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Psyched to Help

Wednesday, September 26, 2018
brandon smalls on campus

Recent grad makes a difference for teens with the College Advising Corps, plans on psychology career

Brandon Smalls '17, B.S. Neuroscience and Psychology

by Mary Denny

He sings. He dances. He juggles (he taught himself last year). He watches anime and reads manga, the highly stylized Japanese graphic novels. He has an uncanny memory of childhood TV shows. He’s Brandon Smalls, and he’s currently making a name for himself as a college adviser to low income high school students who hope to attend college.

Born in Killeen, Texas, to military parents—both were in the Army—Brandon grew up all over the United States. Deeply influenced by his parents and his grandmother—“some of the most caring and compassionate people I have ever met,” he says—and imbued with their strong work ethic, he originally dreamed of a career in law. Brandon’s focus changed while attending a health and engineering public magnet high school in Augusta, Ga. “I realized that pursuing law would allow me an opportunity to help people, but not in the way that I wanted,” he explains. Friendly, empathetic, and frequently sought out for his compassionate advice, Brandon considered his longtime interest in psychology and the medical field and concluded that psychiatry would be a good career. At Trinity, that goal changed again.

Psychology professor Kimberley Phillips, his adviser, helped him discover his love of neuroscience. “She also helped me learn how to critically analyze my own work to ensure the best product,” Brandon says. He did research with her for a year and says “she was always a joy to work with.” During his junior year, Brandon studied abroad in Copenhagen in the Danish Institute for Study Abroad’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Consciousness Program. “That was one of the most amazing/life-changing experiences of my life,” he says. So much so that he began looking for graduate schools abroad.

Despite his rigorous science curriculum, Brandon participated wholeheartedly in campus activities. He sang in the Trinity Choir for four years, which he says “gave me so much confidence to be unapologetically me.” He credits choir director Gary Seighman with encouraging him to step outside his comfort zone when singing. “He would always say, ‘If you are going to mess up a note, mess up loudly so we know what needs to be fixed,’” Brandon remembers. When Brandon wasn’t singing or studying, he might be found demonstrating another talent. As a three-year member of the Latin Dance Society, he participated in a number of dance showcases. He also participated in other dance groups and showcases that celebrated Diwali, Lunar New Year, and Momentum, among others.

After four tough undergraduate years, Brandon considered taking a gap year or two before entering graduate school. He wasn’t sure what that would entail but knew he wanted to do something “impactful.” When he received an email from the chair of the psychology department outlining an opportunity to work with a chapter of the College Advising Corps (CAC) based at Trinity, he “hopped on it.” A non-profit organization that places recent college graduates in underserved high schools to help and inspire students to navigate the path to college, CAC deals with everything from FAFSA/TASFA, college application forms, and preparing for the SAT and ACT, to finding and understanding financial aid. For the last year, Brandon has worked with students at Sam Houston High School in San Antonio. “My students are my favorite part of this job,” he says cheerfully. He loves seeing their excitement about their next steps and watching them grow as the school year goes on. “It’s hard to describe, but it’s a special kind of feeling you get when you watch someone become a stronger self-advocate for him/herself and you know you had a part to play in that,” he says. “I also love talking about their hopes and dreams for the future. It really makes me happy to see so many people with dreams and goals.”

Brandon’s success as a CAC adviser has not gone unnoticed. Recently the national organization, in collaboration with College Board, featured him in a promotional video with Joseph, one of his students who raised his SAT score by 310 points in the span of two and a half months thanks to Brandon’s guidance and encouragement.  “When working with my kids,” he reveals, “I most often say, ’I believe in you.’”  

Although Brandon loves working with his students, he’s not planning on a career in college access. He hopes to pursue his passion for improving mental health and plans to attend graduate school next year, with the goal of becoming a clinical psychologist. In this field, Brandon  will continue to abide by his family charge: “If you are going to do something, you might as well try to do your best at it.” But as he moves ahead in his career, he will also cherish his Trinity years. Although there were many great memories, he says his favorite collection of them were the ones when he sat around with friends and talked about where they came from, their feelings, or just life in general. “Those moments hold a special place in my heart,” he says fondly.

You can contact Brandon at brandonsmalls359 [at] gmail.com