University of Vermont

The Making of a Model Student

With guidance from UVM mentors, senior Tracie Ebalu melds service and scholarship

Tracie Ebalu
Fulbright finalist Tracie Ebalu. “She sees a hole that needs filling,” says Candace Taylor of the Women’s Center, “and she just fills that. She doesn’t want praise, she wants people’s lives to be better.” (Photo: Raj Chawla)

As Fulbright finalist Tracie Ebalu edges closer to her May graduation, the mutual admiration and affection between her and the faculty and staff who guided her through a rocky first year on the road to a bachelor's (and hopefully one day, a Ph.D.) in psychology is emotional to witness. If it hasn’t been easy, it has been marked by Ebalu’s determination, resilience and openness to experiences that will help her grow. But she’s clear she couldn’t have done it alone.

By all accounts a brilliant student, Ebalu says she came to UVM unprepared for the transition to college. "My freshman year I didn't have many resources," she says. "But I met some great people who helped and guided me."

Ebalu was born in the U.S. of Nigerian parents who took her and her four siblings back to their homeland when she was two, before they became acculturated as Americans. “I’m really glad they did,” she says, “because I got to experience the beauty of Nigeria and the glory of being an African.”

At 12, after losing a sister from sudden illness who was just a month away from starting medical school in America, Ebalu’s father brought the remaining children back “to fulfill our dreams because life doesn’t go according to plan.” Despite difficult circumstances in New York City, her mother behind in Nigeria, Ebalu says it was in high school that she came to love psychology (her major) and German (her minor, which took her to Austria for a semester abroad).

Time for Africa                                                                                                                     

As she settled into UVM, becoming heavily involved with the ALANA and Women’s centers, Ebalu was walking through Dewey Hall when she passed Karen Fondacaro’s open door, caught a glance of a clock in the shape of Africa and stopped short. Fondacaro, clinical professor of psychology and director of the Behavior Therapy and Psychotherapy Center (BTPC), invited her in. “She started looking around,” Fondacaro recalls, “and she said, “’I feel like I’m home, what do you do?’ And we just had this immediate connection to each other. That was it.”

Fondecaro explained that the clock and other African influences were related to her work directing Connecting Cultures through BTPC, a program providing mental health services to refugees. Ebalu was in from that moment, pouring herself into projects in the New American community through academics and personal service, all the while solidifying a focus for her long-term career goals in clinical psychology.

From her first year Ebalu became aware of the McNair Scholar program, designed to help advance first-generation, limited-income and/or underrepresented undergraduates who are academically competitive and have the intention of earning a doctoral degree. She prepared herself early she says, knowing the opportunity would serve her well. Named a McNair research fellow in 2012, Ebalu, under Fondacaro’s guidance, chose to study the relationship between post-migration stressors such as unemployment, lack of social support, language and education barriers and their impact on mental health outcomes in refugee populations (she had noticed that the research tended to focus on prior trauma).

If statistical analysis tends to be the least engaging task for most scientists, it wasn’t for Ebalu, hungry to expand her knowledge. “I just think of her,” Fondacaro recalls, “smiling through her multiple linear regressions. She was so excited to learn the statistical procedure. It was wonderful."

Gratitude in action

Despite Ebalu's intellectual strength, it's not what makes people effusive. “Her mind is constantly going but really and truly,” says Candace Taylor, coordinator of programming and leadership development at the university’s Women’s Center, “what I connect most with Tracie is this guiding moral compass, this heart... She is constantly thinking about how she can give back, I think it really is the lens through which she walks this world.”

One of Ebalu’s big personal initiatives this year was spearheading a coat drive for the refugee community -- a project Burton (through a connection with Taylor’s husband) enthusiastically supported -- collecting some 500 coats and other winter wear. Ebalu is a fan of the phrase, “pay it forward.” Because she knows.

It was Taylor, Ebalu will tell you, who gave her a coat when she needed one. But ask Taylor about it, and she tells you that Ebalu turned around and gave it to her little sister. “That’s Tracie,” she laughs. “She will hear that somebody needs something, and she will literally take it off of her own back.”

“The reason she did the coat drive,” says Beverly Colston, director of the ALANA center, is because she knows what it’s like for a family to not have coats. How do you function when you’re cold? Tracie is committed to making sure that it will be better for people than it was for her.”

The success of this effort in a sense represents the culmination of Ebalu’s growth at UVM. According to Colston, Ebalu has always sought out leadership roles, even ones that may have been a bit beyond her at the time. “But the truth is,” Colston says, “she just soaked up those experiences and used them to get wise and go to the next level.”

Now Colston calls her a community connector, an activist who is passionate about issues that face women of color, a leader who uses her voice to speak up, educate others and bring them in.

Quirky, authentic, almost uncensored are among the descriptions of Ebalu that make her real. At times, they say, exuberant to a fault.

“She’s so compassionate and she cares so deeply,” Taylor says, “to the extent where you have to reel her in a little bit and say it’s okay for her to take care of herself too. But she’s got a big vision, big dreams and I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who has that energy that you know they’re going to accomplish it.”

Ebalu, too, has no doubt what she’ll do. For herself, for her mother, maybe for her older sister.

“I tell (my mom) I’m really certain I’m going to get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and one day my name is going to be Dr. Tracie Ebalu.”