Maria Cuddy-Casey, Ph.D.
Maria Cuddy-Casey, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Undergraduate Psychology Department, speaks two languages—the language of science and that of the spirit.
As a psychologist, she observes behavior, conducts research, collects data, measures results and interprets findings; her work is grounded in empirical methods. But she is also alert to the subtle, sensitive to the unseen, values what cannot be measured, and apprehends the presence of grace. She is, in a sense, a dual citizen of two worlds, comfortably at home in both.
“One of the things I believe is that every problem has a solution,” said Cuddy-Casey, “and that you do the best you can with the resources you have.” She brings the energy of that pragmatic, realistic, no-nonsense approach to the classroom and the clinical setting where she works with children and adolescents facing such severe difficulties as mental retardation, schizophrenia, autism and a host of other disorders. She has worked for many years with the Devereux Foundation as a staff clinician, director for its Family-Based Treatment Program, and now as a consultant completing clinical evaluations and psychological and IQ testing.
“I work from two offices for Devereux, one in Chester and one in Wayne near Villanova. The Chester area is urban, unsafe, distressed. Residents live in extreme poverty. Hope is stifled. The other office is in an affluent area where they have all the resources they need. The work really gives you a different perspective and focus for interventions. I can’t just recommend to a parent in Chester that she sign her child up at the Y—they can’t even go to a public library. I end up wanting to spend more of my time at Chester getting those kids, for whom nothing is easy, connected to the therapeutic services and placements they need. The clinical work is very important to me. It really informs my teaching and my students appreciate the real-life examples. Clinical is a passion of mine. I learn and I teach and bring it together. Some days, however, I feel as though I learn more than I teach.”
Cuddy-Casey began teaching—and learning—at Immaculata as an adjunct faculty member in the spring of 1997. “I was a pre-doctorate intern and one of our seminar leaders, Dr. Jed Yalof, told us he taught at Immaculata. He is such an outstanding professional, I wondered, what kind of place has someone of his caliber? Let me try this local school that sounds so good.”
Cuddy-Casey was not disappointed; in fact, she was amazed. Though she experienced some initial trepidation, as she had not attended Catholic schools, that was soon replaced by respect and affection. “It was intimidating in the beginning, interacting with so many Sisters. It was a real learning and growth experience for me, and it was exciting to be able to get to know them.
“I discovered Immaculata and I fell in love with her. You’re welcomed here so lovingly. Even on a bad day, you’ll look around a corner and someone will be there to help and support you. The Sisters are the source and foundation of that. They all believe in you and hold you to such a high threshold, you want to be worthy of that grace, you want to live up to their faith in you. The presence of the Sisters is felt everywhere, you see and sense it in the culture here. I’ve taught at other universities and it’s different. You don’t hear profanity here and, if you do, everything stops because it stands out. Everyone is respectful. I always tell my classes of freshmen or new doctoral students that I hope they fall in love with Immaculata as quickly as I did.”
When Cuddy-Casey was still an adjunct and expecting her first child, Amanda, she happened to mention to IU Vice President for Academic Affairs Sister Ann Heath, IHM, Ph.D. (then dean of the College of Graduate Studies), that she was struggling with choosing a middle name. “Sister Ann said to me, ‘What about Grace?’ And I thought, wow, that’s it. And after that conversation I did some research and looked into the meaning of the word grace, and I realized that it describes how I try to live my life.”
Two years later when she was expecting her son, Ryan, Cuddy-Casey intentionally went to Sister Ann for help with a middle name. “Sister thought about it for a moment, and then suggested Christopher. I told her I was thinking of something with a little more virtue, and her eyes grew wide and she said to me, ‘Maria. Christopher.’ Obviously, that became my son’s middle name. I seek the Sisters out like family, and I’ve always felt that way.”
One thing Cuddy-Casey doesn’t feel is what she refers to as that “dread in the parking lot” that many people experience when arriving at work. “I love to come here. I come over for their theater, art shows or just to take a walk on campus. It’s the students, my colleagues, the very mission of the University. Immaculata lives its mission and I have a 100-page document for Middle States to support that.”
Cuddy-Casey is co-chair with Barbara Gallagher, assistant professor of exercise science, of the Self-Study for the Middle States Accreditation Committee. “I see this as an opportunity to open communication, to make our measurements more objective about where we’re succeeding and where our weaknesses might be. If you don’t approach it as a learning experience, you’re missing the opportunity. Lots of time is invested in it and a great deal of weight is put on this task, but it has to be done. And if we don’t impose this kind of stress on ourselves, we won’t grow. And it’s not a thankless task. People express thanks to me all the time for my work on this. You really feel valued.”
Feeling valued and empowered is a theme that runs throughout Cuddy-Casey’s research on bullying, both traditional forms and cyber-bullying. When she first offered a one-credit class on the topic, she was stunned by the response. “I had 25 people here on a Friday night and a Saturday. I’m going to offer it again with both online and in-class sections.”
The course covers all forms of bullying and connects it with social psychology theory and research findings, where Cuddy-Casey sees a lack of information. “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg. Existing literature and prevention programs have not fully tackled the dynamics that allow bullying to happen. We need more research and intervention around bystanders, adult response and the more covert aspects to finally see fewer incidences. We need greater awareness for administrators, parents, and teachers. I want to push the field so we can cultivate the kind of awareness that won’t permit these situations to brew. It’s about the distribution of power, and empowering the bystander is the big key. I want to give bystanders the tools they need to defuse and extinguish the power of the bully.”
Cuddy-Casey’s other significant area of interest is the study of fatherhood. “There is very little positive research around fathers. I’m interested in either single fathers or fathers as the primary caregivers, but it can be difficult to get a handful of that target population that is willing to contribute to the research.”
When Cuddy-Casey tried recruiting from a fatherhood conference she attended, it became clear that asking for “at-home dads” to sign up for her study resulted in plenty of volunteers who thought she was looking simply for men who lived in the home with their children and were active and involved dads. “I realized that none of these men met the criteria for my research because they were not the primary caregiver, but I ended up calling all of them back just to learn more about them. It really opened my eyes to these empowered dads. They took their identity from the fact that they were involved fathers and were very proud of it. It was beautiful to learn about them.”
Cuddy-Casey will be eligible for sabbatical in the fall of 2014, and she is already thinking about potential projects. “I would like to integrate my ideas of programming, development, research and making a difference in the community, probably in the area of bullying and social skills, equipping kids to help other kids.”
“I love empowering my kids to do this. When they were in pre-school, we actually had a formal setup that we called Helping Hands, and the philosophy behind it was that, at some point, everyone needs a helping hand. I’d love to turn that into a non-profit one of these days, entirely kid-powered.”
Not surprisingly, Cuddy-Casey manages to synthesize the personal and the professional, the science and the spirit, with seamless grace. “In our social psych class we talk about generosity and how we all have needs—it’s not just about money and poverty. The smallest helpful gesture has a ripple effect. Just knowing that someone else in the world cares about you has amazing power.”