From Guyana to NYC to Tennessee: Lorianne Mitchell’s Journey to Becoming a College Professor


Lorraine MitchellFrom Guyana to NYC to Tennessee: Lorianne Mitchell’s Journey to Becoming a College Professor

Whether she was helping friends resolve conflicts, being absorbed in reading her mother’s Psychology textbook, or people-watching in downtown Manhattan, Lorianne Mitchell knew from a young age that human relations fascinated her. This motivated her to join the Psychology Department at CCNY. As an immigrant from Guyana with two siblings also in college, Mitchell worked hard and took the most credits she could each semester. After graduating from CCNY, Mitchell earned her PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and became an Associate Professor of Management at East Tennessee State University. Reflecting on her time at CCNY, Mitchell expressed her gratitude for Professor Vivien Tartter, who demanded her strongest effort and offered her the most thorough feedback: “Professor Tartter’s class was instrumental in preparing me to go from undergrad to PhD. I am forever grateful for her tutelage and support,” Mitchell said.

Tell me more about your background. Where are you from? 

I immigrated with my family from Guyana in South America, a couple of days after my eleventh birthday, and it was cold. We came from two degrees below the Equator to the coldest day in the Northeastern part of the United States in December. We moved: it was my mom, my brother, my sister, and I, the middle child. My mom’s mom and sister sponsored us to come to the US. We were following the American Dream, pursuing all of the opportunities that are available in the United States. We moved to Coney Island, and it was ten of us in a three-bedroom apartment. We lived there and then we moved to East New York after that, and we continued going to school in Coney Island, taking the bus and train back and forth. 

I went to a magnet junior high school in Coney Island. There were seventy students selected to be in that program, and we had different schedules than the other students. You’d come into school early and take classes all day long, and we’d have professors coming to give us classes or we’d even leave school early to go take classes at the community college. By the time we got to our junior and senior years in high school, we were taking AP-level courses. It was an intensive program but I think it prepared me for college better, as compared to the other students in my school. 

My brother is a year ahead of me, so he went to college the year right before me. Because his college education cost my mom so much, I didn’t have as many options as he did. He was able to go away to college, and in our culture, women don’t leave their homes until they’re married. So I mostly looked and applied to schools in New York since my mom could not afford to pay for us both to go to college at the same time. I got some financial aid, which covered my tuition and I was able to get into the Psychology program at CCNY. 

What motivated you to study Psychology?

I’ve always known I have a helper personality, I don’t know if it’s the middle child syndrome or what it could be. My personality has always been, whether it be on the block with my friends or someone gets into trouble, someone gets hurt, I’m the one that’s mending them. Friends always knew they could come to my house after school for a snack, and I would feed them. I remember in junior high school, we had a mock court system, and I chose to be a defense attorney because I wanted to defend the helpless or the kids who got in trouble. I always tried to find a way to get them out of trouble, whether it was lunch duty or something like that. I found myself always trying to find a way to make someone else’s life easier. So at one point, people thought I was going to be a doctor because I was always patching people back up. But that was not my interest. 

My mom was also in school at one point, and she had been a teacher in Guyana, and one of her required readings was in a Psychology textbook. I had always had a passion for reading, and I just started reading her textbook. It was so interesting to me, and that was when I knew that I wanted to do something in Psychology because the mind was fascinating. I’m a natural social scientist; I can sit for hours at the Met Cloisters or the Flatiron District and people-watch. I’m a natural observer of people and I think I have a very good intuition when it comes to people. That to me was the beginning of wanting to explore human behavior.

Do you have any significant memories or accomplishments about your time at CCNY?  

I remember how hard I worked to earn my degree. My advisors told me to take four classes, but I took 18-21 credits per semester, trying to get ahead. My brother, sister, and I were all in college at the same time. My mother was just above the poverty line, and could not qualify for government housing or any of those things, and she wasn’t getting any aid from my dad. So it was my mother working two to three different jobs, trying to make sure that her children had the best opportunity possible. We barely saw her because, by the time we woke up, she was already at work, she’d cook and leave food, but she was gone. I couldn’t take classes over the summer because I had to work 40 hours plus a week. Any break we had from classes, I was working: spring break, fall break, any break we had, it was work, work, work. 

I also fondly remember my extracurricular activities because I enjoyed singing and being a part of the gospel choir. I was a soprano. I remember singing the National Anthem in front of Hillary Clinton, which was a pretty memorable moment. I distinctly remember being a part of the Italian-American Club because I had studied Italian since junior high school. I remember the Jewish Studies program since I grew up a Seventh Day Adventist, and I took a lot of courses in Jewish Studies. I enjoyed the readings and learning the history of Jewish people and how they came to this country, how much they suffered, and the parallels between African Americans and Jews. I fondly recall tutoring with the SEEK Center, as well as being part of the Miss City College Pageant. I remember sitting out on the Quad with other students.

Tell me more about working with Professor Vivien Tartter, as you had mentioned doing research and some writing for her. 

I asked around, between talking to Psychology students and professors, and asking, “Who was the toughest professor?” I figured I learned best under those circumstances; my dad was militant and my mother was an educator, so we learned in tough environments. I needed a lot of structure and I needed a lot of almost boot camp style learning to do research. I thought Professor Tartter would give me the structure I needed to prepare myself for graduate-level research. 

One of my jobs over winter break was selling knives for Cutco. While selling knives, I had cut off the tip of one of my fingers, and I still have the scar and the tip eventually grew back. This led me to research this company, and I stumbled across the phrase Industrial-Organizational Psychology, so then I researched that. I kept coming across different terms and ideas, and this led me to realize that all of these programs would require me to do research, and so I had to prove to them that I could do that, or they wouldn’t even want to talk to me. 

I got into Professor Tartter’s class and I noticed that even if I was doing well, I still got feedback. It wasn’t, “This is your grade, good job, wonder!” I even had kept the papers up until this day, and I showed them to her and I said, “Honestly, this was the beginning of me showing how capable I am of writing, how capable I am at thinking and putting my thoughts together coherently.” Those papers were the catalyst for so many other papers. It wasn’t about the content, because the content was about ensuring there were parenting classes to prevent child abuse. It had nothing to do with my career path, but it had to do with the way of thinking and putting things together, that I wanted to remember and I’d go back and read those papers. Professor Tartter said, “I don’t give out As, and if you got an A, you were pretty good!” Then number three, the fact that even with an A, there was copious amounts of feedback on how I could even better myself in the process. I always read the feedback, I always read it, and took to heart what she said so I could better myself for the next one. For the most part, I’ve kept some stuff from graduate school and notes, but I’ve only kept two papers from Professor Tartter. 

How has your career unfolded, and how did the Colin Powell School help you along the way?

After CCNY, I had my graduate advisor tell me that one of my professors had taken the train downtown and given my letter of recommendation in person. That to me was pretty significant because no other professors had done that. 

For me, CCNY didn’t just prepare me academically, it gave me confidence in my skill level to be able to do the work I needed to do. One of my jobs was working in the career center, and through the career center, I was able to get a number of internships, which I needed immediately. I was able to get an internship with the city of New York, working in the personnel department. I was able to get an internship with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, working with their employment arm. I wanted enough experience to show that I understood employment and HR, and those types of environments. CCNY was not only able to provide those working opportunities, whether they were paid or unpaid, but those opportunities also showed my graduate programs that I was serious about this and I knew what the work would entail. It helped me to be an attractive applicant for the PhD program.     

Have you been involved in the CCNY community since you graduated?

Yes, I came back after the pandemic and some personal health issues, as students had been reaching out to me and telling me about the positive impact I had on them. This was also a time in my career after teaching, which I’ve been doing for 20 years now. When you start to see the impact of your work, of your life’s work, it’s more fulfilling than anything else. This made me want to reach back to the people who had an impact, and who I vividly remember, and share this feeling of fulfillment, gratitude, and impact. So hopefully Professor Tartter was able to feel that in my reaching out to her. She was gracious enough to meet with me.  

Do you have any advice you’d like to give to current or future students at CPS or CCNY?

Absolutely! I say, experience the breadth of college, this is what I tell my students now. Sometimes we get so tunnel-visioned, and I’ve seen at open houses, students come in with a plan and what they want to study and what they want to do after, and I’m amazed that they have this plan. But I remind them that their brains aren’t done growing, so you never know what can trigger something that will take you to a place where you can truly be fulfilled. CCNY offers so many different activities, majors and classes students can take. For instance, I took a speech class because I needed an extra credit to make up 21 credits. So I took this speech class that really taught me how to better overcome a stutter and two how to overcome my West Indian/New York accent, how to code-switch between friends and family, and a more professional setting. A theater class I took taught me mindfulness and meditation which I still use to this day. It was about going into yourself and reflecting. It’s the little things and classes that help you become a well-rounded individual, which if you did not want, you could just go to a technical school. But if you’re going to a liberal arts institution, you’re trying to emerge as a well-rounded person, and to me, CCNY gives you the ability and option to become that well-rounded person, and not just focus on getting a job. CCNY helps people become fully actualized individuals, who can present and be more than just an employee to the world. 

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