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Dr. Catherine Ma

Kingsborough Psychology Professor Receives Prestigious Award From SPSSI

Dr. Catherine Ma Kingsborough Psychology Professor Receives Prestigious Award From SPSSI

Dr. Catherine Ma, Kingsborough Community College's first Chinese full professor of psychology, is the most recent recipient of the Two-Year College Teaching and Mentoring Excellence Award from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI). The award recognizes the ways in which faculty at two-year colleges further SPSSI's mission to advance the understanding of social issues by integrating their research into teaching and initiatives with students and the surrounding community, both in and out of the classroom. 

A group of over 3,000 social scientists who share a common interest in research on the psychological aspects of important social and policy issues, SPSSI believes faculty at community colleges are uniquely positioned to advance SPSSI’s goals because they can reach people from all walks of life for whom an associate degree or workforce training may be their terminal educational goal.

Dr. Catherine Ma

Taken during Catherine Ma’s immigration from Hong Kong to the U.S. when she was a year old, pictured are her maternal grandparents, aunts, and mother (middle), as well as Ma (first row, left) and her older sister.

Ma immigrated to the United States from Kowloon, Hong Kong, became a naturalized citizen and overcame many struggles as an immigrant and first-generation college student. “I immigrated as a toddler, a little over one year old. My paternal grandparents told me that I had taken my first steps at the airport,” recalls Ma. “Our first home in the U.S. was a small tenement building on the Lower East Side that housed four other Chinese immigrant families. We paid about $26 a month in rent. I recently saw it on Zillow for $2,400 a month!”

Before discovering the social sciences, Ma was on track to becoming an accountant. “I had learned about accounting at my business high school in Manhattan and thought, ‘I’m good with numbers. I can be an accountant.’ My mom was happy because many of my aunts were accountants.” However, she had a life-changing moment after enrolling in an introduction to psychology course while attending Baruch. “I had never been so interested in any class before! I devoured everything I learned in that class. I couldn’t wait to read the textbook and learn more.”

She went on to earn a Ph.D. in social-personality psychology from the CUNY Graduate Center and has presented and written extensively on the maternal experiences of breastfeeding, mothering challenges in medicine, racial bias in youth sports, the impact of Asian American studies in academia, and imposter syndrome. She is currently working with education majors who will become elementary teachers in the New York City Department of Education, introducing them to antiracism readings to help make their classrooms more equitable and inclusive. “I want our future NYC public school teachers to have tools to address the increasing racial issues so prevalent right now and to learn ways to be antiracist, which is to take an active approach to fight against racism,” said Ma.

Her love of research parallels her passion for teaching at a racially diverse college. She enjoys connecting with students who share similar beginnings as immigrants and first-generation students. “I try to be the professor I never had,” shared Ma. “It’s one thing to tell students you are there for them. It’s a whole different ballpark when you share that you’ve been where they are, that you understand their unique struggles and what they are going through, and you are here to help them every step of the way.”

The racism that followed the results of the 2016 election inspired her to create her psychology of immigration class to counter that racist rhetoric. “We are living in a time when studying social issues is so critical,” noted Ma. “Misinformation is rampant, and the only way to combat that effectively is to teach people to be critical thinkers. I decided I would go with my passion and work even harder to teach our students how to question the racist history we’ve all learned, expand the way they view immigrants, understand why Black lives matter, learn about xenophobia, and how to become antiracist.” The result was a new course on the psychology of immigration, which strives to encourage students to become more civically engaged and bring up difficult conversations on race with their family and friends. “I want all students at KCC to be open to learning new ideas and, once they’ve learned those new ideas, to use that knowledge to stand up against injustice whenever it rears its ugly head,” she said.

“This award is important to me because I spend much time learning new ways to tackle social problems so I can teach them to my students,” she shared. “I also know the obstacles faculty of color must overcome, how the odds are often stacked against us, and the importance of mentoring. This award recognizes these two passions I have.” An active board member of CUNY’s Asian American/Asian Research Institute (AAARI), Dr. Ma dedicates her time to mentoring historically underrepresented faculty and students of color.

Ma’s colleagues at KCC’s psychology program are elated for her. In fact, Dr. Tanzina Ahmed, an associate professor of psychology at KCC, nominated her for the award. “I nominated Cathy because of her incredible contributions to Kingsborough. She is both a passionate advocate for our students and an amazing mentor to her junior colleagues. Her work on behalf of others is invaluable.”

“I can think of no higher honor than to be recognized by this rich and vibrant community of scholars,” remarked Dr. Jason VanOra, another fellow professor in KCC’s psychology program.  “For psychologists who believe that our discipline can be a vehicle for social change, for psychologists who choose to honor the complexity of individual persons, and for psychologists who do not believe that all answers can be found in a lab, SPSSI has been a home and sanctuary.”

For Ma, winning this award comes full circle. “My first conference presentation was at SPSSI when I was a graduate student,” she shared. “I never thought I would receive such an honor years later. SPSSI is dear to my heart because of my research on immigration, antiracism, and ways to use Asian American studies to teach about racism, which are some of the most pressing social issues we are living through today.”

“I don’t need an award to do what I love,” she added. “But it’s nice to be recognized for doing this often-invisible work.”

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