Interview with Dr. David Ramirez, Director of Psychological Services

Dr. David Ramirez, Director of Psychological services at Swarthmore, recently returned to his hometown of San Antonio to give the fifth Annual Frank Paredes Lecture. Ramirez is the president of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Psychoanalysis, and the Frank Paredes lecture is sponsored by local members of the group in memory of one of their deceased colleagues. In San Antonio, Ramirez presented a paper titled “A Cultural Inheritance: The ‘Mojado’ Immigrant Roots of My Psychoanalytic Identity.” We sat down with him to discuss homecoming and home at Swarthmore.

DG: What was it like being back home?

DR: It was awesome! I had been very nervous about it because I spent my childhood and my adolescence there and then kind of ran away from San Antonio after high school.

My hosts greeted me at the door to the lecture hall, and they said to me, “Oh, it’s so great that there are so many people here, and it’s so great that your uncle came!” I hadn’t expected my uncle to come, or any of my relatives, but when I got inside, I saw that my father’s oldest brother was there with his wife and my cousins. This made the whole thing extra-interesting, because the things I was saying in the paper were reflections on my experience growing up Mexican-American, especially about some of the conflicts and difficulties that had occurred, including conflict over language use. So suddenly here’s my uncle, and it’s all very real. It’s not just like, “Oh, I remember my childhood,” but he remembers my childhood too, and so do my aunt and my cousins.

It was a very difficult paper to write but a very satisfying one to give, and the question and answer period was marked by the surprising presence of several people. There were two brothers there who were younger brothers of a childhood friend of mine. My friend had died when he was twenty-nine, but I knew his entire family, so his brothers were there, and they had some interesting things to say. Another friend from college—I graduated college in 1973, so quite a while ago—he was there, and he had good observations as well. Ultimately, at the very end, my uncle stood up, and declared, “I’m eighty-seven years old,” and he went on to say something very nice about me, so it was awesome. On a professional level, I did what I had planned to do and it was well-received; on a personal level, it went way beyond anything I had imagined, so that’s what made it great.

DG: So you hadn’t been back to San Antonio for how long?

DR: I was last back in around 1998. My father had to move away because he couldn’t live on his own anymore, and so my brothers and I went back to clean out our childhood home. I hadn’t actually lived there since 1971.

DG: How did you end up in Swarthmore?

DR: I studied for my doctorate at the University of Texas in Austin, and part of getting your doctoral degree involves an internship. It just so happened that when it was time for me to get my internship, my wife was interested in getting her MFA from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. The idea of leaving Texas was also very exciting to me. We moved here thinking we would be here for two years, but things happened and I ended up working for Temple, Penn, and Haverford before I got the director job here in 1994. I love this job so much that I just find it inconceivable to be anywhere else at this point.

DG: On that note, what is a typical day like at your job here?

DR: You can break down my domains of activity as follows: I see students for psychotherapy, I train and supervise doctoral students, I consult with faculty or staff about concerns— for example, this morning I spent an hour with the Career Services people about an experience they had with a much older alum who came in and was in the throes of a breakdown— and as president of the Division of Psychoanalysis, I engage in activity relating to the APA.

DG: I’m curious about the psychoanalysis. In your interview with the San Antonio Express, you said your graduate program disparaged psychoanalysis, so how did you end up president of the Psychoanalysis division?

DR: It is the most improbable thing. I love that life is so improbable. What happened was, the year I came to Philadelphia on my internship, one of my supervisors was a psychoanalyst, and he was just the brightest, funniest, most enjoyable teacher I’ve ever had. I really liked the way he thought, and I came to understand that the way he thought, at least clinically, was informed by this psychoanalytic theory that I had dismissed. So at the end of my internship I decided to study it more formally, at the Philadelphia Psychoanalytic Institute, and it’s just been very satisfying. So that’s what happened— it was serendipitous, I got the bug when I was an intern, I decided to check it out, I loved it, and that’s how I’ve lived my whole life.

DG: Back on a Swarthmore note, what do you want students to know about Psych Services? Do you feel it’s stigmatized at all at Swarthmore?

DR: I want students to know that a third of all graduates— 36% of last year’s class—have been to Psych Services at least once. So even if it is stigmatized, it could be worse. I’d want them to know it’s free, and I’d want them to know it’s confidential, that nobody gets to find out. I’d want them to know that the only requirement to come here would be that they have something they want to talk about; you don’t have to have a specific problem to come here, you just have to feel like talking to a therapist. And I’d want students to know that if they weren’t at Swarthmore, they’d be paying over a hundred dollars an hour to get what they get here.

DG: So they might as well take advantage of it now!

DR: We get a lot of seniors who come in because they can see that the end is in sight. They think “In another year I’ll have to pay for it, so I might as well do it now.” People want a serious answer, but that’s also true—this is a real bargain.

DG: Do you see any seasonal patterns of students coming to Psych Services, during the winter or at final exam period?

DR: It’s really erratic. We know we’re going to be busier in the spring, but that’s just a function of the aggregate of people over time, since we don’t put a limit on how long they can come for. We do hire extra people for the spring. I haven’t tried to study it in a scientific way, but I think it’s pretty random. People either come because they can’t wait any longer, or they come because they’re looking ahead, thinking that things aren’t so bad now, so I’ll go while I can… it’s a random scatter, as far as I’m concerned.

DG: What else do you do when you’re not psychoanalyzing?

DR: My greatest passion is bicycling. Another passion is parenting. I have two kids, an eleven-year old son and a fourteen-year old daughter, and I’m very fond of my children, I love raising a family here. In terms of purely recreational pursuits, I’m learning to play the electric guitar. I’ve been taking lessons for a year, and I’ve found that it’s very therapeutic and calming. It even makes me a better parent. If I get upset with my kids, I go play my guitar a little bit, and I become a reasonable person again.

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