Newswise — University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Distinguished Professor Nadya Fouad is known internationally for research into how people make career decisions, from the societal pressure on mothers to set aside their careers after their children are born to the high dropout rate among women in engineering.

Fouad’s tenure at UWM spans 30 years, and she’s chair of the School of Education’s department of educational psychology. The top-ranked UWM program is a leader in educating school psychologists and counselors in the Midwest.

Now, thanks to a new $5 million gift from the Kelben Foundation to UWM, Fouad will also hold the inaugural Mary and Ted Kellner Chair in Educational Psychology. Foundation President Mary Kellner is a 1978 graduate of UWM’s educational psychology program and worked in two Wisconsin school districts.

Fouad spoke about how the gift will help her department deepen the Kelben Foundation’s commitment to connecting children of all ages to counseling services.

What does it mean to be recognized in this way by a former student and her family’s Kelben Foundation?

It’s a marvelous honor. It was a total surprise. I’m deeply grateful for the recognition and the honor of this endowed chair, but what I love most is the actual work. I love the work with my students – watching them grow and develop. I’ve also been privileged to work with an incredible group of colleagues.

What are you most proud of as chair of the educational psychology department?

Our deep commitment to cultural competency. We have programs that prepare school counselors and counseling psychologists that go into the community and work in such diverse settings ­­­– hospitals to Veterans Affairs to private practice to working in university counseling centers to being faculty. Every single faculty member is really committed to cultural competency, and every student comes out of the program very well trained.

What does it mean to have counselors who are culturally competent?

It’s asking questions like, “Are we making sure that everybody is being treated equitably?” At the school psychologist level, are we making sure that the students who are being referred for diagnostic services are being referred for the right reasons? Like, the overabundance of African-American men or boys who are referred for treatment because they don’t fit somebody’s typical profile. A culturally competent counselor can ask those questions and, through cultural analysis, they can also make sure that people within the school are attending to culture.

You study career decision-making, which is a broad area of human psychology. What aspect of it do you study most closely?

The career decision-making process is much more complex than we thought. The last 10 years have shown that the environment makes a lot of difference. What work is available? The world of work has changed. People are making more career changes, and I study how that process is different for women and racial and ethnic minorities than it is for white men. And the answer is: It’s more complex.

What are some of the complexities?

Certainly, family influences – what the family wants or expects you to do – is more important. When the family says, “This is what our people do,” that’s big, and that’s gendered.

Men don’t feel that same kind of pressure?

Men are not immune from societal and family messages, but the messages – depending on the social class – tend to be about prestige or a professional occupation or about being a provider. Young girls are still getting the “Do something until you have a baby” kind of messages. Can you believe it?

Research for your four-year National Science Foundation study on engineering careers ends this fall. What have you learned so far?

I’m doing that with Romila Singh, a professor in the Lubar School of Business. We started looking at why women are leaving engineering. We’ve continued that work, looking at men in engineering and why some people persist in the field. The women in engineering study hit a nerve. We were hoping for 800 respondents and we got over 5,500. Everybody is concerned about retaining women.

I’ll give you an example. In the women’s sample, we had over 500 women who graduated in engineering, and they were still connected enough to their alma mater that they responded to a survey link, but they never entered the profession. They graduated in engineering, but they never became engineers. That’s huge.

Do you consult at all with corporations or organizations?

As a result of the engineering study, I’ve given talks to corporate partners of the Society of Women Engineers. I’ve talked to CEOs of tech companies at a conference, but their organizations basically say, “We’re not ready.” What we tell the organizations is, “It’s not about fixing the women. Get out of your comfort zone.”

What are three signs you should go into psychology?

Concern for the welfare of others, a genuine interest in understanding human behavior and interest in the scientific. The hallmark of a psychologist is that you’re being scientifically minded about this. You’re not just helping people. It’s understanding what works for whom when, and caring about that.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in psychology?

I wanted to study people. Originally, I don’t think it was study – it was help. And then I went to a marvelous graduate program where the focus was on research, and I got interested in asking questions and finding answers. I was always a person that people came and talked to. I started volunteering at a crisis line when I was 16 and they had to make an exception for me. I was young, but I knew I wanted to do it.

What is your advice to the student who is between majors?

I think the best thing we can do is teach people how to make that decision. What’s important to them? What do they want to listen to? They should understand the role of work in their lives. Do they want work to be big? Do they want work to meet survival needs? It helps to know how to make that decision, because the reality is, you’re going to have to do that many times in your life.

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