although the truth is that 25% of applicants were not matched that year, laying bare a serious structural problem, “I began to question that maybe something was wrong with me.”

After licking his wounds, he took the initiative to learn about alternatives, primary of which was the prospect of constructing a community-oriented internship tailored to his needs. Earlier, when he served as the student representative on SCRA’s Council of Education Programs (2007-09), he met Bret Kloos who had mentored graduate students in self-constructed community internships at the University of South Carolina. Chris was greatly encouraged by Bret and two of his former students who had completed these internships – Victoria Chien and Greg Townsley. He shared their information with GW’s faculty, who had no prior experience with such an internship route, and was delighted that they gave a green light to proceed. Having closely read APA’s clinical internship accreditation guidelines, he structured his proposed program to closely align with those standards. GW faculty has shown a lot of interest in his community-oriented internship, but their approval was on a one time basis only; however, he hopes that his example becomes a framework for future students.

In constructing the internship, Chris had a clear sense of direction, a unified theme to work on – health issues for the LGBT population. Of
invaluable assistance was the list of community psychology competencies that were developed jointly by SCRA’s Councils on Practice and Education Programs. He used the competencies to map the internship experiences he was creating. Then he networked, networked,  networked to find internship opportunities. “I leveraged every relationship I’d developed over the years.” The first internship rotation developed was at GW, creating a comprehensive needs assessment around LGBT student mental health needs, looking at emotional, psychological and behavioral dimensions. This closely mapped a subset of the evaluation competencies for community psychology practice.

The second rotation started later – an opportunity to work with Community Science, Inc., a community psychology practice company that specializes in community capacity building and community evaluation. As part of his work there, he has contributed to a guide for data capacity building which is a tool for local organizations to better understand and monitor health disparities in their own communities.

Chris expects to have accumulated enough hours by early Summer 2013 to fulfill the requirements for an approved internship so that he
can graduate in August. He reflects on the experience of constructing a almost universal encouragement, the devil was in the details for
negotiating a complete plan.” Unlike the traditional, well laid out clinical path to an internship, Chris had to establish and thoroughly document a set of integrated experiences that would launch him into a professional career. And there had to be a payoff for his supervisors.

The toughest part was financing the internship. Chris estimates that, in order to have obtained financial support for an independent internship, he would have needed to have started planning up to 2 or 3 years ahead. Already carrying a heavy loan burden for his education, extending as far back as second B.A., Chris had to take out more loans to support himself through the internship year, compounded by being an older student living in a high cost area, with higher expenses. He obtained a Stafford loan, supplemented by some consulting work to finance his internship year.

On the positive side, his independent community internship gave him a broader set of experiences than he would have obtained in a traditional clinical internship. He broadened his skills with old and new competencies mastered, especially in
the area of evaluation. Chris is not sure if he will seek State licensure. While he assumes this would increase his future employment opportunities, he does not consider this a “drop dead” requirement.

Chris is somewhat unusual in having created a community-based internship in a somewhat traditional clinical program, but he is also somewhat unusual in some details of his personal life. Over the years, Chris wondered about his biological parentage, but finding information on adoptions was an arduous process before the advent of the internet. His adoptive dad had always supported this interest and, when Chris was 18, his dad asked for information from the attorney who handled the adoption. However, the attorney was a traditionalist who believed all ties should be severed. In 2000, Chris began a search of online registries that facilitate matching of biological parents and their children. Fortunately, Chris’ birth mother (Susan) had been searching for him, and it didn’t take long to find each other via an intermediary. “There was only one boy, with my blood type, born on my birthdate in the Ft. Worth hospital where I was born.” His dad recalled that, in the hospital, he had glimpsed on the neonatal ID bracelet a long French-sounding name, presumably the birth mother’s name. (The name in the adoption registry was Lafreniere.)

Chris had received a phone message (ironically left by Susan), asking for someone named Nettles. Chris saved the phone number but never returned the call, not realizing who had left the message. (When that call was never returned, Susan decided to give up on her 30-year search for her lost son.) Nine months later, Chris decided to begin the online search for his birth mother. When he learned of Susan via the registry match and saw that the phone number matched that of the earlier phone message, he placed a call to her, which she immediately returned. Susan explained that giving him up for adoption had left a “huge hole in her heart. We hit it off in our first call; it was 4 hours long.” Many calls followed over the coming weeks. When he told Susan of his being gay, she was delighted. “Her reaction was beyond tolerance, it was unconditional positive regard,” in part because her best friends are in a same sex relationship. Meanwhile, he had to sensitively present the revelation to his adoptive parents, “reassuring them that love has no limit, and they’d always be my mom and dad.”

Several months after the initial call, Chris met Susan – an airline flight attendant. “It was very natural, as if we had always known each other.” Susan explained she had used birth control pills while dating the biological father (John), so did not know she was pregnant until her fifth month. When she told John of her pregnancy, he revealed he was married with a 2-year old child. John was not willing to take parental responsibility, so she gave Chris up for adoption, feeling it would be best for him.

Several years later, Chris and Susan began a search for John, but they kept running into dead ends. (John had changed the spelling of his surname.) Two years ago, Susan remembered the name of John’s sister (Moira), found her location and placed a call, saying she had news for John. Moira returned the call immediately, saying she thought she knew the purpose of the call. Having been 16 years old when Chris was born, she had read letters speaking of the child. Chris has established a wonderful relationship with Moira, who lives in upstate New York. Moira became the go-between in Chris’ connecting with John. The first conversation with John echoed his first conversation with Susan, being lengthy and perfectly natural. They met three months later for Thanksgiving dinner at Moira’s home. Chris speaks regularly with all
four of his parents, both adoptive and biological. He feels blessed, surrounded by enormous love.