RISE Scholars

Charles Jonassaint, PhD, MHS
University of Pittsburgh
RISE Cohort 4

I’m a black male in America. It’s 2015 and so far in my career I’ve been successful. Yet, even today, I feel displaced.

Growing up, life wasn’t always easy. Although I had a loving family, a mother and father who cared and did all they could to provide for us, there were disadvantages to having parents who weren’t brought up by loving parents themselves; who at an early age had a baby to raise on their own; who never had the opportunity to earn a college education or fully pursue their own careers. There was a lot about navigating life that my parents couldn’t teach us because they themselves didn’t have those experiences. They were still figuring life out themselves.

As a high school senior, I wanted to go to college but my grades declined so dramatically my senior year I was at risk of not graduating. On top of that, I still hadn’t taken my SATs and filling out college applications seemed intimidating. I was confused and lacked the guidance to take the needed steps to move forward.

After my senior year of high school, I didn’t go to college. Instead, I got a job. It wasn’t exactly the way I envisioned my life would turn out but at that point, I didn’t have much hope for anything else. Then, someone intervened. A family friend registered me late for a community college course, Intro to Psychology. I fell in love with the subject and excelled. But the possibility that I could become a Doctor of Psychology was not even a remote thought. However, five years later, with the help of several people along the way, I graduated from college with honors and I was accepted into a PhD program for clinical psychology at an elite university. Nonetheless, I was still the same black male that I had always been, and I found myself in a place that I didn’t fit in. The university environment was a culture and way of life that was foreign to me. I didn’t understand it. Hard work and perseverance couldn’t change that. Grades and test scores were meaningless in an environment that was alien and even, at times, hostile toward me. The world that I was told I needed to be a part of to be successful was not meant for me.

My parents didn’t raise me to thrive in academics or corporate America because that was not their way of life. No one taught or instilled in them the characteristics necessary to navigate a world orchestrated by the top 1% of the population. And in my first year of graduate school, sitting with those moments of discomfort with feelings of social disconnect, I realized that disparities were more than just skin color and poverty. Reading through the disparities literature, it was clear that there were deeper social, psychological and behavioral factors linking race and socioeconomics to poor health. Yet, it was still unclear what were the specific problems accounting for health disparities and more important, what were the solutions. Therefore, since starting graduate school in 2003, the goal of my career has been to identify the risk factors for poor health and to intervene by developing behavioral interventions that target underserved populations. Ultimately, it is my hope that this research will improve the health and the lives of those who have been displaced.