A class she took at Radford University sparked her interest and let her know –beyond a shadow of a doubt – where she could serve best. That interest ultimately led to Virginia Gallup Larsen '92 being named Virginia School Psychologist of the year by The Virginia Academy of School Psychologists (VASP). Larsen, of Alexandria, Va., was presented the award Friday, Oct. 11, at a VASP luncheon in McLean, Va.
"I started out as a fashion design major. After taking a psychology class that first semester, I discovered my passion and I changed my major. I also decided to minor in sociology,“ Larsen says, "Everything about a career in mental health was a perfect fit for me."
Larsen was nominated by her supervisor, Lead Psychologist of Alexandria Public Schools Dr. John Baker; by Samuel W. Tucker school Principal Rene Paschal and Assistant Principal Janeene Mainor; and by Alexandria Public School colleagues Anna Tush and Christianne Storm VanLeeuwen.
Based on the criteria for the award – someone who has professionally earned the respect of their peers, goes above and beyond the call of duty, provides a full range of psychological services and is excellent in performing their job – Baker's first thought for a nominee was Larsen.
"She is excellent at collaboration and is a team player. She engages students and families in a unique way," Baker says. "I am elated she was chosen for the award."
A 1992 graduate of Radford, Larsen is a school psychologist at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School. This is Larsen's 13th year as a school psychologist with Alexandria City Public Schools. She began a career in school psychology after seven years in community mental health counseling and substance abuse services.
Larsen currently works with youth, grades pre-K - 12. Prior to becoming a school psychologist, she worked with adults, counseling those with chronic psychiatric illnesses and substance abuse disorders. Early in her career, she wished she had had the chance to work with some of the folks as youth. No doubt, her determination and passion for others' lives would have made a difference. It was this desire to make a difference in children’s lives that led her to the field of school psychology.
Radford experience was crucial
The collaborative and research work she did at Radford defined her career path and she has never looked back on her choice. "When I was at Radford, I found myself and my leadership abilities. I loved working on research with faculty in psychology and having the opportunity to see beyond the classroom." Larsen says.
Her student leadership skills culminated with her being a founding member and former president of Phi Sigma Sigma sorority.
“In school, I enjoyed the assessment part of working with students,” Larsen says. She worked with teachers on behavioral analysis and principles, including learning applied behavior analysis through the use of Skinner boxes. That experimental environment, which examined the natural flow of behavior, formed the initial foundation of the behavior modification and planning she engages in everyday as a school psychologist.
"Everywhere I have ever worked, I had wonderful supervisors. One in particular, when I worked in mental health, wanted us to not only address problems, but also have an idea of possible solutions. I approach my whole career that way," Larsen says. "Anytime there's a problem, I can't do it without other people's collaboration," adding that the mantra of "it takes a village to raise a child" is true.
Larsen says she has seen children go through things most people can't fathom. "But I also have so many stories of resilience," she says.
Larsen's biggest challenges are what so many other education professionals face – never enough time, never enough money. "I work with all age groups and I am a parent too. Many expect a quick fix. I plant the seeds. Hopefully, in time those ideas take root, but I tell families that it takes time and patience, both for the student and for the parents," Larsen says.
School psychologists work with students, families, teachers and local communities in understanding and resolving students' challenges. According to the VASP website, "School psychologists help children and youth succeed academically, socially, behaviorally and emotionally. They collaborate with educators, parents and other professionals to create safe, healthy and supportive learning environments that strengthen the connections between home, school and the community of all students."
Larsen earned her master's in school psychology and a master's in agency counseling from George Mason University. She has previously worked as a school psychologist at T.C. Williams High School, George Washington Middle School, and James K. Polk Elementary.
VASP encompasses six districts – Northern Virginia, North Central, South Central, Richmond, Tidewater, and Southwestern. VASP will nominate Larsen for the National School Psychologist of the Year Award to be presented in Spring 2014.