Q: So, not too shabby: you starting at Union with an associate degree and you’re now getting a Ph.D. at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. It all began right here in Union County.
A: I grew up in Linden. But in the beginning, not a lot of people thought I would be any kind of success in college. Beginning when I was in elementary school, my parents were told I had a learning disability for reading. I was in special education classes ever since. When I got to high school, a guidance counselor looked at my file and said, “You should consider vocational school since you’re not college material. You’ll never be more than a bartender or a beautician. You should go to cosmetology school.” Q: C’mon. Seriously?
A: Absolutely. Give my parents credit; they wanted me to go to college. But back when I was 18, I really didn’t have any self-confidence, so right out of high school I went to work for Pathmark Corporate and eventually ran the Pharmacy Division. I was good at what I did, and worked for Pathmark for about 20 years. But without a college degree there was a limit to how far I could go. My boss had an MBA and would tell me, “You’re very smart. Why not go to college? You need at least an associate degree.” So I remember taking a class in “Western Civ” at Union and really liking it, and that’s when it all clicked. Q: Let me get this straight: It was 20 years after high school that you finally began attending college?
A: Yes. And it was because I had a boss who believed in me. It was all I needed. It’s the same with the students in my classes. I know from first-hand experience how much inspiration a teacher can give to their students just by believing in them when no one else does. When I got to Union, I was fortunate to have professors like Toby Marx and Jeff Shalan, who really inspired me. Q: But you were an amazing student at Union: straight-A’s, vice president for the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, Psychology major…
A: Originally I was a business major because I thought that’s what I needed to do. But I switched to Psychology when I saw this as the field that best supported my interest in becoming a college professor, which is what I’d always wanted to be ever since I was a little girl. Q: You always wanted to be a college professor? A: It’s a little strange, but when I was a girl I’d watch Gilligan’s Island and “the Professor” was just so cool. They all looked up to him. This is the impact that a teacher can make on a student: whether the student is just out of high school or the way I was when I started college as an adult learner.
Q: So all of those people who said you weren’t college material now have egg on their face. After Union, it was off to Drew University for your bachelor’s degree in Psychology.
A: Drew’s program was hard, a good program. But give Union credit for preparing me. The professors at Drew were impressed by how much knowledge I had in Psychology.
Q: And then, in 2011, it was off to the Chicago School for Professional Psychology. It was a master’s and then a doctorate. And after the master’s, Union came back into the picture.
A: When I graduated from Union, I won the Post Day award, and when I was called up during the ceremony, I said to Dr. (Wallace) Smith (the chief academic officer), “I will work for you some day.” And he said, “Get your master’s and come see me.” It was awesome the way it worked out, for me to have the honor of teaching at a college I love so much and with students who are just amazing.
Q: And now you’re a Ph.D. in Psychology—the first doctor in your family?
A: I’m the first to graduate from college with any degree. And I’m going to cry saying this, but I’m just so proud of my parents, because I went to live with them while I was working on my doctorate and they believed in me.
Q: So you had your dissertation defense on July 29 and now you’re Dr. Norelli. The topic was related to leadership?
A: I focused on how leaders address workplace crises, which relates back to my work at Pathmark when we had to provide pharmaceutical supplies at Ground Zero following the World Trade Center tragedy in 2001. For my dissertation, my emphasis was on NASA and the culture of safety that has been instilled in that organization in response to crises.
Q: A professor and a Ph.D.—I guess you’ve come a long way from being pegged as a future hairdresser. And what about your alleged reading disability?
A: With enough determination and practice, I was able to overcome my reading problems. What my personal life experience has really given me, too, is empathy for students and a greater appreciation for how people learn. Reading and regurgitation can only take a student so far. Students learn more by actively doing and talking about their experiences than they do in a passive mode. It’s the way I always learned best too, by being a doer.