As she drove onto campus on a cold October morning, Hopkins alumna Dr. Candice Norcott ’97 felt an overwhelming sense of connection with the school that played an important role in the person she has become.
“I just remember feeling really safe here,” said Norcott. “That kind of feeling doesn’t leave you no matter how long it’s been.”
Coincidentally, feeling safe enough to be oneself amidst social and cultural pressures was one of the many topics Norcott came to Hopkins to discuss.
A licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, Norcott returned to her old stomping grounds to deliver a short but impactful presentation that centered on navigating power dynamics in relationships. Norcott—who has committed her professional career to promoting greater inclusivity in the field of psychology—speaks nationally and internationally on issues related to trauma, gender, and race. In recent years, she has gained wide attention, having been featured in both seasons of the Lifetime docu-series Surviving R. Kelly and as a recurring guest on Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk.
At a special assembly in the Athletic Center before the entire student body, Norcott discussed how to identify the healthy and unhealthy elements of friendships and how they affect our lives. By using humor, pop culture references, and simple diagrams, Candice was able to expertly distill complex and advanced concepts into a relatable language that resonated well with students across grade levels. This presentation style was deliberate.
“If you talk to adolescents about things like power and control in relationships, they may not grasp the full scope of what those concepts mean, but when you begin discussing the ideas of empowerment and what it means to be your authentic self, they begin to share their own experiences and start to put the pieces together themselves,” she said.
Norcott honed her speaking skills as a Hopkins student. As class president, she wrote and delivered weekly assembly speeches in front of the whole school, a responsibility she loved and took seriously. She said she prepared for this assembly the same way she used to prepare for the old ones: knowing her subject matter inside and out, but delivering the information in a conversational and authentic tone.
Despite it being nearly 25 years since those student council assemblies, standing at the podium before current Hopkins students, Norcott felt as if no time had passed at all.
“The smells in the Athletic Center were exactly the same,” she laughed. “All the memories came rushing back.”
Norcott’s presentation clearly struck a chord, as the voluntary Q & A sessions that followed overflowed with students eager to keep the discussion going. Questions ranged from how to help a friend who is struggling in a relationship to how to manage depression and anxiety, and how to affect positive change to make the school environment more inclusive and welcoming. Reflecting on these conversations, Norcott was impressed by the quality of the dialogue.
“Students of this generation are already thinking about how they’re feeling and there is clearly a lot of awareness of where they are in their own lives and their own development. At the same time, they recognize that there are still emotional tasks they need to take care of and a lot of them approach these tasks the same way they approach academics.”
Norcott’s own sense of self began to form at Hopkins in the mid 1990s. As she put it, she was “confident in some ways and engaged in adolescent angst and insecurity in others,” but was a driven student. In addition to her work on the Student Council, she was an active athlete playing multiple sports, and became involved in any school program that allowed her to explore different aspects of her developing self. When speaking before the Hopkins class, Norcott couldn’t help but smile as she shared photos on the basketball court or proudly boasted that it was the Student Council she led that created the first ever Back to School Bash, an annual tradition at Hopkins that continues today.
In fact, the smiles of others are what she remembers most about Hopkins.
“I felt so comfortable speaking with any adult around campus whether it be a teacher or popping in to see Don Bagnall for a chat. What sticks out to me is that I was always greeted with a warm grin from everyone, and no matter what issue I was dealing with, I felt seen.”
Even with a solid foundation built at Hopkins, Norcott struggled to form what she calls a true identity. This issue manifested itself when she entered her freshman year at Brown University.
“I knew how to write and I knew how to study. I could set a goal and accomplish it. Academically, I didn’t feel limitations. But socially, when I stepped onto a college campus, it seemed like everyone had already developed their elevator pitch about who they were and had already decided what they wanted to be. There was a lot of insecurity there.”
This obstacle and the lessons learned in the process helped inspire Norcott in her own professional life as she set out to study relational psychology. The life experience combined with her professional growth made her well-suited to help today’s Hopkins students with their own struggles. Norcott said she left the Q & A sessions inspired but it was also a painful reminder that part of the struggle of growing up is going through difficult obstacles that can challenge one’s identity. For example, when someone is trying to fit into a peer group, they may make decisions for the wrong reasons. To confront these challenges, Norcott encourages students to first define their own value system.
“So often, at a young age, we behave for acceptance. It’s so important to connect with yourself before you connect with others to consider whether or not your own decisions are being made in accordance with your own value system,” said Norcott. While all problems can’t be solved by a one-day visit, Norcott felt hopeful that simply beginning to have these conversations with students could spark a greater dialogue.
“When I was a student, it didn’t feel like there was room for these kinds of conversations. Today, students are having conversations about mindfulness, about being grounded in one’s values, and about overcoming challenging relational dynamics. It’s a step in the right direction even if we all have a lot more work to do,” said Norcott.This article appears in the Winter 2021–2022 issue of VIEWS