Psychology professor Patricia Smiley to retire after 33-year teaching career

A professor talks.
Patricia Smiley has taught at Pomona College for 33 years in the Department of Psychological Science. (Courtesy: Patricia Smiley)

After decades at Pomona College, Professor of Psychological Science Patricia Smiley will teach her final courses this year. Retiring after serving 33 years teaching in Claremont, Smiley will be remembered for both her contributions to students’ learning and her presence beyond the classroom, students said.

“I was completely floored by the amount of dedication, persistence, effort and overall engagement that Professor Smiley creates in the classroom,” Aashna Saraf PO ’21 said. Saraf, a recent graduate, worked closely with Smiley in the AMH-Care Lab, an intercollegiate collaboration between Pomona and Claremont McKenna College. 

Smiley has taught multiple courses over her long tenure at Pomona, with her most popular courses including child development, statistics in psychology, socio-emotional development and the senior seminar. She also served as associate dean of the college and was chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences from 2007 to 2008.

Smiley is not only known for her contributions to psychological literature but also as a mentor to her students. 

“She was just always there supporting me, cheering me on,” Saraf said. “So much so that she actually had a pitch competition with me, and we ended up raising money for the app for my thesis project, which actually funded the entire development process.”

Her interest in developmental psychology stemmed from her interest in understanding how families operate. 

“You know, I was just interested in communication … that back and forth,” Smiley said. “And I guess I spent my whole life thinking about it and then studying and teaching it.”

After studying educational psychology at the University of Chicago, Smiley applied her learnings to her classrooms by practicing innovative ways of learning. She believes that the most profitable form of education is active learning. 

“Active learning means trying to make the reading you do, the activities you do, connect with … experience and knowledge you already have,” she said. “I just think that that is the best way to build knowledge.” 

Students said Smiley impacted their lives by teaching them skills that go beyond just those on a class syllabus. 

“She taught me that sometimes the best way to take care of others can also be applied to yourself,” Luke Williams PO ’23 said.

Smiley believes that teaching has been one of the most gratifying experiences of her life. 

“I think the most rewarding thing is that I’ve grown doing it, so I’m a very different teacher now than I was,” Smiley said. “I feel that I’ve been able to incorporate my experience and my personality in my teaching, more and more, over the years, and the exciting thing about doing it is watching students get excited about things that I find interesting.” 

But students also recognized her strength at building teacher-student relationships.

“She was also very concerned about what’s happening in your life, as opposed to just what’s happening in class,” Saraf said. “She ensured that you brought your whole self to work and to class so that you could properly engage, and she always made accommodations and adjustments accordingly.”

From serving on the writing committee to the Student Affairs committee, Smiley has influenced students beyond her department. Within her department, students say she has cared for her students by going above and beyond the duties of her role as a mentor.

In one instance, Smiley realized the seniors she was mentoring during the thesis-writing process were feeling overwhelmed.

“Smiley said, ‘I feel like you guys need something to cuddle. Like, do you have something to cuddle?’ And the following Thursday she came in with basically a sign-up sheet with all different kinds of pillow pets,” Anna Sipowicz PO ’22 said. 

Even in the pandemic, the unprecedented circumstances didn’t hinder her teaching. 

“It seemed like in the remote setting that students were able to kind of grapple with less at a time.” Smiley said. “So I started thinking about the form of modules, like three or four little things, little lessons that I wanted to do in each class period.” 

Smiley intends to continue with writing projects over the next couple of years, such as studying longitudinal datasets of families during COVID-19. In addition to that, she has begun training as a psychological therapist. As she departs, she said she’s leaving behind two main sentiments: first, gratitude for the wonderful staff and students that she has worked with, especially the faculty that have retired recently. Second, she hopes that Pomona finds a talented successor who carries on her teaching in developmental psychology. 

“I hope that the Department of Psychological Science hires a fantastic developmental psychologist because it is such an important area of work and learning,” Smiley said. “That would be a happy legacy for me.”

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