Sam Sommers has made a name for himself as a passionate and experienced professor and researcher in the psychology department at Tufts, and was named department chair last year. But he didn’t always know this was the path he would go down.
“I went to college to be an English and Spanish major, I didn’t know anything about psychology,” Sommers said.
He developed his interest for the subject in an introductory course early in his college career.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s the course that changed my life as a student,” Sommers said.
Sommers has taught Tufts’ own introductory psychology course for many semesters. Although he’s not teaching it this fall, Sommers said Introduction to Psychology is his favorite class to teach. It’s often students’ first foray into psychology or, even more generally, into the social sciences, and he said he loves being able to share it with them.
“It’s an opportunity to introduce, for the very first time, people to this way of thinking and this scientific approach,” Sommers said. “Teaching that course, introducing students to the field is really exciting.”
In general, Sommers enjoys teaching psychology because of its relevance to everyone.
“It’s the science of everyday life. So we’re talking about issues related to why you’re having trouble sleeping during the current crisis, or why it is that your friends act one way when they’re in a group and a different way when they’re by themselves,” Sommers said.
Sommers has been teaching at Tufts for 18 years. He said he was initially drawn to Tufts because it has the feeling of a small liberal arts college with the resources of a large research university.
“To me, Tufts combines the best of both academic worlds,” Sommers said.
This desire for the best of both worlds came from Sommers’ own path of education. He was an undergraduate at Williams College, a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, and obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, a large research university. He described Tufts as a happy medium that has elements from both of the schools he attended.
“It’s always, for me, sort of hit the sweet spot of being the best of both of those worlds,” Sommers said.
Even though this year presents unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic, Sommers is looking forward to beginning his 18th year at Tufts, albeit in a new environment.
“I’m excited to be back in whatever way it is that we’re back,” Sommers said.
As chair of the psychology department, Sommers has administrative responsibilities in addition to teaching. He shared his excitement for new programming the department has set up this year, including a talk from Chryl Laird, a researcher at Bowdoin College who studies issues related to African American voting identity, and a new series in the spring on the psychology of anti-racism.
Beyond his work leading the department, Sommers is also teaching two courses this semester: Social Psychology and The Science of Coping, a special topics course on the science of dealing with COVID-19, co-taught by psychology Professor Lisa Shin.
“I get to come to work every day and have conversations about interesting issues with interesting people and that’s supposed to be work, that’s supposed to be a job. That’s pretty cool, that’s a great job,” Sommers said.
Sommers has confidence in Tufts’ COVID-19 plan, but he recognizes that the regulations Tufts has set up for the semester present difficulties to students and faculty alike in college communities.
“It used to be easy to be a community … at Tufts, you just walked out of your door. And so now we actually have to be more proactive about that, we have to try to connect with each other,” Sommers said. “It takes effort and it takes initiative and I think that’s the biggest challenge for us.”
However, he commended Tufts students, and our greater generation, for our flexibility in this unprecedented moment.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that today’s kids are lazy or are anti-social or have no sense of responsibility,” Sommers said. “Give yourselves a pat on the back for being resilient enough to even just get here, and now to continue with what we’re doing.”
The Class of 2024 is proving especially resilient as it makes a major life adjustment in an extremely difficult time. As a word of advice, Sommers urges first-years to take full advantage of their college experiences, as it can be a unique opportunity to try new things and reach new individuals.
“Do something on a regular basis that’s outside of your comfort zone,” Sommers said.