Tracy L. Cross started the fall 2009 semester with a new job and the surprise of a lifetime.
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Cross, William & Mary's new Jody & Layton Smith Professor of Psychology and executive director of the Center for Gifted Education, was awarded the Mensa Education & Research Foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award during a surprise presentation at a recent School of Education meeting.
According to the foundation, the award is presented to individuals who have "contributed a lifetime to scholarly pursuits in intelligence, giftedness or creativity." Since its inception in 1999, only seven individuals, including Cross, have received the award.
The foundation chose Cross for the award because of his "dedication to research in the field of gifted students over the span of 15 years," according to a press release.
During his career, Cross has become "the most active researcher in the world on the suicidal behavior of gifted students," the release said. He has written five books on the topic, and he has served as the editor of every research journal in the field of gifted education.
"The innovative research of Dr. Cross sheds light on an important issue, suicidal behavior, in the realm of gifted students," said Greg Timmers, president of the Mensa Education & Research Foundation. "He has worked tirelessly for the past 15 years in the area of intelligence and gifted students, which is the forefront focus of the Mensa Foundation. Dr. Cross deserves this award and we look forward to his future research."
Cross comes to the William & Mary from Ball State University, Ind., where he served since 1997, beginning as a professor of psychology at the school's Teachers College. In 2000, he became the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Gifted Studies and held that title throughout the rest of his tenure at the college.
While at Ball State, Cross also created and served as director of the doctoral program in educational psychology, executive director of the Institute for Research on the Psychology of Gifted Students and associate dean for graduate studies, research and assessment.
Prior to his work at Ball State, Cross worked as the executive director of the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities - a state-supported, residential school for academically gifted adolescents.
In addition to his lifetime achievement award, he has received numerous honors and accolades for his work throughout the years including several of the Mensa Education and Research Foundation's Outstanding Awards for Excellence in Research, Ball State University's Outstanding Researcher Award, the National Association for Gifted Children's Distinguished Service Award, and the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics & Humanities' John E. Worthen Outstanding Contributor to Education Award.
A native of Tennessee, Cross has been interested in gifted education since he was just four years old when he met the gifted brother of his best friend.
"I always kept an eye on this young guy," said Cross. "He was obviously extraordinarily bright. I watched him because I was around my friend all the time and how the world interacted with him was quite different."
Cross soon began watching other gifted individuals and how they interacted with the world when his family became involved in the art community.
"You know the world beats up people who are the least bit unorthodox," said Cross. "The art community ... I think there's some association between creativity and not being traditional. So some of them really struggled in their interpersonal lives in ways that piqued my interest."
Cross met even more gifted individuals after meeting his wife in high school and her family members.
"I was fascinated by the psychology of these people. Early on, I was just kind of immersed in it," said Cross.
Cross went to college at the University of Tennessee, where he earned a B.S., M.S., Ed.S., and Ph.D. degrees. During his time there, he was mentored by Larry Coleman, who introduced him to the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, including his book "Stigma."
"That gave me the language and the basic conception to think about that being gifted in American society can be stigmatizing because you're kind of characterized or seen as abhorrent," said Cross. "Rather than being seen as being a contributor in a special way, you can be seen in any number of ways that people project onto you."
After Cross left Tennessee for Ball State, he was asked by the dean of the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities to help the school stay open after its top administrator left abruptly. Cross' work with suicide and gifted children began at that school, where three students had committed suicide.
"We studied those children's lives and that made such a big impact on me," he said.
Over the past 15 years, Cross has written about half of what exists on the topic of suicide among gifted children, he said. Though Cross has broader interests than that - including a passion for humor - he said that since he's one of the very few who have researched it, he has to continue.
"Now, I just have to keep on doing this because I really feel like we can keep some kids alive," he said.
William & Mary
Cross became familiar with William & Mary at a very young age when he overheard his mother saying she had always wanted to go to the school. Though he later found out she had really said she wanted to go to Emory and Henry, the mistaken interpretation of his mother's words had sparked an interest in the College.
"I've always been a fan of William & Mary for a number of reasons," said Cross. "Its unique history, its ties to the U.K., ... its rigor, the fact that it's a public university. Professionally over the years, I got to know Joyce (VanTassel-Baska, former director of the gifted center) quite well, and we worked on a number of things together."
When VanTassel-Baska decided to retire in the summer, she encouraged Cross to consider the position.
"Knowing the reputation of William & Mary, and knowing the reputation of the center, in my opinion this is the best job in the field with one exception, and that exception would be to follow Joyce," Cross said. "Following her is like following Michael Jordan. I'm sure whoever followed Michael Jordan was a wonderful basketball player, but I can't name him."
Cross stepped into that position and the endowed chair professorship in August 2009. He intends on maintaining a strong emphasis on curriculum at the center. Cross said that the center will also continue to offer its outstanding summer and weekend programs for gifted children.
"All of those things are very important because there aren't that many advocates for gifted children," he said. "And for me, gifted education is a civil right. All it means is that gifted kids deserve an appropriate education, too."
Cross said that though he will maintain the center's traditional focus and programs, he also intends to expand its scope.
"What I think I'll add is more in the psychology area," he said. "I'm already moving toward that end in different ways, so we'll probably broaden some of services to include areas in the psychological realm that haven't been part of the center."
He also hopes to invite some of the brightest minds in the field of gifted education to spend time at the center on sabbatical. Additionally, he is working to have positions for post-doctoral fellows at the center at all times.
"Post-doctoral fellows tend to be very bright, very capable, highly energized people. If you bring them into an environment, it has a motivating effect on people," he said.
One new post-doctoral student at the center is Cross' wife Jennifer, a recent Ph.D. in psychology who has worked with him on various projects and research in the past and will continue to do so at the center. The couple has three sons and a daughter who now attends Jamestown High School. They also have a bulldog named Bob who may become a mascot for the center.
Though he has already been recognized for a "lifetime" of work by Mensa, Cross looks forward to all that he can accomplish now that he is part of the William & Mary family.
"Being an advocate for gifted kids is a strong part of my life, and I'm not going to change in that regard. I'm proud of it," he said. "And coming to William & Mary, this is one of the handful of universities in the entire country that has any level of commitment to gifted students, so to me, this is a perfect job."