Neuropsychologist, Councilmember, University President and Terp: There’s not much Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis doesn’t have on her resume. Her widespread experience across many different fields makes Jarvis an ideal choice to deliver the commencement address for the Department of Psychology this spring.

Jarvis, a fourth generation Washington, D.C. resident, chose to enroll in the neuropsychology Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland in 1966 because of the university’s proximity to her family and the program’s reputation for being competitive and robust.

Despite the struggles of earning a degree while caring for a husband and two young children, Jarvis excelled in the program. She studied under Dr. William Hodos, a University of Maryland Professor Emeritus who will be retiring this year, in his lab at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

This valuable learning experience taught her about the pigeon midbrain structures that control eye movements and the techniques required to ablate parts of animals’ brains in order to assess the procedure’s effects on those eye movements. “The introduction I got under Dr. Hodos at the University of Maryland prepared me for the research I would subsequently do at NIH,” she said.

Dr. Jarvis was awarded pre-and post-doctoral fellowships in the Laboratory of Neurosychology at the National Institutes of Mental Health where she researched the visual systems of primates for about seven years.

“I not only used the technique of ablation which I learned at the University of Maryland, I also performed biochemical assays to determine the anatomical pathways of the visual system in the brain; and I also learned the technique of single cell recording in the brain,” she explained. “It was the University of Maryland that prepared me to do those kinds of additional techniques.”

Although she loved her research position, Jarvis eventually longed to have a more direct influence on the Washington, D.C. community that is so close to her heart. “I was drawn to some of the more immediate problems of the city where I was born--Washington, D.C.,” she said. “Every morning that I drove from Washington to the ivory tower of NIH, I was wondering if I shouldn’t be doing something that had some more immediate effects on the lives of people in our city.”

Jarvis taking oath
Jarvis taking oath as Councilmember with her two sons.

This desire prompted her to move into politics--a field that, in her opinion, could use more solution-oriented scientists. Jarvis said at this time, the city was not doing its best to help create jobs and employ residents. “Many businesses had left and continued to leave the city after the riots following the death of Martin Luther King. Many residents had left and continued to leave the city. So I asked myself how I could make a contribution to rebuilding the financial and economic strengths of Washington, D.C.?”

Jarvis was elected to the Council of the District of Columbia in 1979. She used her time on the Council as the Chair of the Economic Development Committee to help create a foundation for economic recovery in the city through initiatives that had economic benefits. Her favorite accomplishments include, “The Housing Production Trust Fund, the building of the Convention Center, tax increment financing, using the industrial revenue bond process to support nonprofit organizations, and legislatively determining that banks had to put resources in underserved areas of the community.”

Jarvis was on the Council for 17 years when she was approached by a representative from Southeastern University, a YMCA-founded university in southwest Washington, D.C. Jarvis was so interested in the school’s mission to teach practical business skills that she agreed to become president of the university, spending the next four years both as a member of the Council and the president of Southeastern University.

Although she had no experience in higher education administration, Jarvis said she was surprisingly not nervous to take on such a large responsibility. “I was just confident because I simply saw the partnership that could be created with the small businesses in a city that really needed to learn about business planning,” she said.

Before Jarvis--the school’s first woman president--took over, Southeastern University was struggling to stay afloat. However, she managed to resolve the school’s debt and enrollment issues, and it began thriving again.

“I initially did not see how really important that presidency would be,” Jarvis said. “In my years on the Council, I had discovered many small-, minority-, and women-owned businesses had presidents and CEOs who knew their business, but didn’t understand the human resource or financial management aspects of business. I thought operating the university was a great way to help those businesses acquire the skills to improve and compete.”

13 years later, Jarvis initiated a merger between Southeastern University and the USDA graduate school in order to provide the USDA with an accredited institution for its continuing-education students.

Jarvis with celebrities
From left: Oprah Winfrey, Charlene Drew Jarvis, Kristen Jarvis, Michelle Obama

Jarvis stepped down after the schools merged, but as one could guess, she has not let retirement stop her from working to improve her community. She currently sits on the boards of Oberlin College and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), and she is a Founding Director of the Institute of Policy Politics and History at UDC. She is also part of the Federal City Council’s Housing Conservancy and has taken on a number of important tasks as requested by Mayor Muriel Bowser, including the most recent opportunity to help make the selection of the new Chancellor of the Public Schools for the District of Columbia.

In her rare free time, she enjoys going to the theater or going to seminars with her husband, a retired pediatrician, and spending time in their summer cottage in Annapolis with grandchildren.

Jarvis stayed motivated throughout her career because of the words of her father, surgeon and blood bank pioneer, Dr. Charles R. Drew. “He always said to us and to his medical students that excellence in performance would overcome any artificial barriers created by men,” Jarvis explained. “I always had a desire for excellence, and I also have an energy level, a drive, that makes me want to keep very active.”

Jarvis strives to instill this motivation in others. She advises the graduating seniors to “take the knowledge they have and enrich the organizations with whom they work in a way that builds communities.”

When asked about her words of wisdom for psychology graduates specifically, Jarvis explained, “Psychologists are people who understand motivation, drive, the biological basis of behavior and the way people operate in groups. We are the people who know about behavior-- what controls, it, what impairs it, what improves it. We are a very necessary part of living successfully.”

Charlene Drew Jarvis with Obama