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First Generation Week: Dr. Cynthia Hall’s road from first-gen to full-time faculty

Cynthia’s story is part of a weeklong series celebrating first-generation Golden Bears. They’re the first in their families to earn a four-year degree, and they’re the students, alumni, faculty and staff who are showing the world how one big first step can change everything.

WVU Tech faculty member Dr. Cynthia Hall

Dr. Cynthia Hall is a psychology professor at WVU Tech. She grew up in Radford, Virginia, just under two hours southeast of Tech’s campus in Beckley.

She was the first in her family to earn a degree, but she knew from a very early age that college was in the cards for her.

Hall’s father dropped out of school in the 8th grade to focus on supporting his family. Even so, he went on to build a career that saw him retire from the Volvo plant in Dublin, Virginia, the largest Volvo truck manufacturing facility in the world.

Her mother started working after high school, and ultimately retired from Radford University, where she worked as the head cashier in the Student Accounts office.

It was this job – and her parents’ hardworking nature – that Hall says shaped her path.

“Because my mother worked at Radford University and was around students and faculty every day, she knew the benefits of obtaining an education. She herself wanted to go to college but could not afford to after high school, so I was strongly encouraged to go,” she said.

As a kid, Hall had a well-defined interest in the arts, particularly music and painting. Since mom wanted her close to home, she enrolled at nearby Radford University.

She loved the school, but the arts pathway didn’t feel right.

“I took several core courses in art but began to find producing art for a grade rather than for enjoyment very difficult and unfulfilling,” she said.

She started trying to determine where she might turn her skills instead. In the course of her studies, she had taken a psychology class and had fallen in love with the field.

“The things I found most fascinating were the ability to use research to answer my own questions and curiosities. And I loved that the field of psychology could help explain other people’s behavior. We all have asked ourselves, ‘why did she just do that or say that?’ and psychology offered a rather complete understanding,” she said.

During her senior year, she completed an independent study where she worked in a lab as a research assistant. The experience got her hooked on research.

“I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Although I was only entering data, I began to see patterns in the data I entered. The entire process of conducting research to answer my own questions was very exciting and, even though I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I knew that I wanted to keep using the research tools I had learned,” she said.

She finished out her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Radford in 2003 and immediately applied to the Experimental Psychology Master’s program. She got in, and continued her research in the lab setting she’d come to enjoy.

“I continued to gain knowledge about research methodology but also grew to love the field of social psychology. I developed a profound respect for the faculty, coupled with being granted a teaching fellowship, and that led to my chosen career path,” she said.

As a first-generation student, Hall said she was lucky to find professors who understood her situation and who took an interest in helping her along the way.

“My career path had almost everything to do with my admiration and appreciation of the faculty members in the Psychology Department at Radford who understood the difficulties experienced by first-gen students and often went out of their way to explain educational practices and procedures and guide me,” she said.

She says that those professors who took her under their wing – who showed her that education is about more than bookwork – set her on the path that led her to Tech and to the front of the classroom. 

“They taught me to appreciate the search for knowledge and how to grow intellectually and as a person through education. I knew I wanted to do the same. I wanted to help students who may not know exactly what they want to do find their passion, define their goals and reach their goals,” she said.

Doing the same for others required yet another step, and so the artsy girl from Radford who didn’t know what she wanted to do wrapped up her M.A. in experimental psychology, packed her bags and traveled south to Alabama. A few years later, she completed a Ph.D. in lifespan developmental psychology.

These days, Hall teaches a variety of courses. She even received tenure this year. In addition to lecturing, she advises psychology students, conducts research in a wide range of areas within the psychology field and undertakes community service projects.

For Hall, helping students connect with psychological concepts and uncover the ways that they can use their own talents to help people is what keeps her going.

“I find that I am driven and inspired to do what I do every time I ‘see the light bulb turn on,’ every time I hear good news about a student I taught that received a job offer they wanted or got into grad, medical or law school at one of their top choices in universities,” she said.

She’s worked with a lot of first-generation students in her time at Tech. Her advice? Reach out when you need help.

“Do not be discouraged. At first, everything may be overwhelming, but there are many dedicated people who will help you. Most of the time all you need to do is ask,” she said.

And she says to ignore the haters.

“Before becoming a psychology major and being assigned to an advisor within the field, my advisor actually told me ‘you’ll never get into graduate school.’ I managed to raise my GPA enough to get accepted into a Master’s program where I flourished and graduated. I even presented my research at an international conference in Crete, Greece where I sat in talks given by the top researchers in my field,” she said.

That tenacity and that drive is something she tries to draw out in all her students.

“We are all life-long learners and teachers, but it does take practice to become better at learning. The experience of college prepares students for the many roles they hold throughout their lives,” she said. 

“I went from a ‘lost and confused’ kid from a small Appalachian town to where I am now. I would do it all again in a heartbeat,” she added.