First-Generation Success Story: Dr. George-Harold Jennings

Dr. George-Harold Jennings, Associate Professor of Psychology and Staff Psychologist at Drew University

  • Follow Your Bliss.
  • Connect with Something Greater than Yourself.
  • Listen to Your Intuition. Be Open.
  • Ask for Help.

“Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
― Joseph Campbell

I sat down with Dr. Jennings to discuss his life and learn how his journey to success was informed by being the first in his family to pursue higher education.  His intellect, kindness, and deep spirituality are evident in his teaching, counseling, and friendships. He encourages the development of resilience, courage, and independence, and believes in being open to the universe and its many opportunities for growth. He proposes we explore a spiritual connection with the world, in however way you choose to define it.  In the end, he recommends we seek something greater than ourselves.  Dr. Jennings also believes that if we follow our intuition, our values, and the things we love, we will tap into the great potential within us.  You grow as you are nurtured, by others and yourself.

Where were you born and raised? 

Jersey City, NJ

Where were your parents born and raised?  

In South Carolina.  They moved up to Jersey City in the 1940’s.

Do you have siblings?  What are they doing today?

My oldest sibling crossed-over.  She was a lead teacher with the Jersey City Board of Education and an Adjunct Professor in Special Education at New Jersey City University.   My younger sister, the valedictorian of her high school class, was an engineering student at Stevens Institute of Technology for two years before I encouraged her to transfer to Drew to study the liberal arts and major in chemistry.  She works for the Port Authority and NY/NJ Water Commission today; my brother who is younger than me went to Monmouth University for 2 years. He is an Entrepreneur.

Did your parents encourage you to go to college?  If so, how did they encourage you? 

My mother only went up to 9th grade and my father only 3rd grade.  My parents knew about high school but not much about college. When I told them I wanted to go to college full time, they were surprised.  They thought I would work after I graduated high school.  An older male cousin worked at a post office and took courses at night, so that is how most people in my family believed people pursued an education. My father did not tell me directly but told other people he did not understand why I wanted to go to college full time.  I tried to explain to him that if I went to school full time I would finish sooner and that I would not be asking him for money.  I explained that I could take out loans in my own name and the cost of college would never fall on my parents and that I would have my own spending money.  For two years I commuted to Saint Peter’s College (now known as Saint Peter’s University) in Jersey City, and I did not contribute to the household. Then I decided to transfer from Saint Peter’s College to Drew University.  After one year at Drew I went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania which shared cross-registration with the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, and Bryn Mawr College, but I realized that completing my degree there would take me longer so I came back to Drew.

In my last term of high school, a teacher spoke to me about college for the first time.  I knew about colleges but I did not think about applying until this teacher recommended I apply.  I went to a college fair at Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City, in walking distance from my house, and that’s when I found out you needed a considerable amount of money to go to college.  Representatives from Saint Peter’s said they would help me with finances and I was able to enroll.

Were you a good student?

In elementary school I was a classic daydreamer. Instead of doing my schoolwork, I drew pictures. I had the heart and drawing skills of an artist, and a strong sense of aesthetics.   I did not pay attention in school.  My mother was concerned and she had my cousin try to work with me.  My mother was determined that I was going to read.  My neighbor had a Sally, Dick and Jane book called Look.    She gave me that book and with it, I learned to read. My older sister played school with my younger sister and me.  She loved playing the role of a teacher and giving us homework.  Every teacher said I was a daydreamer.  They were giving standardized tests and when I was in 4th grade I must have scored well because one teacher said,

“Do you remember the test you took? How come you did so well?”, she stated with a great deal of surprise. She had questioned my intelligence and this question stayed with me for many years.  When I was older I checked my scores and found out I had tested at a nearly 8th grade reading level in 4th grade. Yet, in 5th grade I was still placed in a classroom row meant for less intelligent students, the “slow row.”  In spite of this, there were still moments that instilled a sense of confidence in me. Let me give you some background – In my 7th grade there was a boy in class who was the pride of the elementary school, the representative for our spelling bee, and the eventual valedictorian of our graduating class.  He was the only youth accepted to the elite St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey.  He eventually went on to Princeton University.  In the 7th grade my class was given an assignment to read about Frederick Douglass. I procrastinated doing the assignment until the night before the paper was due.  With little time left to complete the assignment, I felt inspired to draw several pictures of Frederick Douglas from his childhood all the way up to when he was an older man. On the bottom of each page of the 10 or so pictures, I wrote a poetic line that was unique to each drawing.  Although I was still a daydreamer and barely an average student in the class, the teacher called me and this other exemplary student up to the front of the class and said we both had amazing papers for Black History Month.  She sent us to the principal of the school with a note proclaiming how well we had done, and to receive further praise from him for our reports.  Realizing I could be as good as this other student made me feel good about myself.

Another incident happened in 3rd grade during a Junior Fire Marshall event. You could win a button if you drew a good picture but to get a fireman’s hat you had to write a good paper.  I drew a picture and wrote my paper, and I was the only student in the class to earn a button and fireman’s hat.  Then in 8th grade, they had another Junior Fire Marshal contest which was open to students in the higher grades of the elementary school.  In order to win, students had to create a project. I used clay to create different rooms and characters in a doll house that I made out of cardboard. I also wrote a poem describing what was taking place in each room of the house, and won the contest’s grand prize. When it was time for high school, my elementary teachers recommended that the visiting high school counselors put me in the industrial arts track which included classes like industrial art, metal shop, wood shop (one of the best courses I ever had because I made my mom a lamp and table), and basic math and science.  In high school teachers began to question why I was on that track.  Finally, a science teacher at the end of my freshman year of high school recognized my potential and facilitated my move to a college prep track.   I then became a good student because now I was interested in what I was studying, and was also intellectually challenged. I began to do my homework.

Where did you go to high school?

Snyder High School in Jersey City.  I graduated in 1971.

 Did you know what you wanted to major in during your first year at Drew?  

I knew I wanted to study psychology.

 Did you know what you intended to do with your major?

I wanted to be a psychotherapist.  It did not cross my mind to be a psychology professor until someone in grad school suggested it.

 How was your experience in college/grad school?

I felt I was walking my path alone. I felt my family and friends were watching closely, to see if this college thing was going to work out.  One of the most beautiful things was seeing how my father became an advocate of higher education.  In the barber shop, where many African-American men congregate to talk and socialize, if young men walked in, he would ask them if they were in school or going to college.  He would say, “You need to go to grad school!” My father went from confusion about my desire to go to college full time to being an advocate and proponent of higher education.

What were your greatest challenges as an undergrad?

I wanted to follow my own calling and creativity. So, weighing the decision or not to take creative risks.  I knew sometimes this would result in a lower grade, but fortunately, a few professors valued my unique approach.  One professor, my Drew academic advisor in particular, would sometimes tell people, “keep your eye on George-Harold.”

What surprised you the most about college?

I loved the freedom and that it was mentally stimulating.  I also felt I was in my element and felt at home.

Were you conscious that you were a First-Gen student?

Yes, actually, I was very aware of two things – 1. That my experience walking the higher educational path was lonely for a long time. I was concerned that my relatives and friends back home might believe I thought I was better than them (as it turned out, they did not).   2. Hardly anyone who taught me in college looked like me and this bothered me.  I only had one black professor in all of my years of college, and he was an adjunct professor who was working on his PhD at Princeton University.  He was hired by Drew to teach a course in black history.  I remember taking many courses where my professors were talking about the contributions of members of various ethnic groups and nationalities, but rarely were the scholars mentioned or studied of African descent.  I often wondered if this was the case because too few black people attended college and/or were unable to overcome the challenges that stood in the way of their success.  I was determined to finish college and contribute to psychology.

How did being First-Gen manifest itself in the way you handled college?

I just thought I would make a contribution and be different.  I wanted to hang in there.

Were your parents able to pay for your college or did you depend on scholarships, grants and student loans?

My parents were blue collar workers, and made barely enough money to run our household, but they managed to do a good job. Scholarships, grants, loans, work-study and whatever few dollars my parents could come up with paid for my education.

Did you find yourself socializing with other First-Gens and did you feel a sense of community?

I socialized with a mix of people and I did feel a sense of community.

Did you have a mentor(s) as an undergrad?

The brilliant Philip K. Jensen, PhD, and Drew University Professor Emeritus saw something in me and was eager to share it with me and with others publicly.

What could have made your experience as an undergrad better?

I did not learn nearly enough about the African-American experience.  My education was Eurocentric not multi-cultural, but keep in mind I attended college in the 1970’s.

How was your experience in grad school (Penn State) for your MS and Ph.D in clinical psychology?

I had an excellent experience in grad school.  My program of study was renowned globally, and it featured multiple world class teachers and research scholars.  My experience in grad school prepared me for my appointment as a Fellow in clinical Psychology at Yale School of Medicine.

What was your first teaching job?

I completed my PhD in psychology at 28 and Drew University was my first and only teaching job.

What is your area of research?

Personality theory, psychopathology, Afro-centric psychology and transpersonal/spiritual psychology.

What do you believe is the secret or recipe for your success?

My faith in God.

 How did you learn resiliency?

I discovered resiliency and independence at the age of 4 ½ years old when I was in kindergarten.  My mother worked until midnight and went to sleep at 3 a.m. so in the morning she was too tired to walk me to school.  Knowing she was tired, I told my mother that I could walk myself to school.  Although at one point along the way, I wondered should I only walk to school with my mother by my side, I managed to do it on my own, and gained more confidence in myself. Another incident that demonstrated resiliency and independence also occurred in kindergarten. When the teacher said it was playtime, it energized the whole class. The boys and girls would jump up and run around acting wild.  I remember sitting at my desk and looking at the boys and girls and feeling bewildered about what to do and then I got up and walked over to the small classroom library and pulled out a puzzle and a book and walked back to my desk.  I felt perfectly comfortable being by myself not joining in with the others. To this day, I do not necessarily feel the impulse to join in, but enjoy staying by myself and reflecting.  I learned that I could rely on myself.  This is how I was able to do the London, England semester at Drew.  I had a strong sense of independence.  The day my family took me to JFK airport for the flight to London, England was memorable for us all.  After saying our departing good-byes, I walked the long corridor that led to the plane.  I kept moving forward, I never turned around to look at my family members as I approached the plane.  I knew my mother was probably crying but I felt I was heading forward towards my future, and so I had to look forward.  Although in that moment I did not look back, over the course of my life since then, I often look back, both at my past experiences, and into my ethnic and cultural history.  I embrace the Ghanaian concept and symbol of Sankofa that many African-Americans view as representing the need to reflect on the past in order to build a successful future, and so I do look back, but still I continue to feel that I have to look forward and go forward in life.

What do you think is the most important characteristic of a successful person?

There is not one thing.  Different things strengthen different people.  For me it’s a combination of faith in God and a willingness to follow my bliss, be creative and be independent and willing to walk the path by myself. I also believe my family is the foundation for my success providing a strong support system.

What advise could you give First Generation students who are just starting college?

I believe humans are in essence spiritual beings, I like the idea of following your bliss, following what makes you happy, what inspires you in that way.  There is no substitute for a spiritual connection with the world, with something greater than yourself.  I don’t know what it means to you, for some it’s God, for some a higher energy, a higher realm, a source, the cosmos or an ineffable awareness. I believe the universe speaks to us when we’re open to it.  People who arrive at the right moment.  We should all be open to it.  It’s a great unfolding of a play that we’re a part of it.  Listen to the voices.  People will come into your life.  Speak to them.  Follow your intuition.  If you are troubled and burdened and cut off from yourself, it will be hard to do, but with help, it can be done.  You must seek self-actualization.  The organism that you are has a way of knowing.  You plant a seed, you don’t plant a flower. You plant it and expect or hope that it gets what it needs, sunlight, water, nurturing, etc.  You hope it becomes something bigger. If it gets the nurturing it needs it will be a great flower.  We should be sunshine and water, nurturing not only ourselves, but others.  Even though I may not have had as much nurturing as I could have had growing up, it was enough. My mom encouraging me to read, teachers occasionally praising my work, etc. I was then able to grow.

 Some fun questions:

Do you have any hobbies or special interests you would like to share?

Yes, exploring modern technological devices, especially in audio and visual areas.    Aesthetics are also important to me. I can make a room look like it was done by a professional interior decorator, and I can still draw, even though I rarely do so.

What do you like the most about teaching?

Having students resonate with my message. I love turning the light in them brighter.  When they seem lit up, I know that’s why I do this.

 What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?

I would like to be a cosmologist but being a transpersonal psychologist is pretty nice as well.

If you could travel to anywhere in the world tomorrow where would it be?

The Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon, Washington, and Vancouver, Canada.

 Favorite time of year and why?

October, because it is my birthday month and fall in NJ (here in the town of Madison, and on the Drew campus) is the most beautiful time of the year.


Dr. George-Harold Jennings is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Staff Psychologist at Drew University’s McClintock Center for Counseling and Psychological Services and the author of PASSAGES BEYOND THE GATE. He is a member of the Association of Transpersonal Psychology (ATP) Board of Directors. The ATP is an international coordinating organization for scientific, social, and clinical transpersonal work that serves the world community.  Dr. Jennings researches how Jungian psychology helped pave the way for the discipline of psychology’s growing acknowledgement of the usefulness, if not need, for spirituality in our lives. He has also studied the relationship (emphasizing the similarities and the differences) between spirituality and mental illness. Dr. Jennings graduated with a B.A. in Psychology from Drew University, and an M.S., and PhD from Penn State University in University Park, PA.  He was an NIMH fellow, and later a pre-doctoral fellow in clinical psychology at Yale School of Medicine.

Areas of expertise and interest: Personality theory, African centered psychology, similarities and differences between spirituality and mental illness, spiritual or transpersonal psychology

He holds the viewpoint that humans are in essence spiritual beings, and he embraces the philosophical and emerging scientific knowledge that supports this perspective.  George-Harold’s love of science and spirituality are captured in his writings in which he argues scientific and spiritual viewpoints will need to be fully integrated in order for American psychology to become a complete psychology of the person.


Yasmin Acosta coordinates the Arts, Communications, & Languages Career Community and the First Generation Identity/Affinity Community. She also manages the Peer Career Coaching Program, counsels and advises students on career, job, and internship plans, critiques resumes, cover letters, CVs, and personal statements, and presents career development workshops. She also assists with the Student Employment program.  Prior to this position Yasmin was the Program Coordinator for Drew University’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Psychology from Rutgers University, a Master’s degree in Arts & Letters (Literary Studies) from Drew University, and is pursuing a Master of Education also at Drew.



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